The SPLM and the Rise of Autocracy in South Sudan

Kiir (left) lifts South Sudan’s new constitution to the people during the July 2011 independence ceremony in Juba; James Wani Igga (right). Photo: AP/Andrew Burton

By Duop Chak Wuol


September 5, 2013 (SSNA) — The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) is a political party in South Sudan. It was founded on supposedly democratic principles and waged a successful war against Khartoum’s brutal regime of more than twenty-four years. Yet despite the resolution of this bloody, decades-long struggle between Sudan and South Sudan, the hope for a democratic government that the people of South Sudan once had is slowly fading. Both Khartoum and Juba are still complaining about each other for their self-legitimizations, the young nation is overwhelmed with immense internal conflicts, and the leaders of the new republic are still struggling with ideas of Marxism-Leninism. The international community is thus left to choose between facts and lies as the liberated new country faces a gloomy future. This critique is an attempt to show how the SPLM runs and manages South Sudan, why it fails to live up to its promises, and the consequences that the people of South Sudan might face.

The SPLM: Legacy, forgotten promises, and deceptions

The successful 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that was signed between South Sudan and Sudan effectively made the SPLM the ruling party of South Sudan. The hopeful legacy of the SPLM has since been diminished and continues to diminish. The SPLM has had near-total control of political, economic, security, and military sectors, among others. However, its promise is being undermined as it imposes autocratic practices that were among the very reasons it waged war against Sudan’s ruling party, the National Congress Party (NCP), from 1983 to 2005. The SPLM runs and manages the country using a constitution that was designed, passed, and implemented to serve its autocratic predispositions. This is the turmoil the young nation now faces, and it is contrary to the motivations of the people of South Sudan, who sacrificed their lives for the democratic promises of the SPLM.

The SPLM was founded on democratic principles and sought to liberate the marginalized Sudanese from Khartoum’s ferocious regime. The movement faced international isolation with some of the world’s most influential nations not recognizing its legitimacy, including the United States, United Kingdom, and many other European nations, all of which cited communism and inhumane practices during the struggle as reasons to condemn it. Nevertheless, the ideology of secular Sudan, first introduced and practiced by the late South Sudanese leader Dr. John Garang, was instrumental in helping the SPLM regain the trust of some of the world’s most powerful players. Garang’s attempt to secularize Sudan was intended to transform the nation into a democratic state. The SPLM was indeed involved in horrendous acts during its struggle, and it is now apparent that the concern initially raised by the Western countries about the practice of autocracy in the movement is being realized by the people of South Sudan. Under the leadership of the SPLM, those who were assumed to be visionaries during the struggle have since become visionless. Since assuming power as the ruling party of South Sudan, the SPLM-led government has backtracked from its democratic principles, subsequently demonstrating that it neither respects nor follows its policies.

It was not long ago when the people of South Sudan embarked on a path to nationhood after years of being denied it by the Khartoum regime. However, they came to realize that their decades-long struggle led to more of the past they were trying to overcome; the common goal that the people of South Sudan fought for is slowly vanishing before their very eyes. In 2007, I wrote an article titled The Untidy Path to Normalization in Southern Sudan (Sudan Tribune, October 7, 2007), which described the difficulty of creating a viable country under the SPLM and suggested the steps southern leaders at the time should take to achieve the goals set out under its democratic principles. I also explored South Sudan’s internal conflicts and examined the causes and effects of ethnic conflicts in South Sudan. At the time, I was confident that the SPLM was moving in the direction that the party envisioned during the liberation struggle. It has since become clear that this was a naïve view.

I would like the South Sudanese to know that in a democratic country that which is good for an individual does not necessarily coincide with what is good for the collective—it usually does not. It is this very tension between individual and collective interests that creates a sense of responsibility in society. Humans are not perfect, and that is why they establish laws to guide behavior. Hence, it is just as important for the ruling party of South Sudan to establish laws that are humane and respect human rights. Such a commitment to and dedication for all South Sudan’s citizenry must be the central overarching vision of its rulers; only then can citizens enjoy the fruits of living in a just society. Without such a dedicated commitment on the part of the rulers of South Sudan, the country devolves into a failed experiment, wherein its citizens are made to witness their ruling party continuously infringing upon and disrespecting laws on a large-scale. When the government is not held accountable by its laws, such laws do little to maintain social order and integrity.

The SPLM fails to understand that a political party with a moral vision for its citizens and country must always be guided by the principles of this vision when justifying its actions, rather than hiding selfish interests by coming up with false justifications that make it appears as though it is acting in the common interest of the people it governs while acting on the contrary ways. However, this is not the case in South Sudan under the SPLM; the elites of the ruling party of South Sudan appear to have no plans for the nation. They enjoy describing their successes that they achieved when they were in the bush during the struggle and assert that they should be accepted as the leaders who liberated the South Sudanese from Khartoum’s dreadful regime. No one would doubt or question these leaders’ bravery or loyalty during the long violent and agonizing wrestle for freedom. But now as the smoke clears, these leaders, and everyone else fighting for a free South Sudan, must come to terms with the startling fact that their fight for justice has managed to carve out of the madness merely a potential for the establishment of a democratic country. This potential must be made actual with equal bravery and dedication once evidenced on the battlefield. It is our new field of battle – but this time we must fight for peace and justice. Most of these leaders are not interested in considering and constructively responding to criticism; they are satisfied with praises honoring their courage in the bush, but they cannot rest on their laurels. If the SPLM is to be the only political party to provide essential services to the people of South Sudan, then it must make major changes. Failure to do so will force the competent South Sudanese to question the legitimacy of the party to act in the interest of the people who put it in power. The ruling party must either act now to restore its tainted image or it must prepare for what could be a crushing end to a historic political party that was founded on a veneer of democratic principles. No government can shrug off critical issues that are vital to the survival of the nation and expect to remain in power without losing support and legitimacy.

Still, the SPLM-led government has shown an incredible capability to deal with public outcry without properly addressing concerns. It does this by using communist-style media tactics whereby it applies laws and implements peoples’ demands without verification. In Juba, for instance, extrajudicial killings, tortures, illegitimate detainments, and intimidations are common. On occasions when the government knows the public is outraged, the SPLM will proclaim the launch of an investigation. Consequently, many investigations are broadcasted, but none ever appear to satisfy the public because they are phony inquiries. These deceptive maneuvers are indicative of a lack of moral leadership within the ruling party. This is a clear indication that the party lacks internal rationality, which is essential to rule for the interests of the people.

The elites of the ruling party are good at manipulating people. They do this with propaganda, intensifying media presence, and releasing political pronouncements only when they know that the political pressure is overwhelming. This is one of the reasons the SPLM continues to manage and run the young nation like a one-party communist state. When the president dissolved his cabinet on July 23rd, his cronies went to the media and publicly appealed to the people of South Sudan, claiming that everything was going to be fine. I am not sure if things are going as smoothly as the SPLM’s elites claim, though I am sure they now know the gravity of the situation. Furthermore, during their appeal to the nation and the international community, some of these tyrannical admirers went on to claim that the next government was going to be more “lean and inclusive.” Nonetheless, the SPLM has been known for many years as a party that does not follow its principles. Thus, one is left wondering the extent to which the new government matches the portrayals of the president and his cronies. However, one thing is clear: the people of South Sudan know who is who and what is what in the government as well as in the political dome of the SPLM. This is the 21st century, and there are no longer concealments behind which the government can hide. Since Salva Kiir Mayardiit took power after the death of Dr. John Garang de Mabior, Kiir persistently removed, appointed, and reinstated most of his government officials. The recently purported dissolution of the cabinet is implausible because Kiir consistently used his constitutional powers during an interim period (2005-2011). The public is aware of the SPLM’s dubious tactics, which nevertheless continue to be publicized by political sycophants of the ruling party. Most of the SPLM’s elites do not care about the future of the country. They only make the situation worse by organizing political yes-men and ordering them to do anything that can appease and pacify the troubled citizenry. With directives from behind the scenes, the SPLM’s political yes-men are required to do anything that their bosses want them to do in a show of political adherence.

Despite prevalent public criticisms, the elites of the ruling party appear to have their agendas, which are at odds with the desires and demands of the South Sudanese people. The SPLM-led government must understand that political power resides with the citizens, no matter what the party’s code of belief dictates or how powerful the government becomes. It is equally important for the ruling party to recognize that societies are greatly influenced by their cultures as well as other social norms that prove useful in their lives. The SPLM has lost its values and become a political entity run by a few power-hungry individuals. These individuals cemented their authority by rallying behind their cliques, meanwhile labeling anyone who questioned the direction of the party as a foe, traitor, tribalist, jaalaba, or Khartoum’s agent. This is precisely where the deception and lies of the SPLM become clear, as it favors only those who preach the mentality of corrupted political discourse. This is a treacherous path that any reasonable political party would not pursue.

The future of the Republic of South Sudan under the SPLM leadership is uncertain. Any rational citizen of South Sudan cannot simply dismiss the autocratic tendency, which is now being put into practice by the Juba’s autocrats. This is a failure to adhere to the democratic principles, where instead those that came to power usurped it autocratically, for their interests rather than the interest of the public; South Sudanese should not allow this tyrannical wave to take shape. I know most citizens of South Sudan understand that communism has contributed to the behaviors of many current leaders of the new republic because of the movement’s initial manifesto—a manifesto which was a product of Ethiopian former dictator Mengistu Hailemariam’s communist texts. The current political quandary requires competent leaders of a political party who promote peoples-based ideas, not leaders who seek to oppress their citizens. It would be a mistake for me not to acknowledge the gravity of political intrigue which is now going on in the country. This young republic is unquestionably sitting under a self-made time bomb—a bomb that is being built and managed by the SPLM.

It would also be a moral mistake not to point out that the SPLM has become disconnected from its political principles. The party’s elites must thrust aside their despotic mentalities, promoting that which fits the needs and desires of the citizens rather than seeking out personal gains. This is how successful nations are run. The elites must also take actions to implement the democratic principles upon which their party was first founded, as well as cease embracing and preaching democratic songs without fulfilling their messages. This is the 21st century, and there is no longer any room for a tyrannical way of thinking. Besides, the country can only move in the right direction if the right political leaders are employed in such a way as to successfully implement the party’s policies with careful moral reasoning. A nation with a history of rebellions is a nation with incompetent leaders. Furthermore, the leaders (e.g., parliamentarians, etc.) who work for the people must understand that their citizenship statuses are no different from the ordinary people who they represent—both the citizens and their leaders have the same rights under the law to obey or disobey principles. Also, the lawmakers must likewise know that they are working for the people and not the government.

And yes, undeniably—despite these serious failings, it should be noted that the SPLM has nevertheless made some encouraging progress, particularly within the education sector. Many of the South Sudanese can now send their children to school, which was impossible when the South was under Khartoum’s regime. And yes, it must be acknowledged that the steps the SPLM must take towards changing its present mindset are intricate. Accordingly, the people of South Sudan should not expect this to happen overnight because communism was the actual doctrine that the current ruling party of South Sudan was using during the struggle.

In light of this situation, we have to ask why, if at all, the South Sudanese should support a party that does not keep its promises. Why would the South Sudanese fight against northern Sudan in the first place? Is it possible that the SPLM has lost its valiant values of sacrifice and honor upheld in the long battles in the bush, and has now become merely a political entity run by a few power-hungry individuals? Why are the leaders of South Sudan recycling the old ideas that they fought so hard to change? What kind of a country has South Sudan become? Can a rebellion against the government be used as a means of establishing a democratic society? And finally, can South Sudan have a promising future under SPLM’s rule?

Tribalism and regionalism in South Sudan’s politics

The politics of tribalism and regionalism have become problematic in South Sudan. The citizens of this nation know how tribalism kills and destroys. The South Sudanese have an extensive history of tribal conflicts. In a country like South Sudan, it is easy to find people doing things in tribal groups, as tribal interests are always associated with national issues. This is not to single out the young nation, precisely because this phenomenon happens in any nation where tribalism is seen as a political expedient; it is a stratagem that keeps South Sudan moving downward. In the Republic of South Sudan, tribal politics are used by most political leaders as a contrivance to serve themselves and their tribal affiliations because the country is ethnically divided. This kind of grouping is influenced by tribal interests, and those who dare to question or challenge this hooded-system are treated by their tribal hoodlums as traitors. Such challenges often result in isolation and in some instances, the so-called traitor is unjustly condemned to harsh treatments or even death. These ethnically-motivated practices must be addressed to understand, minimize, or perhaps eliminate those aspects that are destructive to the well-being of society. I call these tribally-motivated practices “the mentality of who is your uncle.” The reason I choose the above name to describe South Sudanese tribal rehearsals is that it is common in South Sudan to see one tribe advancing its ideology in the pretext of unity and togetherness for all tribes while secretly working to undermine the interests of the other tribes.

The ethnic and regional politics were tried before by other governments including the former Soviet Union, and they failed miserably. Indeed, I sincerely doubt if the regionalization of politics of the Republic of South Sudan will work best for the SPLM because it is likely to encourage regionalism, tribalism, and sectionalism.

It is evident that the moral and political objectives that all the tribes of South Sudan fought for were precisely and unequivocally to ensure the establishment of their own country; it was not to tribalize or regionalize the young republic after independence. The people of South Sudan fought together to have their own country. Tribalization and regionalization threaten the young republic after hard-won independence. However, the South Sudanese should learn from other nations that once tragically employed tribal and regional conflicts to function as so-called good politics. The 1994 Rwandan genocide is a good example of a nation filled with both tribal and regional hatreds. I do not believe that the citizens of South Sudan want their country to be a “failed state,” because I know that they are proud of their identity and cultural norms, but they also suffer from hearts full of toxic, tribal ideologies. In a society like South Sudan, tribal conflicts will always be there, but they can be minimized if political leaders think collectively. I would not argue with sadists on this issue because I know that their ultimate purpose is to see the people of South Sudan fail and suffer. People should not waste their time listening to politicians who care only about elections, power, and recognition. The right people to listen to are those leaders who think and act like statesmen—these leaders are people who act collectively, think deeply about the future of the country, work to better their nations, and show rationality in any calamity, regardless of any political risk that may stand in their way. The leaders of this young nation must act in this manner if they wish to minimize or avoid the looming regional and tribal politics.

The fact of the matter is that the Republic of South Sudan is a nation still deeply infested with tribal ideologies and the SPLM-led government must be smart to avoid digging its own political grave.

Possible consequences

There are consequences that the SPLM-led government must prepare for if it is serious about its political potential. However, if the ruling party fails to change its current political attitude and cast off its autocratic tendencies, then the following outcomes may be all but inevitable:

(1) South Sudan will be deeply divided into regional and tribal lines—this could encourage or incite ethnic or regional rebellions, deepen mistrust between communities in the already fragile society, and further destabilize the new nation.

(2) The ruling party will lose its vital grounds and regional politics will ascend—this could cause an uprising against the ruling party.

(3) National parliamentarians will be influenced or guided by regional or tribal politics, not national or party politics.

(4) A popular and possibly stronger political party will emerge, and the SPLM will eventually lose its hold on the political, economic, security, and military spheres.

(5) A new rebel movement that is far more powerful than any current or previous rebel group could surface.

These five outcomes are probable unless the Juba’s autocrats adjust their autocratic propensities.

In all successful societies, everyone must be willing to make sacrifices and the SPLM’s elites and citizens alike are not immune from these social responsibilities. The future of this country can only be built by leaders who think and act like statesmen who, acting in the capacity of fellow countrymen, actively fight for the growth of their country, the future of their youth, the cultivation of the unique talents of their people, the preservation of their country’s environment, the enactment of compassionate laws protecting the poor, elderly, and disabled—this is the future, and much needed and anticipated statesman of South Sudan; they are individuals who will cultivate justice and peace among their people.

I understand that cultural norms are important in almost any society, but this will not suffice if the people of South Sudan are to have a significant influence on the future of their country. There is no need to stick to a tradition that costs lives. It makes sense for tribes to defend their interests, but tribal agendas can contribute to the development of a nation only if they are collectively acknowledged and accepted by all tribes that make up the nation. It is also important to admit that most of the current political leaders of South Sudan and their supporters prefer to fabricate a reason to cover up their misdeeds to uphold their tribal doctrines, rather than do the right thing for the well-being of their country. The claim that one tribe is supreme over other tribes in South Sudan is perilous wishful thinking. This kind of mentality cannot build a prosperous South Sudan. Building a successful, democratic nation can only be done by political leaders who think and act like statesmen, people who think collectively, not by leaders who think and act like autocratic politicians and crave power.

Can we ever legitimately assert that some tribes are morally superior to others? Can this ever be compatible with a unified country that supports all its citizens, despite tribal membership? These questions are for you to consider and draw your conclusions.

Building a successful democratic nation can only be done by political leaders who respect the laws and behave like statesmen. The people of South Sudan did not fight for an autocratic government or a one-party state; they fought hard to have a nation where opposing views are respected. The SPLM’s deceptive politics should not be used as the policy of the government, and they must not be tolerated. The government must work with tribal leaders in tackling ethnic conflicts. The SPLM should implement policies that match its founding principles, eradicate its autocratic tendencies, and lead as a national political party if it is to regain the peoples’ confidence. Otherwise, it risks the ongoing diminishment of its legacy, legitimacy, and eventual collapse.

Duop Chak Wuol is an analyst and Editor-in-Chief of the South Sudan News Agency. He can be reached at [email protected]. Note: The views expressed in this article are his and should not be attributed to the South Sudan News Agency.

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