The efforts to return peace in South Sudan have become so convoluted and tortured because there’s a concerted effort by the West and its IGAD allies to solve all problems ailing South Sudan in one go. The West wants to completely revamp South Sudan political landscape and introduce hybrid regime change. It sees the IGAD-led peace process as the way to achieve this goal. The IGAD countries have their own well-known interests that they would like to protect. So, the peace process that should have been limited to crafting a political roadmap that would allow parties to compete on a level playing field, has now become so complicated that it will die under its own weight. Meanwhile, South Sudanese are caught in a deadly game with no end in sight. The so-called IGAD-plus ‘compromise document’ is another item on a long list of failed efforts to come up with one-size fit all solution. Let’s examine how the IGAD-led process has been a spectacular failure. But before delving into how messed up the IGAD-led process is, let’s try to diagnose the genesis of the problem.
What transpired on December 15th?
It is known that the genesis of political crisis that led to an abortive effort to take over the power by force, has its roots in the SPLM’s unresolved issues. The SPLM, whether many agree or not, is not a homogenous entity. It is a patchwork of political actors who have never really seen eye-to-eye, except when confronted with a single enemy in Khartoum. The SPLM should have been allowed to break up into its constituent parts that can become separate parties and compete against each other in elections. Riek Machar and his allies had an opportunity to form their party and take their case to the people of South Sudan. Even President Salva Kiir suggested as much; that those who disagree with him, ideologically or otherwise, should form their own party. For some unknown reasons, Riek and Co. refused to take a hint and instead started laying down ultimatums. Why was Riek so confident that he would challenge President Kiir? He had something up his sleeves, and tacit backing of the West. He believed that by taunting President Kiir to force his hand, a crisis would start and in the ensuing chaos, security apparatus allied to his faction would quickly gain control of Juba. Had Riek succeeded, he would have simply portrayed the power grab as a self-defense against ‘dictatorial’ Kiir. The West was probably waiting to bless the outcome.
But things turned out differently. While Riek appeared to have been winning early skirmishes on the night of December 15, 2013, President Kiir quickly turned the tables and foiled what was turning out to be a well-concerted effort to take power. What happened in South Sudan could be described as a coup-on-the-fly. Coups come in differently flavors and shapes. The most commonly known type of a coup is one where a group of army officers capture critical infrastructure, arrest key government officials, liquidate those resisting, before showing up on some state-own broadcast networks to announce that they have ‘rescued’ the country from mismanagement. The governing junta then coopts neutral or pliant political parties into the government. What happened in South Sudan on December 15, 2015 was something slightly different. The fighting within the Presidential Guard unit was intended to act as a catalyst for a far more nefarious action. Had Riek’s operatives within the security forces prevailed, it is almost certain that President Kiir would have been killed along with resisting key personalities in his government.
The result would have been explained away as an ‘unfortunate’ case where some elements within the Presidential Guard Unit initiated a disarmament of forces based on tribal affiliation, and thereby created a conflict with terrible and ‘unintended’ results. The international community would have swooped in, ‘condemn’ the tragic situation, and ask the new government to form a committee to investigate the tragic event. The committee would have most likely been headed by personalities from the West and international bodies. The outcome of such an investigation would have laid the blame on the dead guys. Case closed.
The Hapless IGAD Comes In
This brings me to the main theme of this paper. The IGAD-led process has complicated its work with little results to show. Early on, the negotiation parameters should have been set. The mediators should have identified the problems that culminated in the abortive coup. The main issue was lack of political space within the SPLM for those seeking to challenge President Salva Kiir. The mediators should have solved this issue by telling the rebels to form their own political party and take their case to the people of South Sudan. Instead, the mediators essentially allowed Riek’s team to bring everything under the sun onto the negotiating table, starting with demanding President Kiir to step down. The government’s team bears some blame. They should have told the mediators that some things are redlines and will not be entertained. If the IGAD mediators felt the need to bring everything to the table, that would have been the cue to return to Juba and let Riek come and take power.
The secondary issue was the fear among rebels that the environment is not conducive to allow for a fair political contest. This is where the bulk of the negotiation should have been focused. To solve this issue, the mediators should have come up with specific timetable for elections. The elections would be supervised by IGAD with help from the international community. All parties would be allowed to take part in the election. Each party would formulate its position and what it promises to do for South Sudan, and take its case to the populace. Whichever party wins will then commence the institutional reforms agenda.
Instead, the IGAD process became captive various interests. The West, being the one footing the bill, has seen the IGAD process as its opportunity to institute what can be termed as a ‘hybrid regime’ change. We can see this in the so-called ‘compromise’ peace document that has been presented to parties and with a date (8/17/15) when the signed document is due. As far as the West is concerned, the ‘compromise’ document essentially achieves its goal of ‘saving’ South Sudan from itself. Maybe it is time to let South Sudanese make the decision themselves. This can done via elections. If the people choose Riek’s party, then that would be end of that. He can then proceed with his so-called reforms without a care in the world. Some items such as federalism would require asking the people of South Sudan if they want federalism. If he losses, he will continue to make a case why people should choose his party. The government would have made a huge compromise by letting a guy who destroyed a third of the country to freely participate in elections without being prosecuted.
The Way Forward
South Sudanese should take charge of their own destiny if their country will ever return to peace. The problem is that the opposition is doing the bidding of the West. It is not that the West like Riek’s insurgency; they see it as a way to radically change how South Sudan is governed. For now, Riek is serving as a pressure on the government. The IGAD-plus process and its ‘compromise’ document will meet the same fate that has bedeviled all previous mediation efforts because it’s a forced document. With the insurgency fragmenting into smaller factions, Riek just did a repeat of 1991. The only difference is that the West sees him as its hope of enacting change in the country. We might as well do a Libya-type deal and see where the chips fall. Tragically, South Sudanese will continue to pay enormous price because our country is caught in ugly machinations of the West. Can the government be reformed without uprooting it? Sure. A clean election with the participation of all parties is necessary and then we can talk about reforming security, economic, and political space.