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Why the World’s Newest Country Has Only Known Conflict
Why the World’s Newest Country Has Only Known Conflict
Report 172 / Africa

Politics and Transition in the New South Sudan

Now that South Sudan’s self-determination has been realised, long-suppressed grievances and simmering political disputes have re-surfaced, threatening instability on the eve of independence.

Executive Summary

Now that South Sudan’s referendum is complete and its independence from the North all but formalised, focus must increasingly shift to the political agenda at home. A new transitional government will preside over a fixed term from 9 July 2011, during which a broadly consultative review process should yield a permanent constitution. Critical decisions taken now and immediately after independence will define the health and trajectory of democracy in what will soon be the world’s newest state. Two factors may shape the coming transition period more than any other; first, the degree to which the South’s ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) allows an opening of political space in which a vibrant multi-party system can grow; secondly, the will to undertake democratic reform within the SPLM, as intra-party politics continue to dominate the political arena in the near term. Embracing pluralism now – both inside and outside the party – would lay a foundation for stability in the long term. Failing on either front would risk recreating the kind of overly centralised, authoritarian and ultimately unstable state South Sudan has finally managed to escape.

Post-referendum negotiations continue between the SPLM and the National Congress Party (NCP) toward a peaceful separation and a constructive North-South relationship. While they consume considerable attention of the SPLM leadership, the political landscape in South Sudan has begun to transform. From the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005, South Sudan’s divergent ethnic and political communities were united behind a common goal: self-determination. Many suppressed grievances, choosing not to rock the boat until that objective was achieved. Now that the vote has been cast and its results endorsed, the common denominator is gone, and long-simmering political disputes are beginning to re-surface. Likewise, a series of armed insurgencies, recent militia activity, and army defections highlight internal fault lines and latent grievances within the security sector. Continued fighting has challenged government capacity to manage domestic conflict, risks further polarisation of ethnic communities and their political leaders and could stoke broader insecurity.

Jockeying has intensified between the SPLM and Southern opposition parties over the composition and powers of a transitional government and duration of the transitional period. The SPLM desires to move expeditiously toward a transitional constitution amid all that must be done before independence, while the opposition fears it is manipulating the process to entrench its power. A domineering approach from the SPLM has jeopardised the goodwill created by an important political parties’ conference in late 2010. Stifling debate and poor political management of such processes unnecessarily risk further antagonism among opposition parties, particularly at a time when the challenges in realising independence and managing domestic security concerns make Southern unity all the more important. The SPLM must recognise that meaningful opposition participation – including in defining the transition and in a broad-based government – is not a threat to its power but an investment in stability and legitimate rule. A politics of exclusion may in the long run undermine the very power some party hardliners are trying to consolidate.

Managing South Sudan’s ethno-regional diversity will continue to be a tall order. Political accommodation is a necessity regardless of what form the transitional government assumes. The SPLM leadership will have a difficult chessboard to manage, finding roles for a wide range of party (including many members now returning home), army and opposition elements. It must avoid a “winner-takes-all” mindset and view the appointment of a broadly representative government not as appeasement alone but as recognition of Southern Sudan’s pluralist character.

The liberation struggle is over, the CPA era is coming to a close, and it is thus time for the SPLM to mark a new chapter in its evolution. A review of the party’s modus operandi is necessary if it is to maintain cohesion, consolidate its legitimacy and deliver in government. Party reforms should aim to manage internal divisions, erode a top-down military culture, professionalise operations and trade coercion for enhanced internal dialogue. Meanwhile, there is no denying that Southern opposition parties are weak; their resources, membership and structures are thin. While the SPLM must engender a conducive environment, opposition parties are equally responsible for pursuing shared national interests, shouldering national responsibilities and developing credible alternative platforms that target a national constituency. Continued national and international support for political party development is essential.

Once the transition period commences, reviews of several key policy areas and resultant strategies will shape the political and economic structure of the emerging state and help determine the response to the high post-independence expectations that Southerners have placed on their young government. Decentralisation has been championed in rhetoric and neglected in practice. Examination of the current model is in order, as there remains a disproportionate focus on the central government and its capital city, in political, economic and development terms. Expectations for improved development and service delivery in the lives of ordinary Southerners will necessitate increased devolution to states and counties so as to avoid the very centre-periphery dynamic that lay at the heart of Sudan’s national woes.

Post-CPA arrangements on oil revenue sharing between North and South have occupied a prominent place in political discourse, but far less attention has been paid to future revenue sharing policy within South Sudan. Given almost exclusive dependence on oil money, decisions as to how petrodollars are managed and shared may soon occupy a prominent place in national politics. Ownership rights, a nationwide revenue allocation model and a corresponding regulatory architecture must be established. If well administered, the oil sector can be a key instrument for decentralising authority, empowering state and local politics and accelerating development in the new South. If not, corruption and mismanagement could prompt national division and surrender another victim to the resource curse.

The transition period will be capped by the country’s first independent elections. The electoral system must accordingly be reviewed so as to overcome the shortcomings of the 2010 polls by ensuring a level playing field and providing the best possible opportunities for diverse, accountable and genuinely representative institutions.

Fair or not, the soon-to-be independent Republic of South Sudan will for some time be judged in the context of its decision to separate. One-party rule, tribal-oriented politics or significant governance or internal security failures would generate criticism from sceptics who argued the region could not govern itself. The opportunity now presents itself to prove them wrong; it is up to the South Sudanese to take it.

Juba/Nairobi/Brussels, 4 April 2011

Op-Ed / Africa

Why the World’s Newest Country Has Only Known Conflict

Originally published in World Politics Review

Few nations have seen their dreams and hopes dashed as quickly and ruthlessly as South Sudan. As the country approaches its 10-year anniversary, the risk of a return to full-blown conflict is never far away.

Few nations have seen their dreams and hopes dashed as quickly and ruthlessly as South Sudan. A mere two years after thousands thronged the streets of the capital, Juba, to celebrate independence from Sudan’s autocratic rule, the country descended into a brutal civil war. The fallout between President Salva Kiir and Vice President-turned-rebel Riek Machar, and the subsequent fighting, exerted a terrible toll. Between 2013 and 2018, up to 400,000 people were killed and 4 million—a third of the country’s population—displaced, amid numerous reports of ethnic-based atrocities like rape and massacres.

The world’s youngest country is now approaching its 10-year anniversary, and while the war has quieted thanks to a fragile 2018 peace deal, the risk of a return to full-blown conflict is never far away. South Sudan still faces an insurgency in the south of the country and rampant localized violence elsewhere. Ethno-political tensions remain high and could be unleashed again by the next presidential election, which was originally scheduled for 2022 but is likely to be delayed. Moreover, amid the constant efforts to halt violence, avoid the further deterioration of a dire humanitarian situation and keep the sputtering peace deal on track, both external partners and many South Sudanese themselves seem to have lost sight of any vision for longer-term stability.

Maintaining the peace deal and getting the country past the presidential poll—which would likely pit Kiir against Machar, who has returned to the position of vice president under the terms of the 2018 agreement—are the most immediate hurdles. But any hope for stability demands a reset of South Sudan’s ill-suited, winner-take-all political system that fuels the ongoing tensions among elites.

Despite the fact that its divisions and vulnerabilities were apparent at independence a decade ago, both South Sudanese and outsiders downplayed the new country’s political woes, and especially its ethnic cleavages. South Sudanese had fought a long war against Sudan, but also, more often than not, against each other. Kiir and Machar, for example, fought on rival sides between 1991 and 2002, mobilizing fighters from their respective Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups.

At independence, the country’s political system, which vests enormous power in the presidency, offered few mechanisms for the inclusion of rivals. This meant those locked out of power had few incentives to believe in the new state rather than rebel against it. The scramble for power and resources dominated politics in Juba and, as Kiir and his clique monopolized both, the scars of decades of infighting reopened.

Conflict soon flared, while several peace agreements and cease-fires collapsed—notably in 2016 when Machar, then vice president, fled to the Democratic Republic of Congo on foot after fighting erupted in Juba—before the 2018 pact brought a bit of respite. Kiir and Machar finally formed a unity government in February 2020. But they have achieved little beyond a delicate cease-fire, as most of the provisions of the agreement languish unfulfilled. These include the unification of forces supporting the two rivals into a single national army, the establishment of a new National Assembly, the creation of a transitional court of justice, and economic reforms. On top of all that, South Sudan still has to deal with the insurgency in its southern Equatoria region led by Thomas Cirillo, a former senior military officer who has not signed the peace agreement. Localized violence in other places rages unabated.

With this uneasy arrangement in place and ethno-political tensions so deeply rooted, the risk of a new collapse exists at every turn of the road. No turn looks more dangerous than the next presidential election, whenever it is held. Even if they seem to have lost the confidence of a significant part of their respective support bases, Kiir and Machar still look intent on facing off. The poll, if it ever occurs, could be a fatal blow to the peace agreement, given that the winner could lock the loser and his coalition out of any share of power.

Ultimately, the country will need to revisit its political model to avoid remaining stuck in cyclical bouts of conflict.

Given the current level of tensions, rival factions will surely contest nearly every step in the leadup to the poll, so foreign diplomats in South Sudan should refrain from putting pressure on the government to rush into a potentially destabilizing election. Crucially, regional powers like Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia, which are the main guarantors of the 2018 peace deal, will also need to push for some form of pre-election deal that ensures a share of power to the losers.

Such an outcome could avert a violent breakdown around the vote, but it still would not resolve South Sudan’s many problems. Ultimately, the country will need to revisit its political model to avoid remaining stuck in cyclical bouts of conflict. The existing centralized state butts up against the harsh realities across the country. South Sudan still lacks roads or basic institutions, and peaceful governance is impossible without broad accommodation across its diverse patchwork of communities and groups. As the International Crisis Group argues in a recent report, instead of a king-of-the-hill system, South Sudan could evolve toward a more consensual form of governance. This would give the country’s notorious elites in Juba, as well as its beleaguered but divided population, a sense of shared interest.

What would this look like? One way to begin solving exclusionary politics is by institutionalizing power-sharing at the heart of the state. Several options exist, including a presidency that rotates among ethno-political groups or regions, formally slotting government positions for runners-up or instituting diversity quotas at all levels of political and public life. None of these options would address all the challenges the country faces, but they may at least help reduce the deadly stakes of the central power struggle.

Beyond power-sharing in Juba, devolving power and resources to regional and local authorities could also reduce the temperature of national politics. Decentralization, enshrined in South Sudan’s constitution but hardly implemented over the past decade, is increasingly back in fashion among the country’s thinkers and politicians. Striking the right balance will be critical if the country heads in this direction, as decentralization can also push conflict and corruption to the local level. But devolving power and resources could also help resolve raging local conflicts by empowering local officials and opening avenues for conflict resolution outside the political gridlock in Juba.

The prospects of such changes happening soon are limited, though, to say the least. The challenge of reform lies less in imagining new options than in persuading self-interested elites to adopt them. This challenge goes beyond Kiir and Machar, although the two are likely to remain unconstructive actors at the center of the country’s political stage for some time to come. Yet even when these archrivals are finally out of the equation, the country will still likely lack state institutions and infrastructure, in addition to being bitterly divided, awash in guns and in need of broad consensus to avoid more rampant bloodshed.

Faced with such grim prospects, other South Sudanese leaders and their external partners must seize every opportunity to push for improvements, even if gradual. Reform-minded South Sudanese politicians should push for constitutional reform and champion an inclusive national conference to chart a path away from the zero-sum politics that define the status quo. External partners should be ready to push in that direction and support such initiatives, including financially. If South Sudan’s peace deal again collapses, external mediators could also assess whether efforts to patch things back together again can also go some way to address these underlying structural questions and make peace more durable.

For now, the scale of South Sudan’s challenges contrasts frighteningly with what seems politically possible to fix, and progress in that direction will undoubtedly be halting. But persistence toward a broader settlement is the only way for South Sudan to salvage the dreams that so animated its independence celebrations a decade ago.