The power struggle dividing the country
The root cause of the conflict in South Sudan was the bitter power-struggle within the leadership of SPLM. The party that got 170 out of 180 seats in the election in 2010 has always balanced on a delicate power-sharing among several ambitious leaders. The moment this power-struggle deteriorated completely, in mid-December last year, the conflict spilled out on the streets. Within a few hours it had developed into a bloody slaughter between the two major communities, Dinkas and Nuers. On the 23rd of January a truce was signed, but despite what some think: South Sudan is not experiencing a truce and a contained situation – the catastrophe grows by every passing day. Fighting is still ongoing and there is no enforcement of the truce. Some 800.000 people are internally displaced and around 200.000 have fled the country. With the rainy season forthcoming, UN estimates that as much as three million people may be displaced.
A divided party
Notwithstanding the split within SPLM caused by Riek Marchar and Lam Akol in 1991, the internal divisions within the party remained somewhat unexposed as long as they were fighting Khartoum. However, today there isn’t a question of whether there are internal divisions, but how to cope with these in the future. SPLM is a conglomerate consisting of different groups with different loyalties, ideologies and political preferences. According to SPLM-expert, Halle Jørn Hansen, this division was already tense at the last meeting with the National Liberation Council in 2008.
The story of SPLM is therefore a story about a successful liberation movement, and a failed political party. They have had their chances of resolving their conflicts through the mechanisms and channels within the party; however the movement slowly disintegrated into competing groups outside the formal system. Networks and bonds of loyalty stemming from the days of the civil war have been maintained without genuine reconciliation and democratic transparency. Lack of dialogue and cooperation has kindled the mistrust and pathological development. In a situation of no trust, people tend to interpret other actors’ actions and intentions through a worst-case-lens. The act of reaching out became a sign of weakness.
The violence that broke out last year was a tragic turn of events on top of a pile of distrust, fear, power-struggle and paranoia.
SPLM mirrors the nation
Unfortunately, these conflicts among individuals at the top have a tendency of spilling over to the people as these leaders represent different groups within the country. At independence it was said that “from now South Sudan will live as one clan, one tribe, one people and one nation”. Perhaps it is time to face the grim realities of tribalism and rather think about solutions.
Power-sharing among the fighting groups has been discussed. However, power-sharing agreements have a tendency of “freezing” the political situation and benefit the ones picking up arms. And after all, there has been an informal power-sharing among the leaders in government until now, and it did not work. This informal tribalism has only strengthened the competitive element and consequently nepotism and corruption.
More than ever, South Sudan needs to strive for inclusion and reconciliation. All groups within the country should be consulted and included. This does not mean that one turns a blind eye to the dire need for justice and some tentative power-sharing mechanism. However, permanent solution must be a broad and inclusive process of reconciliation. The alternative seems to be increased division, both ethnically and geographically. SPLM (and SPLM-leaders) desperately needs reform to become an attentive democratic movement again.
Through the Oslo Center’s work with youth-dialogue in South Sudan we have seen how prejudice and distrust between different groups can be turned to understanding and new relations within a few days, by spending time together in the same room. However, these are fragile steps in the right direction which need time and a safe environment – it can be shattered by continued power-struggle at the top. There are several important dialogue- and reconciliation-initiatives ongoing as we speak, however they may end up as initiatives if the political leadership continues to turn a blind eye to it. The fact that thousands of fellow citizens have lost their lives and close to a million left homeless, should be the wake-up call needed.