Tragedy in South Sudan and its implications for Africa

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By Harold Acemah

Posted  Sunday, December 29  2013 at  02:00

In Summary

The tragic events unfolding in South Sudan remind me of similar events which occurred in Congo soon after that country’s independence on June 30, 1960. The criminal assassination of Patrice Lumumba in 1961 triggered a bitter civil war from 1961 to 1964, a tragedy from which DRC has not yet fully recovered.


Christmas is a season of joy, love, hope and peace; why on earth should anybody choose this season of peace to launch a vicious power struggle as appears to be happening in the neighbouring Republic of South Sudan?

I find it mind-boggling that brothers and sisters who were for decades comrades-in-arms in a protracted struggle for self-determination and freedom are now locked up in a senseless and fratricidal war in which there are no winners! Only losers will emerge from this most tragic conflict, except Gen. Omar Bashir. It is a very shameful and disappointing affair to all men and women of goodwill who placed high hopes in the newest member of the AU and UN.

When South Sudan declared its independence on July 9, 2011 amid pomp and pageantry, Ugandans were among millions across Africa and the world who joined in a well-deserved toast to the gallant people of the new country. We felt that Uganda’s total support for the heroic struggle of the South Sudanese people against oppression, racism and racial discrimination was not in vain and had finally yielded the long-awaited goal.

The independence of South Sudan raised the morale and hopes of millions of the marginalised people in the greater north and parts of the eastern region, but alas the euphoria has been short-lived; events unfolding in Juba and other regions of South Sudan have given cause for alarm in Africa and the world. Reports from Juba indicate that great fear has seized the capital following widespread violence, killings and massacres which have occurred since December 15.

With the benefit of hindsight, South Sudan was in many ways a ticking time bomb waiting to explode, as has sadly come to pass. The rather unwise sacking by President Salva Kiir of his entire cabinet, including former Vice President Riek Machar, in July may have inadvertently broken the camel’s back.

The challenge for the AU and the UN is to urgently extinguish the fire and diffuse the serious ethnic challenge which bedevils South Sudan like many African countries. The genie is now out of the bottle and it would indeed be dishonest to pretend that the people of South Sudan are one united nation which sadly is not yet the case!

The primary root cause of the problem of South Sudan is a failure of leadership coupled with the fact that what united the South Sudanese people for many years, namely a common enemy in Khartoum, is no longer a factor which glued SPLM and SPLA for many years during the struggle.
South Sudan is now teetering on the edge of a failed state like Somalia and the danger of the new country descending into an orgy of tribal bloodbath should not be under-estimated, especially a conflict between the two major ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer. The challenge which the political elite of South Sudan must confront is to find a political solution to what is basically a political problem.

For the sake of the cause for which SPLA fought for 30 years, the leaders of SPLM must agree to negotiate and respect the right to life of all South Sudanese.
As I have argued in this column, politics is not a winner- take- all game; politics is about compromise which involves making concessions; most African leaders do not regrettably appreciate the virtues of compromise and prefer to “eat alone” which invariably causes conflicts! No African country should become a battlefield simply because a handful of big men cannot peacefully agree on how to share the carcass of the animal, as one man has bluntly argued.

The AU and the UN must make every effort to prevent a human tragedy of monumental proportions from taking place in South Sudan. One hopes that Ugandan troops, which are already in Juba, will play a neutral and constructive role there and not take sides in this fratricidal conflict which some observers are already calling a civil war! Such a war is not in the best interests of Africa.

South Sudan has already emerged as one Uganda’s major trading partners and the country has applied to join the East African Community. Against this background, a civil war in South Sudan is politically and economically not in Uganda’s national interest. The country’s enormous economic potential can only be realized if there is peace and political stability.

The tragic events unfolding in South Sudan remind me of similar events which occurred in Congo soon after that country’s independence on June 30, 1960. The assassination of Patrice Lumumba in 1961 triggered a bitter civil war and political instability from 1961 to 1965, a tragedy from which DRC has not yet fully recovered. The mineral-rich province of Katanga attempted to secede during the Congo crisis under Moise Tshombe who was actively supported by Belgian industrialists for selfish motives. UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold tried to mediate between the warring factions and perished in the process in September 1961.

One hopes that history will not repeat itself in South Sudan, but if the political elite of the country fail or refuse to learn the lessons of history, they could end up doing precisely what many of us fear, namely commit political suicide which the wananchi of South Sudan do not certainly deserve!

Happy New Year! May the LORD bless Africa in 2014..

Mr Acemah is a political scientist, consultant and a retired career diplomat.