Dr Lam Akol
22 February 2021.
The International Crisis Group (ICG) issued its Africa Repot No.300 on 10 February 2021. The report attempts to address the current crisis South Sudan is wallowing in and offers possible ways out of the political cul-de-sac it is inexorably heading towards with attendant insecurity.
The basic premises of the paper are that the country is fragile and prone to ethnic conflicts; its winner-take-all political system ill suits a country that requires consensus among major blocs to avoid cyclical power struggle; South Sudanese need to get through elections, which may require some form of pre-election power sharing pact and that they also require a revision of the political settlement; the 2018 peace agreement managed to achieve a ceasefire but has accomplished little else; all efforts must be exerted to consolidate the ceasefire, prevent splinter conflicts and broaden the peace process to include Thomas Cirillo; preventing renewed violence in the run-up to or aftermath of promised elections; and finally that the South Sudanese should find a settlement that lays the groundwork for a sustainable peace, and that this could be found in the reshaping of South Sudan’s political architecture toward more consensual forms of governance.
Whereas one finds himself in agreement with many of the points made in the report, nonetheless, some of them or solutions suggested are difficult to go along with. The report gives undue attention to power-sharing as a way to have sustainable peace even at the expense of the democratic practice the country is to be ushered in after the end of the transitional period. This preoccupation permeates sections of the report related to governance and the conduct of the elections. The report also treats the election as a binary choice with total disregard to other worthy contenders in the process. This notion perhaps is one reason behind its suggestion of the “pre-election deals”.
We shall ignore some inaccuracies here and there in the report and focus discussion on the central issues under the following headings.
South Sudan never saw any political consensus during the negotiations for or after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). The SPLM/A negotiated the CPA in its image and installed itself as the sole political representative of Southern Sudan then. The dominance it enjoyed since then was due to that fact more than to enjoying a popular mandate. Even the 2010 election was predetermined by an agreement between the two partners to the CPA (NCP and SPLM) for each to dominate in its ‘sphere of influence’, the North and South respectively. The only attempt at building a consensus through the All Southern Sudanese Political Parties Conference (APPSSC) in October 2010 reached workable resolutions that would have, if implemented, laid a solid foundation for the nascent state in South Sudan1. However, the SPLM reneged on those commitments as soon as the result of the referendum was announced, so as to continue its dominance in the governance of the new state. It wrote the Transitional Constitution alone and continued to monopolize political power and economic resources. That was a missed opportunity and a fatal one at that. In fact, the current downslide in the country is traceable to that action by the SPLM/A. Therefore, when consensus in South Sudan is discussed one must be clear of what he/she is referring to. The so-called consensus in the sense of this report and in most of the literature on South Sudan is about bringing together the various factions of the SPLM that split in 2013 and thereafter. Not a consensus between the social and political sections of the South Sudanese community as a whole.
Contrary to what came in the report (p. 7), the October 2010 APPSSC was the idea of the Southern Sudan Political Parties (SSPP), an alliance led by Gen Gismalla Abdalla Rassas, a former President of the High Executive Council (HEC) of Southern Sudan (1981-82), and in particular to the efforts exerted by Bona Malwal who eventually managed to persuade President Salva Kiir to accept the idea against opposition from the top echelon of the SPLM2. This point is important because consensus or political accommodation were never in the vocabulary of the SPLM. By then it was basking in the international good will and never felt it needed to be constrained by domestic forces or considerations.
One finds himself in agreement with the author that the winner-take-all political system ill suits South Sudan.
However, the solution is not in crafted formulae for accommodating losers of elections in the name of avoiding war or power struggle. This goes against the tenets and practice of democracy. Elections are supposed to be a choice between competing programmes for running the country during the period following that cycle of elections. Therefore, the winning party should be given the opportunity to implement its programme on which it got the mandate of the people. Losers should wait until the next cycle.
The country should not continue after the transitional period to be held hostage by power-sharing arrangements that only serve a few politicians. In fact, the very purpose of the transitional period was to prepare the ground for a free and fair election (including reforms in many fields) and conduct of the election so as to usher the country into a democratic era.
The report also suggests a rotating presidency as another way out to avoid the dangers associated with the winner-take-all system. Rotating presidency works only in countries where one party dominates such as in Tanzania where the CCM candidate has always won elections since the multi-party system was introduced in that country in 1985. Otherwise, how can a rotating presidency be guaranteed in a truly competitive democratic multi-party system where power changes hands from one party to the other in the election cycles?
What South Sudan needs to do is to tackle the real malaise of the winner-take-all system. South Sudan, a country prone to ethnic cleavages, needs to do away with the majoritarian presidential system with no accountability that is so alien to the country now or in Sudan. This is the root cause of the winner-take-all system. The parliamentary system has been tested and worked well in Sudan and Southern Sudan (1972-1983). In a parliamentary system the Parliament elects a President that can be executive (as in South Africa) or ceremonial (as in Ethiopia). In Sudan the ceremonial presidency was a council of five (The Supreme Council of State) and in the Southern Region (1972-83) the President of the High Executive Council was an executive President. In ceremonial presidency, it is the Prime Minister who is the chief executive authority in the country. Here power is somewhat diffused laying the ground for seeking consensus. The presidential system came to Sudan through military coups d’ etat (in 1971 after 1969 Nimeiri coup and in 1995 after the 1989 al Bashir coup) and whenever the dictatorship was overthrown the country reverts to the parliamentary system. The SPLM which cannot pride itself of any democratic credentials did not question the presidential system during the peace talks in Naivasha leading to the signing of the CPA. It resonated well with its monopolistic mentality. This is not a piece about the advantages and disadvantages of a parliamentary system, the point being made is that it is a possible way out of the current stalemate that does not circumscribe democratic practice through pre-election deals of power-sharing suggested in the report.
Conducting the elections is indeed the finish line of the 3-year transitional period and shouldn’t be a hurdle if the political good will was there. But it is not any election; it must be free and fair. A conducive atmosphere for free and fair elections needs to be prepared right from the beginning of the transitional period. There must be a level field for political parties and the media, free expression, resettlement of the displaced persons in their ancestral homes, reform of the legal system and the judiciary, forming a national and professional army and organized forces, and adopting a new constitution. Plus an international monitoring these are the sine qua non requirements of a free and fair election. There can be no shortcut to realizing all these. A rushed election without these requirements is a recipe for conflict. Similarly, delaying elections without a tight clear benchmark for implementing these requirements is the surest way to disaster as the regime clings to power. All depends on the good will of the parties to the agreement which experience has so far shown to be lacking. Up to here the report does not lose focus.
Where the report misses the mark is in the way it discusses the election itself should it take place. It is portrayed as a contest between two persons alone: Salva Kiir and Riek Machar. The report asserts:
Barring unforeseen events, the elections will likely usher either Kiir, Machar or both back into power, hardly a reason for celebration given their records in office. Many South Sudanese are desperate for change, a sentiment widely shared in the outside world. Both men are unpopular even among their constituencies (Section V, p. 19).
No evidence is produced to support the assertion in the first sentence which seems to be contradicted by the following two. Assuming the permanent Constitution upholds the majoritarian presidential system, there are many South Sudanese out there who are qualified and ready to throw their hats into the ring for the office of the President of the Republic of South Sudan. Would that be an unforeseen event? If not, why would they have a zero chance of winning, especially that, as the report admits, the South Sudanese are desperate for change and “both men are unpopular even among their constituencies”?
South Sudan never held an election since it came into being. Therefore, no office holder can claim to have been elected by the people. The country has undergone four transitions (2005-2011, 2011-2013, 2015-2016 and 2018- present). Cynics put it that war followed by a power-sharing agreement has replaced elections as the means of renewing presidential mandates. The South Sudanese are not worried about those who control the big cannons once the polls open; their worry is in the ability of that gun class to obstruct the path to elections.
The report has devoted considerable space to a discussion on decentralization and the centre-periphery relations. The increase of the number of administrative units without devolution of power and resources cannot pass for decentralization. Therefore, the creation of 28 states in 2015 (later to become 32 states in 2017) is akin to Kokora and even worse as it created tribal and sub-tribal enclaves in the name of states along the lines of the Bantustans in the apartheid South Africa in the last century.
The 2018 peace agreement has settled the issue of decentralization in the country in favour of a federal system3. What remains to be determined is what type of federalism better suits the conditions of South Sudan. In a country of various multiplicities, especially ethnic and linguistic, such a system will guarantee that enough power and resources are devolved to the sub-national levels so that the States can run their own affairs without interference from the centre, and that the centre keeps what is common to all. This has been the demand of the Southern Sudanese since 1950s and arguably Sudan may not have split had the demand been heeded to at some stage since then. Federalism keeps the centrifugal forces at bay, otherwise there is nothing that could prevent in South Sudan the repetition of what happened in Sudan if this commitment is not honoured.
The oft quoted Kokora was not a demand for federalism; far from it. It was rather a reactionary move against some political practices at the time. The proponents of Kokora did not produce a blueprint for federalism, they only demanded the division of the then Southern Region into the three provinces of Southern Sudan at independence (Bahr El Ghazal, Equatoria and Upper Nile)4. On the other hand, the advocates of a united Southern Region did not bother to address the concerns and objective grievances raised by the other side to maintain unity. It was what one author described as the dialogue of the deaf5. Kokora could not have been effected was it not because it served the interest of President Nimeiri who by that time has made up his mind to abrogate the Addis Ababa Agreement6.
The National Constitutional Conference
Chapter VI of the 2018 peace agreement is devoted to the parameters of the permanent constitution. The body entrusted with the design, formulation and drafting of the permanent Constitution is the National Constitutional Conference7. This will be the first time for the South Sudanese to deliberate on all aspects of their constitution. It is an opportunity for them to build consensus on the system of governance that suits South Sudan. However, to get there a number of activities specified in the agreement must be implemented on time. This process starts with a workshop for the Parties to the agreement to agree on the details of conducting the Constitution-making process8. After that the draft constitutional bill adopted by the National Constitutional Conference must be enacted in time well before the elections slated for two months before the end of the transitional period.
The report tackles in a satisfactory manner the history of the tattered state of affairs in South Sudan. The lack of development and rampant corruption in South Sudan are traceable to the failure of leadership in the SPLM. The same leadership disintegrated in 2013 in a power struggle just over two years from the country’s independence dragging the country into a devastating civil war. A power-sharing agreement in 2015 brought a brief respite before the hostilities broke out again in 2016. Once more another power-sharing agreement almost toe to toe with the first one was concluded in 2018. But like the Bourbon’s it is clear that no lessons have been learnt. Now, 29 months since the agreement was signed and exactly one year since the transitional government on the national level was patched together nothing else in the implementation matrix was implemented. True, a ceasefire still holds but it is fragile as insecurity spreads all over the country.
The report tackles in a satisfactory manner the history of the tattered state of affairs in South Sudan. The lack of development and rampant corruption in South Sudan are traceable to the failure of leadership in the SPLM. The same leadership disintegrated in 2013 in a power struggle just over two years from the country’s independence dragging the country into a devastating civil war. A power-sharing agreement in 2015 brought a brief respite before the hostilities broke out again in 2016. Once more another power-sharing agreement almost toe to toe with the first one was concluded in 2018. But like the Bourbon’s it is clear that no lessons have been learnt. Now, 29 months since the agreement was signed and exactly two years since the transitional government on the national level was patched together nothing else in the implementation matrix was implemented. True, a ceasefire still holds but it is fragile as insecurity spreads all over the country.
The report’s suggestion to continue with power-sharing arrangements beyond the transitional period or adopt a rotating presidency as antidote to violence and power struggle is tantamount to sacrificing democracy in favour of the gun class. It can only perpetuate the vicious circle. The solution lies in upholding democracy while exploring other means of arriving at a sustainable system of governance in South Sudan. The vehicle for doing so is the prospective National Constitutional Conference.
- Final Communique of the All Southern Sudan Political Parties Conference, Juba, 17 October 2010.
- The SPLM leadership was averse to the idea of holding the conference. Given his cordial relations with Salva Kiir, Bona Malwal was sent by the SSPP to try sell to him the idea of holding the conference so as to build a Southern Sudan consensus prior to the referendum. Following a meeting between the two Salva Kiir agreed. His colleagues, however, decided that it should be chaired by Dr Anne Itto, the Deputy Secretary for the Southern Sector. Again, Bona Malwal spoke to Salva on this stressing that in order to give the conference a high profile it should be chaired by the Vice President, who wasn’t popular with the group at the time, which he graciously accepted. The opposition of the SPLM leaders did not stop there. When the conference was held they opposed issuing a final communique. To his credit, the SPLM Secretary General threw in his weight behind issuing the communique.
- Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS), Article 6.2.2, Preamble para 5, Article 1.2.15.
- See for instance, Lagu, J. “Decentralization: A Necessity for the Southern Provinces of the Sudan”, 1981, reprinted in his memoirs, Sudan: Odyssey through a State from Ruin to Hope, Omdurman: M.O.B. Centre, 2006.
- Akol, L., SPLM/SPLA: Inside an African Revolution, 3rd edn, Khartoum: Khartoum University Press, 2011, pp. 5 – 14.
- Ibid, p. 7.
- R-ARCSS, Article 6.6.
- According to Article 6.7 of R-ARCSS the workshop should have been held on the fourth month of the transitional period. This timeline was missed by a wide margin. Organized jointly by the Reconstituted Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (RJMEC) and the Max Planck Foundation, the first session of the workshop was held on 11 – 12 January 2021 in Juba. The SPLM-IG did not send a representative to that meeting. The second session slated for early February did not take place possibly because the SPLM-IG did not up to that time send to the organizers the names of its representatives to the Workshop.