South Sudan deal is continent’s latest bid to reconcile rivals
Similar attempts made in 16 African nations in past 24 years
For Africa’s insurgents, the spoils of war can include top roles in national government. A power-sharing deal in the continent’s youngest country may push this formula to breaking point.
From the Central African Republic to the Democratic Republic of Congo, former rebels have found themselves in uneasy coalitions with those they bitterly opposed. In most cases, bloodshed has continued; in some instances it’s worsened as other armed groups see how violence can bring political rewards.
Now it’s happening again, as South Sudan’s president, who once dubbed his former deputy a “prophet of doom” and fought him in an often ethnically charged conflict that killed tens of thousands of people, accepts him back in government. Among the fractious revolutionaries’ tasks: cooperating with an African court intended to try them for atrocities and rescuing an oil-dependent economy driven to the brink of collapse.
“Why we assume all of a sudden that this type of power-sharing would work better than it did in previous years is still not clear,” said Harry Verhoeven, who teaches African politics at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar. “There are very few examples anywhere around the continent that suggests this could work.”
Similar administrations have been tried in 16 African nations since 1992, according to the Southern African Peace and Security Studies journal. South Sudan itself was a result of a power-sharing deal to end Sudan’s civil war in 2005. The agreement empowered the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement at the expense of other groups and failed to deliver on both a democratic Sudan and end insurgencies around disputed borders.
A power-sharing deal in Central African Republic in January 2013 broke down two months later when rebels forced the president to flee. Rivals in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which also borders South Sudan, agreed to a transitional government in 2002. That hasn’t stopped insurgencies in the east, which may be encouraged by the practice of rewarding armed dissidents with political office. National unity governments formed after violent elections in Kenya and Zimbabwe almost a decade ago led to incumbent domination and impunity, according to Verhoeven.
Conflict broke out in South Sudan in December 2013 after President Salva Kiir, who’s from the majority Dinka ethnic group, tried to arrest his former deputy, Riek Machar, and other ruling party rivals for allegedly plotting his overthrow. The army fractured and civilians of Machar’s Nuer community were massacred in the capital, Juba, the first of multiple atrocities by both sides.
As he waited in Ethiopia for the flight that would return him to the city, 63-year-old Machar voiced concern over South Sudan’s prospects, as it grapples with the insecurity, economic strife, tribalism and corrupt ruling clique that led to war.
“Nothing has changed,” Machar, who has a history of rebelling from the SPLM, said in an interview. After two years of negotiations and war, he and Kiir are supposed to overhaul the state, including slashing a bloated security sector, while they command parallel armies.
Following Machar’s latest return, the SPLM factions divided an expanded set of 30 ministries, and the capital remained calm. The throb of private generators is constant in Juba, as the state barely supplies electricity. That’s down to decades of neglect by the Sudanese and then the SPLM, which left 1 percent of the population with power and paved only 2 percent of roads. While oil receipts allowed annual spending of $2.5 billion from 2005, maladministration meant infrastructure wasn’t built, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Now, the SPLM camps don’t have much left to spend. The war was centered in oil-rich districts populated by Machar’s Nuer group and crude production has tumbled by about half since the conflict began to as little as 120,000 barrels a day, amid a fall in global prices. That’s helped spur an economic crisis, with inflation surging to 266 percent last month, the highest official rate in the world, and recent dollar shortages triggering the closing of businesses, including a brewery owned by SABMiller Plc.
Smoking a shisha pipe in Juba, Paul Isaac, a 40-year-old university worker, complains he hasn’t been paid for two months as government funds dwindle. He’s not expecting change from failed elites, yet holds faint hope they may unite for the country.
Prominent among Isaac’s concerns is a decree by Kiir that increased the number of regional states, in contravention of the August peace accord. He says some groups welcome increased autonomy, while others will violently resist dispossession.
“The government made a mistake to divide the country according to tribes,” he said.
For Verhoeven, the move was part of zero-sum game of ethnic politics that are likely to spur the breakup of a peace settlement that was imposed by regional powers and backed by the international community.
Despite past failures and bleak prospects, he said power-sharing remains the default option for a global system geared to ending bloodshed rather than producing lasting solutions.
“We’re not even aiming for the development of South Sudan,” Verhoeven said. “We’re just aiming for an end to open hostilities on a large scale.”