The current conflict in South Sudan should not be narrowly defined along ethnic lines (Nuer vs Dinkas) as has been portrayed by many.
It is a conflict orchestrated by disagreements between individuals – President Salva Kiir, former vice president Riek Machar, former SPLM secretary general Pagan Amum Okiech and Rebecca Nyandeng Garang.
Each of these individuals has demonstrated unflinching interest in taking over the headship (chairpersonship) of the ruling party – Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).
According to the Constitution of the SPLM, only the chairperson of the party is permitted to run as the party’s flag bearer for presidential elections. With South Sudan’s next general election less than two years away (2015), the stakes are breeding nothing less than possibilities of confrontation, especially amongst factions of individuals from within SPLM who want to run as presidential candidates.
In the medium run, SPLM will need to undertake intra-party democratic reforms in order to break perceptions or realities of a monolithic party apparatus to a more inclusive, diverse system of collective leadership in which various persons within the party comfortably compete for power, influence and policy sway.
Even after integrating policies and structures that strengthen intra-party democracy, the next challenge will be for SPLM to figure out how to conduct intra-democratic processes in a way that doesn’t end up fracturing or side-lining party members. As they think of internal reforms, the key actors within the SPLM need to adopt compromise – which favour respect and a degree of trust for opponents within.
What is happening within the SPLM is not just a South Sudan issue but an altar call to other political parties and organisations in the region to examine their level of intra-party democracy with a view of projecting the potential implications if the concept is undermined.
In the short run, however, there is need to urgently address the current standoff that is escalating at a very fast rate and which has potential of deleterious effects on both South Sudan and neighbouring countries.
To avert the current situation, the following must be considered urgently:
Uganda has a very central role to play to avert the conflict.
As an elder who commands respect in matters of security in the Great Lakes region, Uganda’s President Museveni should intervene to bring the four protagonists to make compromises in the interest of the people of South Sudan.
The ongoing talks underway in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia is a positive step forward. Mr Museveni’s understanding of the long-standing politics of South Sudan, his personal relations with the key figures within the SPLM, Uganda’s geopolitical place in relation to South Sudan all put Museveni in a central place to bring the opposing factions together.
Ultimately, SPLM will have to seriously and urgently consider reforms directed at building intra-party consensus and negotiations; changes around the conduct of internal party elections, as well as improvements aimed at achieving greater political accountability.
I pray that the political figures swiftly recognise and act on opportunities for desirable compromise for the greater good of South Sudan. To the political parties in the region, the time is now to check whether the internal structures provide for space and alternative opinions within the framework of democratic principles.
Kaheru is the coordinator – Citizens’ Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda. firstname.lastname@example.org