One of the most tragic and unfortunate situations on the international scene in recent times is the outbreak of civil war in Africa’s newest nation, the Republic of South Sudan.
Barely a year after declaring independence from its northern neighbor, Sudan, petroleum-rich South Sudan, which holds Africa’s largest petroleum reserves outside Nigeria and Angola, broke out on December 13, 2013 into a brutal civil conflict that has already claimed over 10,000 lives and the displacement of nearly 300,000.
Conflict erupted in South Sudan on Dec. 15 after President Salva Kiir accused former Vice President Riek Machar of trying to stage a coup, a charge Machar denies. The dispute escalated into clashes between members of Kiir’s ethnic Dinka community and Machar’s Nuer group.
After rumors about an alleged planned coup surfaced in Juba in late 2012, South Sudanese President Salva Kiir issued a series of decrees making major changes to the senior leadership of his government, party and military. In January 2013 Kiir replaced the inspector general of the National Police Service with a lieutenant from the army and dismissed six deputy chiefs of staff and 29 major generals. ] In February 2013 Kiir retired an additional 117 army generals but this was viewed as troublesome because it was seen by others as a power grab. The scale of these reorganizations was unprecedented.
In July 2013 Kiir dismissed vice president Riek Machar, along with his entire cabinet. Kiir suspended the SPLM secretary-general Pagan Amum Okech, an ethnic Shilluk, and issued a decree preventing him from leaving Juba or speaking to the media. The decrees elicited fears of political unrest, with Machar claiming that Kiir's move was a step towards dictatorship and announcing that he would challenge Kiir in the 2015 presidential election. He said that if the country is to be united, it cannot tolerate "one man's rule."
In November 2013 Kiir disbanded all of the top-level organs of the SPLM, including the Political Bureau, the National Convention and the National Liberation Council. He cited their failed performance and the expiration of their term limits.
This is the background to the conflict. It is very clear that there are two main factors here: first, the failure of leadership; and second, ethnic and tribal confrontations.
President Kiir exposed himself to charges, clearly not unfounded, that the reorganization of the government by retiring so many officials and army generals looked very much like a power grab. He should have known better given the volatile (explosive, unstable, unpredictable) tribal arrangements that make up South Sudan. As an experienced military strategist and political actor, he should have known better and handled the situation far more prudently.
East African and international leaders are to be commended for speedily convening the peace talks in Addis Ababa. The talks have, fortunately, been going well, except that one of the key conditions of the rebels, that the several ministers of the former government who were arrested should be released, has not yet been met. President Kiir has not yet yielded to this demand.
That is not too much a concession to make in the search for peace. Moreover, President Kiir should be open to the evolution of a democratic culture in the government. He must learn from the mistakes of so many African leaders whose nations have gone down because of autocratic, dictatorial and personal rule. The whole continent, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and, of course the first African republic, Liberia, have gone under for the same reason.
Let not South Sudan fall prey to the same conundrum (problem) that has caused so many African nations to lose nearly a half century of progress.
Remember, those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it. Today, this is totally unnecessary.