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Is there hope for South Sudan after 10 years of failure?

July 9 will mark 10 years since South Sudan declared its independence. Today the country is on the brink of disintegration. Millions of residents have been displaced by war, the threat of famine looms over the population, and political elites, through their proxy militias, continue to carry out appalling atrocities against civilians manifested in a cycle of inter-communal violence. The world seems to have given up on South Sudan — regional and international powers either offer lip service or turn a blind eye to this troubled country. Yet, an important question remains: Is there hope for South Sudan after a decade of failure?

South Sudan, perhaps more than any other country in Africa, exists in the popular imagination as a place of extreme violence and heinous crimes. News media have portrayed South Sudan as a monolithic entity, synonymous with war, famine and refugees. Of course, the brutality and violence of the civil war that broke out in 2013, resulting in the displacement and deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians, has sustained this image.

No doubt, these inhuman crimes were committed by South Sudan’s political elites who have lost their political legitimacy and moral compass. It is easy enough to blame the people of South Sudan and their leaders for the failure. But the people of South Sudan are not alone in making this failure possible. Their failure is also a manifestation of the absence of global leadership and a lack of political will and commitment by the international community to save all lives equally. 

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The international community — in particular, the United States — carved out South Sudan as a sovereign country. But the people of South Sudan have not convened a sovereign national constitutional conference to forge a social contract that defines who they are and how to govern the country. Those who presided over its government after independence, political and military elites, have utterly failed to transition the country into a democracy. 

South Sudan’s politicians moved into offices, most of them lacking the needed skills and experience to govern a country. Many had the intent to loot public resources, disregard institutions and the rule of law, suppress dissent and stifle reforms. They quickly turned South Sudan into an ethnocentric enclave dominated by a single ethnic group. The lust for power and wealth transformed South Sudan into a country prone to abhorrent massacres. To justify their incompetence, South Sudan government officials often refer to their country as a “young country” when asked by journalists about their failure. The intended message is that the political leadership is still learning how to govern. 

Unfortunately, the notion of a lack of capacity to govern is internalized by the political elites, the region, and the international community — in particular, aid agencies. For example, when the political leadership of South Sudan began to ignore the task of building institutions immediately after independence, the international community and its regional partners, including the African Union and Intergovernmental Authority for Development, described their behavior as “unfortunate” and then quickly passed it over. There was no sense of urgency to hold them accountable or to address the structural causes of the governmental crisis. Indeed, political failure and human tragedy are inexorably entwined in South Sudan. Disentangling those causes and examining them critically would have helped to understand what needs to be done to save South Sudan as a nation. 

South Sudan’s leaders, the region and the international community have bought into the illusion that its people should be forced to accept a power-sharing agreement signed in September 2018 to maintain the status quo, at all costs. What exists now is the result of that agreement, which has failed. It cannot bring a resolution to the conflict. For a number of reasons, including the desire to preserve their economic and national strategic interests in South Sudan, neighboring countries such as Uganda and Sudan are eager to maintain the status quo. 

It is unfortunate that the heinous crimes committed against unarmed women and children have not awakened the conscience of the world. This human tragedy and the global failure to adequately respond raise doubts about the commitments of regional and international actors, including the Troika countries (United States, United Kingdom and Norway), to the necessity of fostering democracy, protecting human rights and holding those who committed crimes against humanity accountable. Unless the U.S. and its partners change course and take action, the damage from this illusion about South Sudan will continue to grow, acting as a powerful impediment to true stability, sustainable democracy and peaceful coexistence. 

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Obviously, South Sudan’s independence did not sweep away the bitter memories internally of past violence. The loss of lives after independence has fractured the collective memory of the population that was shaped by the past legacies of civil war against the North. For the people of South Sudan, the path toward internal reconciliation must recount the violence and reflect on what has gone wrong. This is the only way to heal painful memories and reconstruct the country. By doing so, the people of South Sudan will have the opportunity to forge a new vision of a nation that can respond to the grievances of those who were subjected to violence.

There is hope for South Sudan; nothing is ineluctable. As painful as it may sound, the region and international community need to acknowledge their part in the country’s failure and change their perceptions and attitudes toward South Sudan. The people of South Sudan need a sovereign national constitutional conference, not a flawed peace agreement. Such a conference would offer the people an opportunity to reimagine themselves, despite ethnic differences, as citizens who belong to and have an equal right to South Sudan. 

Indeed, the Sant’Egidio peace talks can still realize that hope, if the African Union and the Troika countries fully engage in strengthening the mechanism and advancing a credible, inclusive political process.

Amir Idris is a professor of African history and politics in the Department of African and African American Studies at Fordham University, New York.

Source: DreamAfrica LIVE (A DreamGalaxy Trusted Brand)