Juba: Fears of Dinka domination drive rebel action and threaten long-term stability

This piece is an excerpt of the SID Trend Monitoring Report Two Sudans: Beyond the Beginning released in April 2011.The report aimed at analysing the economic and political challenges facing the two Sudans ahead of the independence process. The proposed paragraphs below focus on South Sudan's issue of political legitimacy. The full version paper also included analysis of the economic challenges and explored the potential for South Sudan to join the East African Community.

The political challenge: legitimacy

The SPLM government – in whose success the international community invested significantly – enjoys wholehearted endorsement. On the domestic front, however, the SPLM administration has a tenuous and fragile hold on the claim of legitimacy. At least four important political challenges face the administration: a) accusations that it represents Dinka domination of the new country’s political life, b) managing the transition to a permanent constitution, c) internal divisions within SPLM, and d) internal structure of governance within South Sudan. All four represent the fundamental challenge of embracing pluralism in a very diverse country.

The perception of a Dinka-dominated SPLM and government

Perhaps the most crucial challenge to fostering a real sense of national unity in South Sudan is the rivalry between the Dinka and Nuer communities and their jockeying for power. The International Crisis Group recently noted that:
The ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) cobbled together an important, though tentative, Southern consensus ahead of the January 2011 referendum. But its choke-hold on power and a 'winner-takes-all' approach to the transition have since jeopardized those gains.

The analysts, GHEA spoke to, put it this way:

In the South, the very strong sense among the people is that the SPLM government represents Dinka hegemony, dominated by a tribe with a sense of entitlement and equipped with the guns to enforce their domination. The Dinka are seen by others as the 'new oppressors.

There is a strong perception that the SPLM which runs government, is Dinka-dominated, leading to significant unhappiness among the other communities. A large measure of Dinka magnanimity is needed to assure them of fair and equitable representation and access to public resources (including funds and jobs).

One manifestation of this is the armed rebellion against the SPLM that has emerged since the referendum led by George Athor from Jonglei state. He said:

'We must ensure that all Southern Sudanese are equal irrespective of tribe,' Athor said, arguing that there is 'no equality among southerners' under the rule of the SPLM, which is dominated by the Dinka, the region’s largest ethnic group.

He recently announced that five opposition forces active in several states had forged a united front against the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). In the meantime, hundreds have already died and 16,000 people have been ‘newly displaced in Jonglei, Upper Nile and Unity states’ as a result. If the perception of the Dinka domination of South Sudan through SPLM is not resolved, it could be fatal for the country’s unity and social cohesion. Every household is armed. The violent rebellion that has already started could easily spread, fuelled by a deepening sense of a lack of representation and fair access to opportunity and public resources.

The politics of transition to a permanent constitution

More fundamentally, the politics of the transition in South Sudan are complex and potentially destabilizing. According to a new report by the International Crisis Group (ICG),

'Jockeying has intensified between the SPLM and Southern opposition parties over the composition and powers of a transitional government and duration of the transitional period. The SPLM desires to move expeditiously toward a transitional constitution amid all that must be done before independence, while the opposition fears it is manipulating the process to entrench its power…

Political accommodation is a necessity regardless of what form the transitional government assumes. The SPLM leadership will have a difficult chessboard to manage, finding roles for a wide range of party (including many members now returning home), army and opposition elements. It must avoid a 'winner-takes-all' mindset and view the appointment of a broadly representative government not as appeasement alone but as recognition of Southern Sudan’s pluralist character.'

GHEA’s analysts proposed the following scenarios for the transition:
a)    SPLM serves its full mandate of five years (to 2015)
b)    The SPLM and President manage the transition
c)    A government of national unity is formed soon after independence to manage the transition and organize new elections.

The nature of the ongoing negotiations and jockeying for position will determine which of these emerges as the primary trajectory, and what implications that will have for the country’s longer term stability. Going by current events, and the grievances explored above, the first two options which privilege the SPLM risk inflaming the situation and further damaging the already tenuous sense of national unity in the country.

Divisions within the ruling SPLM

The SPLM is deeply divided, and there is a robust debate about whether the current President, Salva Kiir, should stay on. He is said to be losing his grip on power in Juba on a daily basis, and is merely surviving rather than leading. The former Head of National Security in the unified Sudan, a southerner, is returning to head the security apparatus in South Sudan, and he has declared his intention to run for President. Again, according to the ICG,

'A review of the [SPLM] party’s modus operandi is necessary if it is to maintain cohesion, consolidate its legitimacy and deliver in government. Party reforms should aim to manage internal divisions, erode a top-down military culture, professionalize operations and trade coercion for enhanced internal dialogue.'

Internal governance structure

South Sudan is made up of ten states: West Equatoria, Unity, Central Equatoria, North Bahr-el-Ghazal, East Equatoria, Lakes, Upper Nile (Malakal), West Bahr-el-Ghazal, Jonglei, Warap.

Governance is currently structured along federalist lines with 10 states enjoying significant local decision-making authority. Attempts to make it a more centralized system will likely cause serious problems, but it is not clear that the Juba government will resist the temptation to try it.

The ICG is not optimistic, noting that 'decentralization has been championed in rhetoric and neglected in practice.' It observes further that 'there remains a disproportionate focus on the central government and its capital city, in political, economic and development terms' and argues for 'increased devolution to states and counties so as to avoid the very centre-periphery dynamic that lay at the heart of Sudan’s national woes.'

South Sudan’s new socio-political classes

South Sudan is also experiencing the emergence of a new set of socio-political classes that have been created by decades of conflict, conversions to Islam by Southerners during that time and the development of a South Sudanese Diaspora. These emerging communities are already occupying different strata of South Sudan’s society and their interaction will certainly influence the degree of social cohesion in the country. As described by one of the analysts who spoke to GHEA, they are:

a)The ‘wewe’ (the Kiswahili word for ‘you’) are the diaspora Sudanese who speak Kiswahili by virtue of their having lived in Kenya, and continuing to maintain strong links with that country. The name also refers to other East African nationals (mostly Kenyans and Ugandans) who are in South Sudan doing business or as technical experts across a wide range of professions. Collectively, they will very likely form the majority of the new country’s commercial and technocratic class.

b)The ‘jalaba’ represent the Southern Sudanese who converted to Islam during the conflict and lived in the North or in the northern controlled areas of South Sudan where they had access to some education and services. They are treated with suspicion by other South Sudanese (not unlike the French who had lived under the Vichy government in WWII France). They risk being denied of legitimacy and voice in the new country. Many of them may find it difficult to escape discrimination in accessing job opportunities and public services, and thus form a new set of marginalized people.

c)The ‘war veterans’ and those who lived or suffered in the ‘liberated’ areas that never fell under the Khartoum regime’s control. They see themselves as the ‘true’ Southern Sudanese who endured the conflict, survived and are thus entitled to enjoy a disproportionate share of the fruits of independence (opportunities, jobs, access to resources). They may well form a powerful political force that could use numerical size and historical justification to capture the state and privilege its interests relative to those of others.

Download SID Trend Monitor Report Two Sudans: Beyond the Beginning

East Africa Trend Monitor Observatory

Photo: Enough Project/flickr