The Lingering Stain of Exclusivity in South Sudan’s National Dialogue

By Brian Adeba

Five months after President Kiir unveiled a “reconstituted” National Dialogue, the steering committee tasked with directing its affairs released a report at the end of October detailing its activities and analysis of the political debacle in South Sudan.

Notable in the activities basket of the steering committee, is the fact that key leaders of the armed opposition have refused to meet it. Riek Machar, leader of the SPLM-IO, Thomas Cirillo, of the National Salvation Front, and Lam Akol, leader of the National Democratic Movement, have all dismissed the National Dialogue as a distraction and declined to be part of the process. Within South Sudan, various political organizations and civic society have called for a rethink of the process, arguing that a conducive atmosphere for holding it is currently not present.

Conceived almost a year ago, the National Dialogue was envisaged as a means to reconcile communities in South Sudan torn apart by the ongoing civil war. Although potentially a noble idea, the major problem that dogged it from the onset was the government’s attempt to use it as a substitute process for a political settlement, and in this manner, eroding its legitimacy among various stakeholders.

The refusal of major opposition figures to participate represents an ongoing struggle for the steering committee to build legitimacy for the process, which began when President Salva Kiir declared himself patron and stacked the steering committee with his close allies only to step down in May amid criticism.

Nevertheless, the stain of exclusivity still dogs the National Dialogue. Key members of the international community have refused to endorse it publicly or support it financially. Others have kept silent and have declined to offer support. Those that have are reconsidering their assistance. Locally, it is still viewed as a compromised project especially in light of the fact that populations behind rebel lines are still excluded from the process.

In the report’s analysis of the genesis of the current conflict, an inordinate amount of space is devoted to history, in what appears to be a strategy to exonerate the ruling elites of their destructive role in this conflict. Nevertheless, the report also identifies, among other issues, major shortcomings in the public service and notes that the presence of an ethnicized army, corruption, and nepotism are major incubators and drivers of conflict in South Sudan. While this analysis is largely accurate, it is also problematic.

First, contrary to its mandate to collect viewpoints and recommend action it creates an atmosphere in which the steering committee is placed on a pedestal that allows it to be a judge. The committee’s unwitting allocation for itself the role of a judge is evident in how it describes key actors in the conflict in the preliminary report.

While it avoids direct reference, the insinuation is glaring. The armed groups are described as bent on seizing power by force from a legitimate government “elected to that power by the people of South Sudan” and that peace has been elusive because of the “refusal of some leaders of our community not to conduct dialogue with their brethren, unless they first obtain power through war.” The suggestion that the armed groups desire to grab power through war tells only half the story. It deliberately ignores the potential motivations of the regime to cling to power by abusing the constitution and using force to ward off genuine competition by rivals.

Secondly, the authors try to ascribe the problems of South Sudan to a collective failure of leadership. The role of the president as CEO in charge of affairs that dragged South Sudan to war and economic ruin is deliberately downplayed and the committee seems bent on finding a moral equivalency for the actors behind the malaise in the country. The lack of accountability ascribed to the person in charge illustrates the fact that he continues to wield influence on the deliberations of the steering committee, raising serious concerns about its impartiality.

In its observation of the dysfunctionality of South Sudan’s institutions, which the committee blames on the political fallout in the country, it notes that solving the problems of South Sudan may be beyond its mandate. This confession alludes to the fact that South Sudan’s problems are primarily political. Solving these problems, in light of the fact that the peace deal unfolded more than a year ago, requires a new political process involving political institutions.

The National Dialogue is not a political organization. It should, therefore, absolve itself of any role that makes it an arbitrator on South Sudan’s political problems. Under the right conditions, the National Dialogue would be a potential venue for addressing some of the problems afflicting South Sudan, especially the fragmented communal ties created by the conflict. Those conditions are presently missing.

The political problems of South Sudan can best be resolved via a credible political process involving political actors who have grievances with the government. The National Dialogue is not that process. The government’s focus—including that of friends of goodwill in the international community—should be on a genuine and credible peace process chaperoned by a third party.

Brian Adeba is Deputy Director of Policy at the Enough Project in Washington DC. Reach him on Twitter @kalamashaka.