Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1293, (28 April - 4 May 2016)
Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Issue 1293, (28 April - 4 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Machar and Kiir procrastinate

The cloud over South Sudan darkens even with the expected arrival of Reik Machar in Juba for reconciliation with South Sudanese President, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

As Al-Ahram Weekly went to press, news percolated of the arrival in the South Sudanese capital, Juba, of Reik Machar, Machar who fled Juba at the start of the civil war in December 2013 and he was warmly welcomed by South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and promptly declared Vice President of South Sudan on Wednesday 27 April.

Kiir described Machar as "his brother", reffering to him as "brother" twice to be precise, and hopes of peace in South Sudan soared and plns for lasting peace in the war-torn country have been boosted. 

"I have no doubt that his return to Juba today marks the end of the war and the return of peace and stability to South Sudan," Kiir extrapolated. 

Since its independence, a bleak outlook neither hopeful nor encouraging engulfs landlocked South Sudan. South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, leader of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) and his main rival South Sudanese Vice President Riek Machar are at loggerheads. But it is hard to associate either man with a big political or ideological idea for a new South Sudan or a definitive achievement in their respective political careers.

The messy reality of the country has resulted in a dismal brace of rival candidates, but it would be wrong to put an equal curse, or pox, on their constituencies. Machar’s popularity and campaign for the future presidency of South Sudan has been lightweight. And Kiir’s has darker flaws. It may be that Kiir has a reluctant vessel for a message crafted by his handlers. He certainly does not evince much enthusiasm for the office he presides over. His people, the Dinka, South Sudan’s most populous ethnic group, selected him as president for the very reason that was a good egg, and the ideal leader of South Sudan — and some say Sudan — John Garang was assassinated in most mysterious circumstances. The office of South Sudanese president at any rate has weak executive powers by African and international standards.

But looking at the big picture of the country, the size of Western Europe, one risks missing important details. The Dinka people are not united, but are divided into warring clans and tribal subdivisions.

Whatever else, the situation in Sudan and South Sudan in particular is very precarious and unsettled. The relationship between tribal groupings and political parties and militias are strained, and that is an underestimation. British colonialists separated North and South Sudan as administrative polities or territorial units until 1947. Independence in 1956, was a calamity to Southerners because it conferred political power to the northern Muslim aristocracy and political and military elite. Dreading marginalisation and political peripheralisation by the northern elite, Southern army officers mutinied in 1955, and launched the Anya-Nya rebel group, the forerunner of the SPLM/A. 

The character of the struggle for South Sudanese emancipation also matters. In 1972, when a peace deal gave autonomy to South Sudan and integrated Anya-Nya rebels into the national army, a semblance of peace ensued. Independence was meaningless to most South Sudanese. Ethnic, tribal and clan rivalries persisted. South Sudan ranks near the bottom in the world in all social indicators and the late Garang complained that there was not one tarred road in the country. Kiir is condescending, and puckish Machar back-slaps relentlessly.

The Sudanese civil war ended in 2005 with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and the power-sharing agreement dissipated. It was in a sense the ruling National Congress Party version of crudity that ruined the peace prospects. A ceasefire was signed in January 2014, and another in May. But fighting intensified, and indeed the humanitarian situation worsened in South Sudan.

A referendum in Darfur to determine the permanent status of that region within North Sudan took place last week. The referendum gave the electorate a choice between either a “Darfur composed of a single region” or the “retention of the status quo of five states”. Darfur, like South Sudan, is composed of several rival ethnic groups, some Arab, others Arabised and still others that are predominantly Muslim, but non-Arab. 

Machar came to be seen as a relic of a bygone age, but at least he has the excuse of advancing years. Still, he is under tremendous international pressure not to lose with dishonour. Washington accused both sides in South Sudan’s two-year conflict of blocking peace. Both Kiir and Machar are in the doghouse, in a state of disesteem and disapprobation.

The West is disgusted with Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir, too. However, the Sudanese president is jubilant with the result of the Darfur referendum.   

The Darfur referendum was supervised by the Sudanese National Election Commission. And the results were convenient as far as Al-Bashir was concerned. The five administrative units suited his much more indulgent attitude to Islamist extremism than the Darfur rebels or the secularist Sudan People’s Liberation Army/North, the SPLM/A northern arm of the movement. Indeed, as in South Sudan, the policy of dividing up provinces into smaller units promotes further conflict and are a pretext for intensifying tribal wars. The critical point is that the divisions and subdivisions of states have usually been a pretext for the eruption of civil wars and ethnic conflicts.

The referendum was subject to a boycott, led to student protests and accusations of vote- rigging. Al-Bashir dismissed the protests as irrelevant. The results were announced on 23 April 2016 and were in favour of the retention of the status quo in Darfur. Technically, that means five administrative units based on ethnic and linguistic lines.

The status of the oil-rich Abyei enclave which is claimed by both Sudan and South Sudan is at stake. South Sudan separated from Sudan on 9 July 2011.The independence of South Sudan ended the 21-year civil war between the government in Khartoum and opposition groups in the south. However, it neither ended the civil war in South Sudan nor the ongoing wars in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile Provinces, regarded as an integral part of Sudan. Sudan is uncompromising as far as territorial integrity and sovereignty are concerned.

Thus, South Sudanese protagonists must end the political bickering and bloodshed. The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) and the SPLM/A-in-Opposition (SPLM/A–IO) are also at loggerheads. If Kiir’s bargaining position is weak, as it is currently, then the danger is that regional powers, and especially Ethiopia, are bound to interfere.  Meanwhile, SPLA-IO Chief of Staff General Simon Gatwech Dual flew into the South Sudanese capital Juba on Monday amid much consternation by those who wished to see Machar’s triumphal arrival in Juba.

“What I know, there’s only one nation, one people and one president,” said the SPLA-IO chief of staff. And, there is some truth in this. He was received on behalf of the government by Akol Paul, the War Disabled, War Widows and War Orphans Commission Chairman Deng Dau Deng and General Marial Chanuong of the presidential guard. A tense peace was maintained until 7–8 March 2016, when SPLA–IO forces clashed with the SPLA around their base at Nasir, a garrison town on the Sobat River in the Upper Nile Province, South Sudan. 

Ominously, Kiir’s administrative decree that divided South Sudan’s ten states into 28 posed a threat to the precarious peace process. Upon arrival in Juba, Gatwech told the media that his homecoming was part of implementing the peace agreement and there was no going back to war. Empty words? Perhaps the pronouncements have no lexical meaning, but some experts conclude and they might lead to antipathy and antagonism between the restless ethnic groups, tribes and clans of South Sudan.

The United States has threatened to intervene by pulling funding for a flight to return the rebel leader and former South Sudanese Vice President Riek Machar to the capital. The US indicated that Machar had obstructed arrangements by arbitrarily asking for more forces and heavy weapons to precede his arrival to Juba. China has more economic clout in South Sudan than the US, but Washington exerts political power. Machar’s return to join a unity government with his foes was originally scheduled for early last week, but he failed to show up in Juba. This has been a treacherous year in South Sudan, a country not unknown for warring, and crackdowns following crises.

South Sudan’s population of 12 million is very heterogeneous ethnically, even though the majority are Nilotic peoples. The oil-rich Upper Nile Province was one of the most disaffected. It is home to the Shilluk people, a Nilotic group that has a proud and distinctive cultural heritage. The Upper Nile is home to rival ethnic groups including the Nuer, another Nilotic ethnic group, and the closely related Dinka. Yet war between the Shilluk and the Padang Dinka is now unfolding there.

The presidential decree led to the unseating of Kwongo Dak Padiet, the Shilluk Reth, or King.

The conflict between the Shilluk or Padang Dinka has escalated. Government forces stationed on the east bank of the White Nile are opposed to the Padang Dinka administration in the Upper Nile. The status of the SPLM/A troops in a planned Padang Dinka-dominated Eastern Nile state is uncertain. Washington has delivered a stinging rebuke to belligerent South Sudanese leaders, but will the Sudanese protagonists comply with Washington’s wishes, and dictates?

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