Monday, January 27, 2014

The Tragedy of South Sudan

Independence Day
Just a year or two ago, the world was rejoicing at the birth of the brand new country of South Sudan in Sub-Saharan Africa. Here in the United States, the joy at the independence of the largely Christian South played into the anti-Muslim narrative that has gripped the country since the heinous World Trade center attacks of September 11 2001.

South Sudan has traditionally been a hub of US Christian charitable activities as many of the American Christian right saw the liberation of the largely Christian southern region of Sudan from the Muslim north as a sort of modern day crusade reminiscent of the epic struggles between Richard the Lighthearted and Saladin in the epic crusades of the middle ages.

So when South Sudan finally got their independence, black Africans were glad and proud that their brothers were finally liberated from Arab domination and rule and Christians across the world saw it as just another victorious chapter in the centuries old struggle against militant Islam.
South Sudan President Salva Kiir

For those of us who are keen students of contemporary African political history, the liberation of South Sudan was viewed with mixed feelings. Though we were immensely happy that the South Sudanese were finally free, we were also cognizant of the fact that the new leader of the country lacked the charisma and transformative leadership style of long time late South Sudan freedom fighter and symbolic leader Dr. John Garang, who had managed to become a central leadership figure for all the many disparate tribal militias and ethnic factions who had dominated the landscape of the south during the long struggle for political sovereignty .

Unfortunately, John Garang died in a helicopter crash on July 30, 2005 just as the dream of nationhood for the south was being realized and the world had to settle for his deputy Salva Kiir, a a veteran freedom fighter who lacked the formal education, charisma and political savvy of Dr John Garang de Mabior and had gained  prominence in the SPLM/LA primarily through his military exploits on the battlefields of South Sudan.

Salva Kiir joined the rebellion against northern rule as a young man in 1960. In 1962 John Garang, then a student, also joined the rebellion but the leaders were anxious to ensure that bright young men received education and persuaded him to continue his education in Tanzania, from where he won a scholarship to study in USA. After graduating with a BA in US, Garang won a scholarship to the University of California, Berkeley but decided to return to Tanzania and complete his post graduate studies at the University of Dar Es Salaam. After his studies John Garang went back to South Sudan  and joined the rebellion.
Late John Garang de Mabior

In 1972 the first north-south civil war ended with the Addis Ababa Peace Agreement. John Garang was incorporated into the regular Sudanese army and became a career soldier eventually attaining the rank of  Colonel. It was during this period that he came back to USA and obtained a Masters degree in Agricultural Economics and a PhD in South Sudan agriculture. But by the early 80s, the North-South tensions were flaring up again.

In 1983 Colonel John Garang, sent to quell a rebellion of Southern military officers defected from the Sudanese military and joined the ranks of the Southern rebels who wanted nothing short of complete independence for Southern Sudan, although his vision of Sudan was a united country with a secular government. Eventually John Garang became the  military and political head of the rebellion.

In January 2005 North and South Sudan signed a comprehensive peace agreement and Dr. John Garang became Vice President of Sudan with Omar al-Bashir as President. Later that year tragedy struck the south when Garang, returning from a secret mission to visit his friend President Yoweri Museveni in Uganda was involved in a tragic accident. The Ugandan presidential helicopter that Dr. Garang was returning in crashed killing him and several of its occupants. After the initial confusion surrounding the crash, Salva Kiir head of the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army was named as the successor to John Garang and became Vice President of Sudan.

Veteran Fighter Kiir
Salva Kiir who had spent all his life fighting the north saw no vision of a united Sudan wanted complete independence of the South. He was eventually able to lead the region into independence on July 9 2011, with him as President and his former rival Riek Machar as Vice President.

Riek Machar was a senior member of the SPLM/A who broke away from John Garang's faction in 1991 and formed SPLM -Nasir. Riek Machar wanted complete independence for South Sudan while John Garang wanted a secular united Sudan and the two became bitter adversaries, with Riek Machar receiving assistance from the Sudanese government in Khartoum to fight Garang's SPLA. In 1997 Machar signed a peace agreement with the Sudanese government and became a senior adviser to the President. However the relationship between Machar and the Khartoum government did not last as he mended fences with Garang returning to SPLM as a senior member. Machar had studied engineering at the University of Khartoum and later proceeded to UK where he obtained his PhD.
Dr. Riek Machar

South Sudanese independence was achieved after the death of Garang.  Salva Kiir who had always been true to the main SPLM/LA and succeeded Garang became President while his old rival Riek Machar became the nation's first Vice President. South Sudan's independence was met with celebrations all over the world, but even at the birth of this new country, its teething problems were glaring.

One of South Sudan's main problem was that the leaders of the new country were all former rebel warlords, some of whom had spent years fighting each other. During the war period Riek Machar's faction had been sponsored by the Khartoum government to fight the main SPLM of John Garang. The President and Vice President were therefore not very comfortable with each other. There were also heavy ethnic tensions as Salva Kiir and Riek Machar were from the rival Dinka and Nuer tribes who were historic rivals before and during the protracted conflict.

The other problem that South Sudan faced was huge expectations from a people who had fought many years for liberation. Unfortunately many of the youths of the south had grown up in a culture of war rather than education and the country was faced with a large population of uneducated youths hungry for a better life who had never learnt the skills to become productive citizens and who viewed themselves largely along ethnic lines.

At Independence some areas of the national boundaries between South and North Sudan were not clearly defined, especially in some oil rich regions. Also South Sudan could only export oil through the pipelines of the North. This led to tension and military conflict between the two and the situation is still volatile. 

Stoking the Embers of War
So when last year Salva Kiir decided to fire his entire cabinet, most of whom had been former warlords, the only question that was left asking was when will the conflict begin again. As the present situation demonstrates, the answer was not long in coming as the country has descended into bitter civil conflict with opposing political and ethnic factions busy tearing the young country apart.

The only hope for this conflict is that the African Union is now a mature organization, skilled in years of conflict resolution. With this body taking the initiative as African brothers and impressing upon the South Sudanese the triviality of renewed conflict after so many years fighting for liberation, the hope is that the leaders of the factions and the President will ultimately see sense in trying to negotiate a peaceful end to the current quagmire. South Sudan only needs to take a look around Sub-Saharan Africa to see example of countries like Burundi, Rwanda, Nigeria and others that have engaged in protracted ethnic conflicts and learn from their mistakes and successes. Most importantly Salva Kiir has to realize that currently his is a country of equals, all men who devoted substantial portions of their lives to the struggle for the liberation of their country. To think that he will just suddenly marginalize them at this time by political decrees is foolhardy at best and reckless at worst.
Veterans of Former Wars

The African Union has to be particularly vigilant and be on the look out for the usual foreign war hawks who exploit such conflict situations by trading in arms and ammunition while acting as conduits for the illegal exploitation of minerals and other natural resources. South Sudan has so much potential, and it is the moral responsibility of all Africa to ensure that this new country receives the technical, diplomatic, educational, and economic support it needs at this delicate time. 

The efforts of the main players of the Addis Ababa Peace Agreements signed on January 23rd, 2014 under the auspices of the East African Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) need to be lauded and bolstered. The role of countries like China who are only interested in Africa for the exploitation of mineral resources and could care less for the welfare of the people should be closely monitored.
Back to Old Business

South Sudan will face tough challenges in the future due to the enormity of its natural resources, the low supply of skilled labor, the lack of political experience, and the uneasy relationship with the North. But Given the immense mineral and Agricultural wealth of this vast country, there is hope of a very bright future, if only the leaders can free themselves off the shackles of ethnic prejudice and learn to see themselves as South Sudanese first. Salva Kiir must be educated to the fact that any political situation in which a large number of people feel marginalized is inherently unstable. Though the South Sudanese leaders have only known conflict all their adult lives, they must give peace a chance if only for the people of their country who have for so long known nothing but blood and sweat.

Segbwema Blogger
Sheku Sheriff

Author's Note. The historical references were collected from a variety of electronic sources. The opinions expressed are solely those of the author Sheku Sheriff and do not represent that of any organization with which he is associated.

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