Why the current conflict is a catalyst for positive change in South Sudan

By Tut Pal Ding

October 15, 2014 (SSNA) — It is regrettable that events such as the Juba massacres that triggered the current civil war in South Sudan are at what it takes to end an autocratic regime like that of Salva Kiir. But as the saying goes, ‘freedom is not free”. Looking beyond the battle lines and the trenches of the two SPLAs, South Sudan future is not so much doom and gloom. After all, the milieu and the context in which the current game of play is taking place have the hallmark of a nation in transition from one form of rule to another.

South Sudan, observers agreed, has had a bad start. After a hard won independence, the national leadership failed to translate that price into freedom for citizens, the sole rationale on which previous wars were fought. Politics turned tribal, leadership positions became tokens for favours or for return of favours. Only very few hardcore regime insiders, individuals or groups have access to economic resources, jobs, contracts, scholarships, land and investments opportunities. Most of these privileges and who accesses them are often based on unofficial links to the politico-military leadership of the SPLM/A. The country is divided in all conceivable senses. Ordinary citizens are either rich or poor, no middle class. Every political/social science student will tell you this is a formula for oppression. It was a short ugly leadership overture in the SPLM/A that could only change through an uprising.

Sadly, the change had to happen this way. The regime concluded it would not tolerate diverging views. Those who dare speak do so at their own peril. Alternative media is restricted and civil society groups are harassed and threatened with persecutions, or worst. Even the Courts and the Parliaments have not been spared from this thuggish assault on the right of people. The leadership had grown intransigent at the expense of the citizens. There simply is no space for a meaningful debate to contribute or challenge the regime’s public policies. But thanks to the regime’s own miscalculation, in lights of all that is happening now, they have got the message that they will not in their own right stay in power for far longer.

Even as difficult as it is predicting political events in South Sudan, it is clear the stage is set for a change. There is a strong civil population actively behind the opposition, including its armed wings. More than 4 million people, nearly half the country’s population, are sincerely tired of Kiir’s repressive government. They have been forced to make it clear they are not willing to accept oppression from a government they elected. The same way they stood against previous vindictive authorities, they are determined to stand against this one and reject its injustices. It would be implausible to think there could be a military victory against this population.

There has been a vacuum of a credible opposition for the last eight years, and the regime probably thought they were untouchable. So far that void has since been filled by the SPLM/A outside government. However, it usually needs more than just an opposition to remove a bad dictator from power. By luck and sheer naivety, the regime has created its own alternative. The SPLM/A leaders including, those now in armed opposition led by former Vice-President Dr Riek Machar, wanted democracy installed. It is a group of elites and intellectuals; some with distinguished military careers, that are bound by democratic principles. Salva Kirr is probably surprised these individuals have successfully managed to remain united under one position, calling for an overhaul of the governance system in the country.

Here is why the regime will crumble soon due to its own making, and a better South Sudan will emerge from these ashes. The status quo started to shift with split within the regime’s own armed forces. This was rapidly followed by loss of a significant public support that degenerated into civil violence, engulfing most parts of the country. There is looming economic collapse, aggravated by international community threatening to consider broader sanctions. Moreover, the strained relations with the Sudan threatens the national sovereignty. Sudan had in the past threatened to block the oil flow through its territory, and the regime knew well the economic consequences. Salva Kiir’s regime is cornered and soon will find that there just isn’t any other way rather than to work with the opposition and help construct a new state based on universal suffrage.

The division in the military has dealt a blow to the regime’s military’s support base. Those who orchestrated the Juba massacres would have hoped the army stuck together, silence the opposition and quell, or at least contain squabbles like they did to Yau Yau, Gatluak Gai, George Athor and Olony. Unfortunately, this time the regime has lost a significant portion of its organised forces to the SPLA in opposition. The government’s reliance on foreign militaries and on a loosely knit militia groups is deemed not indefinite. And, it’s going to get more difficult for the government as the opposition forces appear to grow stronger, more organised and continue to acquire a sustainable supply of military hardware. The military threats are genuine and observers predict the regime will be weakened to the point its war capabilities will be limited to only defending their own garrisons.  

The troubled relationship with The Sudan is not helping Kiir’s tyranny. From day one, this has been a clear threat to the national sovereignty, and it is far more serious than the regime would like to admit. Only last year 2013, before the current civil war, the regime went silent on Abyei issue. They budged and refused to recognise the results of Abyei plebiscite which was granted in the CPA. Unfortunately, sticking one’s head in the sand doesn’t make issues go away. Abyei still presents an antagonistic predicament for the two countries. It currently seemed to have been ushered underground while each of the two countries deal with immediate threats posed by their own internal rebellions. But it’s only a matter of time before it erupts and ignite the unwanted confrontation that South Sudan will find hard to deal with, especially if the leaders continue to render a confused strategy on this important region.

Worst still, there are far more disturbing ideas floating around about Sudan-South Sudan relations. For example, Eric Reeve, a Sudan Scholar wondered what those of the Greater Upper Nile might do if Juba regime refuses to heed to federalism and democratisation demanded by the opposition groups. The result could be catastrophic. South Sudan could, God forbid, disintegrate into smaller independent regions, or lose its territories to Sudan, and possibly to Ethiopia and Uganda.

By all indications, the young nation is in grave danger of economic collapse. More than 98% of the government revenues come from two oil-producing regions. One of oil the fields in Bentiu, due to the current conflict, has been shutdown and deemed inoperable for a foreseeable period. The second and the only remaining lifeline to the government’s purse is under a credible threat from the opposition forces. If they (opposition) succeed in shutting down Paloch Oil Fields, an economic disintegration would be eminent and the government’s war effort will be seriously undermined. Therefore, fully aware that Paloch faces real threat as it is, it’s then only a matter of common sense that the regime recognise that they have no options but to negotiate a transition and immediately agree to form the proposed Transitional Federal Government of National Unity (TFGNU). This will not only save them an embarrassing military defeat but will save the lives of ordinary citizens and their properties.

The stakes are high. As the foundation of this young nation remained unsteady, one wonders what chances the country has in overcoming these myriads of problems. History and theoretical narratives provide a glimpse of hope. Building democracies is neither quick nor easy and certain conditions have to be in place to undertow that process. The current conflict has created those conditions outlined above; suggesting South Sudan has in deed began a transition to a better society based on fairness, justice and equality.

The threats are real and the consequences will be far reaching. The opposition groups, other South Sudanese stakeholders, analysts and international community hope the regime recognise the reality that the country is at a serious risk of total breakdown and act while there is still a chance. Rationality would suggests the government will see this coming and join the opposition towards transformation and South Sudan will be a free nation characterised by rights, justice and equality. As the “fighting season” approaches, and while the regime still calculates its next move while stalling the talks in Bahir Dar, Ethiopai, all of us will know very soon what the next South Sudan will look like.

The author is the Chairperson of SPLM Chapter Victoria in Australia. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views expressed here are those of the writer’s personal opinion and are not endorsed by the SPLM.

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