Divided Rebellion, Indifferent government, and the Politico-Military Impasse in South Sudan
By the Editor*
“I need blankets. It is cold at night and I don’t want my children to get sick,” said the 23-year-old Rebecca Barnaba, a mother at Doro camp in Upper Nile State.
But who’s listening?
It’s very clear in South Sudan that none of the political groups that claim to be the one with the interest of South Sudanese at heart is actually playing their verbal claims. They only attempt to exonerate themselves from Juba failures while consolidating their positions and potential power-sharing as future stakeholders.
Undoubtedly, South Sudan has reached a politico-military impasse. The rebels have markedly confused politico-military agendas and they have no strong military means or strategies to oust the leadership of President Kiir. Their personal interest-driven agenda is actually turning them against one another. If their interest is political reforms or rescuing the country from descending even further into the proverbial rabbit hole, then their interests would have been aligned and united in a concerted strategy to launch a single front against Juba. Unfortunately, we know that liberating South Sudan is far from the agenda of these once power-players in Juba. Like the tribalized government in Juba, these rebel groups become the abode of tribal agendas dressed-up as liberation forces. How can a national leader recruit a tribal army and expect to have a national appeal? How can such tribal militias whose purported agenda is to remove the failed Juba regime fight one another and expect to succeed?
Essentially, rebellion, as conceptualized and exercised by the current rebel leaders, is by no means a panacea to our political ills in South Sudan as such a strategic move requires wise, solution-focused, military-political strategist and an individual with an appreciable sense of selflessness.
So far, most if not all the satellite rebel groups, are after creating a negotiation and power-sharing front in the future political process. As Aristotle once said, “Anybody can become angry - that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not within everybody's power and is not easy.” We are all angry in South Sudan – ALL OF US – but what are we using our anger for and who are we aiming it for? For rebel who purportedly took up arms against Juba, one wonders why they are ‘angry’ with their fellow rebels? It’s all about POWER!
However, these leaders will inundate us with exorbitant and ambitious claims of fighting to democratize Juba and bring freedom to the people of South Sudan. By forming satellite, tribally-based rebel groups instead of uniting under a single force, these leaders have shown us that this is not about fighting for the people of South Sudan but power. Since being a rebel with a fighting force makes one heard, rebelling to get a national and international profile, has become a normative, power-exercise reality in South Sudan.
However, the readers should know that I understand the reasons behind these leaders rebelling and I understand the extent to which president Kiir’s government is damaged and tribalized beyond redemption. However, the manner in which rebellions are being formed and led will only lead to more suffering instead of positively bringing a complete political overhaul in Juba.
After forming his new rebel movement, National Democratic Movement in September of 2016, Dr. Lam Akol had this to say: “The National Democratic Movement (NDM) was born to wage the struggle, together with others in the field, against the totalitarian, corrupt and ethnocentric regime in Juba that is bent on dragging our country into the abyss.” Akol added that “It must be clear from the outset, the NDM is not just for change of personalities in Juba to replace them with others of the same feathers; it is out for a radical change in the country that will bring about genuine state-building and nation-building.” In an interview with The Messenger in March this year, the leader of National Salvation Front (NSF), Thomas Cirillo Swaka, claimed that he is “Inspired by the spirit and need to create a new political dispensation in the country that is based on the principles of democracy, unity and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms anchored in a federal structure as the basis for uniting and rebuilding the country, the National Salvation Front is the movement determined to fight for a New South Sudan in which all its citizens will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.”
While these leaders have strong reasons for leaving Juba and the words quoted above appreciable, I doubt if their chosen methods to change the system in Juba would work. Until such time when these leaders unite, they’ll just be some territorial warlords in the bush.
What makes Lam and Cirillo think that they can do better than Dr. Riek Machar of SPLM-IO is something I would want to see. Reduced to a prisoner in South Africa with his movement only nominally functional and forces fighting without clear strategic plan, Riek Machar will have to admit his failure. If he cannot use his leadership skills to prevail on South Africa to free him, then how can Riek Machar help South Sudanese?
Again, as long as these leaders believe they individually are the salvation torch-bearers, then rebellion will only be a negative feature in our country not a solution strategy.
What makes the above rebel position even more saddening is the fact that Juba is in no better position to seek an end to this impasse. The Agreement for the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (ARCISS) is dead, but the government operates as if it’s still something they are implementing or have implemented. The National Dialogue, which actually admitted in its first document that it can only make recommendations to the president, is being pedaled by the government as another way to solve this impasse. National Dialogues should only be used to heal not end wars. Since the president knows the grievances advanced by various rebel movements but he doesn’t want to sit with them, it’s clear that Juba isn’t interested in ending this impasse. It only wants to end the crisis in a manner that leaves its power-bases intact. Besides, the treatment of General Malong Awan, the former Chief of General Staff, is a clear testimony that president Kiir isn’t interested in ending the country’s crisis. Creating more problems is not an act of a man who cares about his own people.
While I agree with the former political detainees about giving Dr. Riek Machar and President Kiir an exit package, something I proposed a few month ago, the former political detainees need to understand that they are an opposition group and any of their proposals will only be seen as a self-interested agenda to remove the government. No matter the soundness of their proposal, the mere fact that they oppose both the SPLM-IG and SPLM-IO, will always project them as using their methods to get rid of them. While SPLM-FDs propose a government of technocrats, they’ve not clearly explained who these technocrats would be even if we know that they also exclude themselves, like Kiir and Riek, in a would-be transitional government of technocrats.
However, the FDs should make clear if they are mere opposition group or solution providers. Their existence as part of the government in Juba and at the same time as fierce critics of President Kiir and Riek Machar, make me wonder what exactly they are doing? They can’t be both a part of a failed government and pedaling as solution providers. While FDs is one group that proposes alternative forms of government, their murky political stand compromises their proposals; and this makes it hard for them to be taken seriously. They should either remain as critics or become solution providers. They can’t expect Juba to take them seriously if they bitterly criticize President Kiir as the problem and then again expect Kiir to respect their political settlement proposals. Unless they pull out of the government, stop criticizing IO and IG and only remain as a neutral, objective think tank that’s only interested in helping Juba and opposition arrive at workable solution models. But I guess this would make them politically irrelevant so they would not be stakeholders in any future power-sharing government.
So what’s the solution? I propose that all the rebel groups unite under one leadership and fight against President Kiir. This would also give the international community, which already knows how rotten Kiir leadership is, an impression that a united rebel front is after a real political change in South Sudan not a mere cult of personality augmentation and tribal agenda-dressed-up as political reform. Since this is going to be nearly impossible, then it’s high time for South Sudanese to dispense with IGAD and meet in Addis Ababa, Nairobi, or Kampala, to agree on a peaceful way forward. While the latter proposal sounds naïve, one needs to remember the naivety of bitterly divided rebel groups who expect to defeat Juba.
A government that’s run out of ideas and only channels money into political intimidations, and a divided, tribalized opposition that’ll see no victory, is a classic impasse that will continue to prolong suffering of South Sudanese civilians, more than 4 million of whom haven’t fled the home; more than 2 million of those displaced being refugees in neighboring countries.
*Kuir ë Garang is the editor of The Philosophical Refugee.