South Sudanese are cautiously celebrating the long-awaited formation of the Revitalised Transitional Government of National Unity (R-TGoNU), expected to finally bring a peace agreement signed in late 2018 between the government of Salva Kiir Mayardit and former Vice President, Riek Machar Teny to its final implementation stages.
Mediated by Inter-Governmental Agency on Development (IGAD), a regional trade bloc for East and Horn of Africa, this phase of the agreement is expected to focus on consolidation of power-sharing, security transformation, reconciliation between communities and reconstruction of the war-torn country, including institutional reforms. There was a cautious applause when the two principal leaders met in Juba last week to form the unity government. Cautious because it remains unclear whether this government will genuinely begin with a real reconciliation program that translates the agreement that underpins it into peace at fundamental levels of society, into a program the war-battered populations can buy into, own, trust in and take to the bank, or whether it will be a band aid patch trying to mend a gaping and profusely bleeding wound.
Anyone who has lived in South Sudan over the past six years of the civil war and was able to observe the behaviour of some of these leaders who are now forming the unity government will testify that there must be much more concrete signs of peace than the photo opportunities, the handshakes and media statements of the last few days before anyone will let out a sigh of relief that peace is here. It takes money to domesticate peace, to repatriate millions of refugees and internally displaced persons, to invest in new livelihoods, to resuscitate the infrastructure projects that were halted by war and which are vital for the country’s economic come back from the dead, and this government has to show that the massive oil revenues will be put up for this mission. There is very little evidence that this will happen, as the government will be made up of the same old personalities, both in opposition and in government, that have already been the champions of corruption. Will the new government use the revenues to renew the promise of state viability or to mere appease the partners?
This is not being overly cynical, as I am sure many South Sudanese will accuse me, but about reading the signs objectively and realistically, if the recent history, how these same leaders handled the fate of the entire nation with utter callousness and with no remorse, is any guide.
TIRED OF WAR
What is missing then from the events that are now unfolding in Juba? There is no question that most people are tired of war and it is probably better to have this agreement than none at all. But people want this new government to start championing a project of return to peace, reviving the economy, providing hope to the millions in refugees and internally displaced persons that there will be security and that they will be assisted to return home. That is a tall order indeed, one for which there is no evidence it will be attempted.
More importantly, as the two principal leaders, Riek Machar and Salva Kiir exchange niceties and words of mutual forgiveness, they do not seem mindful that the most meaningful forgiveness needs to happen in such war-torn communities as in Malakal, Wau, Bentiu, Bor and Yei, Akobo and others, between the various ethnic groups that were pitted against one another by the rivalry between these two men. If the two or any of their other four vice presidents do not invest resources and time to tour all these locations to assure the people that peace has returned, it will not be too long before the people become disillusioned and violence will not cease. They forgot to appeal for forgiveness from the people of South Sudan for the destruction, death and agony they brought upon them. Mr Machar’s speech on the occasion of his swearing in as First Vice President has already left many people unsatisfied, not in what he said but in what he has left out. He was expected to articulate a strong reform agenda, a vision that can restore trust between the people, to mend the ethnic relations that have been wrecked by the war and to promise a better citizen-state relations, especially in terms of justice and accountability, fighting corruption and narrowing the economic inequities that have been created by corruption and mass diversion of public resources to individuals. He needed to at least give some indication that he is aware of these issues, let alone the fact he had gone to war in the name of reforms.
If the previous failed agreements should be any guide, the leaders who will now make up R-TGoNU have only one thing to remember, that this country has truly come to a fork in the road. The question on everyone’s mind is which fork in the road are the R-TGoNU planning to take in the next several weeks to months. Either they will engage in the old tricks, jockeying to lodge themselves and their allies in the more lucrative positions in Finance, Banking and Petroleum, forgetting about the suffering the six-year civil war has inflicted on more than 70 percent of the country’s population, or genuinely seek a new dispensation that emphasises a people-centred politics.
This government will be a mere postponement of conflict if it gives a blind eye to the corruption and grand theft that has created a ghastly and deadly form of inequality in South Sudan since 2005. Of all the peoples in Eastern Africa, whose histories and political cultures we resemble, South Sudanese should know best, that injustice begets war. It was injustice that got South Sudanese to rise up and to obstinately fight hard and testing wars spanning 200 years against foreign occupiers with unflinching dedication, until political independence was achieved in 2011. Throughout it all, especially in the last 60 years, they disagreed among themselves, turned guns against one another, fought vicious internal wars that have convinced outside observers at times that South Sudanese had all together forgotten about their common cause. But they have always risen above those moments of in-fighting, reunited and relaunched their quest for freedom, all because there was always a unifying enemy. Without such a common opponent, one thing is certain, and that is South Sudanese will not put up with injustice and this country could go into eternity with these wars, unless there is a true leadership that confronts injustice head-on.
And the moment to start thinking very seriously about how to transform this country is now. It is such moments as this, with no victor and no vanquished, where peaceful means, development, building of state institutions, that everyone stands a chance to win, giving everyone hope that justice for all is attainable.
The author is a professor of anthropology at Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University.