When fighting broke out in Juba, South Sudan a few weeks ago, all eyes were set on the African Union (AU) summit that just ended in Kigali, Rwanda and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) as potential cradles of concrete solutions to deal with the recurring South Sudan conflict.
Previous and even current attempts to address the South Sudan question have unfortunately been narrowly defined on a diametrical ethnic continuum. The problem is a lot more complex than just the Dinka and the Nuer or SPLA/SPLM in government or in opposition. To put this in perspective, the Dinka and Nuer are just two out of over sixty indigenous ethnic groups that make up South Sudan. Demographically, the two account for less than 50% of the country’s population.
Attempts to sort the South Sudan question have been blind to the broader complexities of the young country. The solution equation has conveniently left out over 50% of the country’s settlers; this is on top of excluding other power centers including civil society, traditional institutions etc.
The recent transitional government of national unity (TGoNU) formed in April 2016 to administer the country for the next two and a half years, pending elections, followed the same flawed conceptual formula of owlishly interpreting the South Sudan conflict along two ethnic lines - the Dinka and Nuer.
Secondly, transitional politics also created a merger between SPLM/SPLA in government and in opposition. This only meant that there was not going to be any significant political alternative voice. This was further enflamed by the reluctance of the Troika members (United States, United Kingdom, and Norway) to invest in civil society institutions – as alternative voices. In fact, the Troika is viewed to have invested heavily in the South Sudan government at the expense of civil society. Due to this intended or unintended oversight, it is now very difficult to mobilise civil society groups to offer alternative thinking because they are either thin or not present at all on the ground. The weak nature of civil society in South Sudan has made it susceptible to political threats and clampdowns.
In brief, you now have a situation where there is neither opposition nor civil society to check government in South Sudan.
The military is another power center in South Sudan. However, under the current context, you have ‘those who fought’ talking to themselves in the on-going negotiations.
Analysts contend that SPLM/SPLA in government and in opposition represent a small minority of South Sudanese. What makes these two factions stand out is simply because they both maintain exclusive possession of guns. Actually a very common adage in South Sudan is that you can only be called to the negotiating table only if you have been deemed to possess a significant number of guns or weapons. This clearly points to the exclusion of a majority of South Sudanese who neither possess weapons nor belong to the two warring parties.
Because of the conspicuous silence of the majority of the people in South Sudan, there is definitely a need for a third voice. A voice that is not necessarily anchored in military or militarism; a voice that is not linked to any of the current two protagonists (SPLA and SPLA-IO); but a voice that will be open to discussing the South Sudan question through the broader, inclusive national lenses.
The IGAD led peace processes suffer from the deficit of representation. It is mainly, the SPLA/SPLM that is on the table. The constituency affected by the ongoing conflict is wider than the SPLA/SPLM (in government and in opposition). Therefore, a peace process that excludes majority of South Sudanese cannot be expected to yield sustainable peace.
To ensure an inclusive and comprehensive peace process, every South Sudanese, directly or through elected representatives, who is willing and able to take part in the talks should be able to do so without hindrance.
The solution to the conflict has to integrate strong elements of indigenous political will anchored in the buy-in of all or a majority of the South Sudanese. Military interventions will continue having far-reaching effects on South Sudan itself and the region at large – and may not deliver the lasting peace that the South Sudanese are questing for.