A Case for Federalism in the Republic of South Sudan

By J. Omunu

June 14, 2014 (SSNA) — Let me dive in straight to the topic. Many would agree with me that the Republic of South Sudan is a one-party state with the political power vested in the central government. President Kiir has no constitutional restrictions in his exercise of power over political activities at all levels of governments. He can appoint and fire elected MPs, Governors, University Chancellors, members of Judiciary Branch with impunity etc. Thus, the fate and prospects of South Sudanese political and socio-economic stability is now hanging on the establishment of a balanced federal system of government in South Sudan.

In this brief discussion, I argue that the problem confronting our new country is a highly centralized system of government disguised as “decentralized democratic system” under a retarded one-party system: the SPLM. In this system of government, political power is centrally concentrated in the hand of one strong Big-Man: President Salva Kiir who is holding power over all public policies affecting the citizens.

In theory, federalism is all about the distribution of wealth, power and authority between central and states level of governments, such that each level of government is self-governing in its assigned geographical area. Many economists will argue that a federal state encourages development in areas where citizens are determined to work hard for the common benefit of all.

Strictly speaking, the centralization of power by the SPLM ruling elites since 2005 has produced contradictory end results. I would argue the current political system largely reflects the South Sudan’s messy and failed system of governance. Surprisingly after attaining its independence from the “old Sudan,” the SPLM ruling elites mostly from Dinka forcefully argued for centralized and unitary government much like that of Sudan. You may recall in the “old Sudan,” concentration of power at the center was considered a necessary prerequisite to maintaining the country’s territorial integrity and unity.

However, the supposed benefits of “decentralization” in South Sudan have proved illusionary if not absolute failure. On the other hand, the post-independence Sudan has been rocked by tribal conflicts, military coups, and civil wars due to concentration of power in Khartoum, and specifically at hand of few Jallaba elites. Therefore, although an argument for establishing decentralized government or one-party state that many would hope will help unify the various ethnic groups, the Sudan’s experience has been disappointing. The experiment clearly shows that centralization/decentralization system does not cement the country’s unity or help equitable distribution of power and resources that suit the various ethnic groups’ interests within the Sudan.

Like the northern ruling elites in the Sudan, members of a particular tribe in the newly independent South Sudan, see no problem with that same failed centralized political arrangement because they consider themselves not only different but more equal than others to borrow words from Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Make no mistake about it, the ongoing senseless war and killings is but an illustration of the cases where members of a dominant tribe continue to dominate political and economic power at the expense of members of other groups.

Needless to say that the competition for political and economic control resulted in the massacre of innocent Nuer ethnic groups in Juba who had nothing to do with the power struggle within the SPLM, followed by subsequent revenge killings of innocent Dinka in Bor and Akobo. Such are results of skewed public policies designed to benefit a few and particular ethnic group at the expense of others. It is therefore difficult to validate the claim that the current “decentralized” government can unite the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-religious nation of South Sudan.

As noted above, the newest country in Africa is not only experiencing internal divisions and inter-tribal war but economic stagnation as well. In brief, South Sudan is now a dictatorship by all account. The poor governance practiced in the country can be attributed to the bad South Sudan Transitional Constitution-2011, which clearly concentrated excessive powers in the hand of one strong-man (President Kiir). This is the genesis of the problems and constitutional failures to address the conflicting interests of 64 ethnic groups in post-independence South Sudan.

Contrary to that Federalism allows equitable distribution of power and resources, and it allows individual groups to preserve their cultural heritage.

As we speak, it is only the incumbent President Kiir and his cronies or pro-status quo folks are the ones criticizing Federalism on the false premise that such a system of government reinforces tribalism. Their argument holds no water – simply because Federalism has never been tried before in South Sudan.

Bear in mind, South Sudan is a very huge country, which makes it more difficult for the central government in Juba to deliver basic services and serve local communities in remote areas of the country efficiently. For example, the Murle people and many other small tribes have been forgotten by the central government in Juba. Their repeated calls for justice and a genuine political reform in the country have gone unanswered and ignored by those bourgeoisies sitting in their air-conditioned offices in Juba. Juba has remained unresponsive to these demands for reform.

Paradoxically, the SPLM/A leadership raised the aspirations of ‘Junubin’ (South Sudanese) followers during the struggle for justice, freedom and equality with the promise of democratic rule, economic development, improved education, health care, basic service delivery and taking town to the village. These promises helped to mobilize volunteer fighters from the various ethnic groups, and later with the 2011-referendum that led to resounding yes of 99.8% votes for independence South Sudan.

However, the unfulfilled expectations have created widespread frustration and armed rebellions against the ruling SPLM party that fails to fulfill its promises. No wonder the so-called “disgruntled” members within the ruling SPLM party known today as the SPLM-in-Opposition decided to fight and push for change.

Most of all, the weak decentralization system currently in place proved to be the problem, therefore, federalism is more desirable than the latter and it can be the best prescribed solution for the South Sudan’s political and socio-economic crisis if there is a political will in the country. As one of our South Sudanese respected elder and distinguished professor pointed out:

There are those who fear federalism so much, and want to convince others not to support it. While federalism may not solve all our current problems, it will go a long way to mitigate some of it. It has however to be implemented in tandem with other important reforms of our weak institutions.

Federalism, thus, would likely preserve unity, ethnic harmony, and above all, it is most likely to advance economic and individual freedom.

In conclusion, federalism will protect individual rights against a powerful central government or dictatorship.

The author can be reached at [email protected].

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