Commentary

Coup reports in South Sudan are disturbing but not surprising

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By Samuel Baligidde

Posted  Friday, December 20   2013 at  00:00
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Considering the fear of the contagion of the example generated by Uganda’s geographical positioning vis-a-viz South Sudan coupled with its historical and diplomatic relations with Juba, reports that President Salva Kiir’s forces have subdued an “attempted coup” by supporters of his sacked deputy, Riek Machar in a battle for political supremacy amidst tribal undertones by the largest ethnic groups of the Dinka and Neur are quite disturbing but in a country like South Sudan, they are not surprising.

As Samuel Decalo, one of the most knowledgeable scholars on coups and army rule in Africa put it, many African armies bear little resemblance to a modern complex organisational model and are instead a coterie of armed camps owing primary clientelist allegiance to mutually competitive political leaders supported by officers and men seething with a sundry list of ethnic and personalised grievances.

One direct corollary of this phenomenon is that unlike the NRA/NRM in the early years, when the SPLM/SPLA assumed power it was not able to provide an efficient, nationally orientated and stable government whose edges have been frequently gnawed at by its northern neighbour. Civilian political frustration and dissatisfaction may have created ‘military anomie’ which is a sure recipe for un coup d’état.

When armies and police forces are asked by politicians to crush popular dissent, they themselves inadvertently become politicised! Governments which stopped ruling on behalf of the people who elected them were overthrown by radical soldiers claiming (like Nzeogwu, Rawlings, Sankara or Mengistu) to act on behalf of the people.

Characterisations of ‘crumbling military establishments, broken-backed states’ and derailed development have been obvious to political observers of GOSS politics recently. The tragedy of our times is that the structural conditions conducive to the breakdown of order exist everywhere in Africa and martial music featuring sombre renditions of I wonder how she slept, used to announce the onset of a coup in the 60s but Uganda came to learn of for the first time on January 25, 1971 is back in our backyard!

In a recent radio talk-show, an NRM Cadre analysed the situation in South Sudan in terms of the military lacking a doctrine of discipline; but doctrinaire ideological considerations no longer obstruct “Marxism in parts” theoretical syntheses which draw on Marxist concepts where they remain useful and moving beyond it to where they are no longer relevant.

Sudanese scholar Mohamed Omer Beshir in his book Revolution and Nationalism in the Sudan opined that when the military rule of General Abboud way back in post-1958 failed to recognise the new forces in society a new generation many of whose members were educated in the universities of Khartoum, Cairo and London or in those capitals’ military academies, believed then as they seemingly do today in South Sudan, that they have a claim to political power.

According to him, the army has since then become the object of attention of all political parties because they have realised its crucial importance as an instrument in the struggle for power.

According to another military analyst Lemarchand, the problem remains of perpetuating the misplaced structuralist illusion in Africa that states and armies are “institutional scaffolding” separate from the societies over which they are imposed.

Foucault warns that relations of power, and hence the analysis that must be made of them, of necessity extends far beyond states. This is especially true in Africa where the so called juridical states in which rule by law rather than rule of law have been imposed.

This is illustrated by the inevitable collapse of authoritarian regimes and structures, as well as by the privatisation of violence in the hands of militia warlords, military cliques such as in CAR and other countries.

States arise from and are reproduced by practices and discourses of power, notably those of coercion, discipline and surveillance.

Mr Baligidde is a former diplomat.
sbaligidde@umu.ac.ug