What does the future hold for South Sudan?

Originally published by Al Jazeera as an Op-Ed

With more than two million deaths and millions more displaced after a war that has lasted five decades, Africa’s newest nation, South Sudan, is now the first country to be dubbed a “pre-failed” state.

An appropriate, if oxymoronic, term suggests that South Sudan, born in July 2011, failed before it even came into existence. The blame for such failure lies with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A). Unable to convert the popular legitimacy it enjoyed during the liberation struggle into an ability to deliver basic public services, the undemocratic nature of SPLM/A and its failure to transform into a democratic government with a clear vision of nation- and state-building is at the root of the crisis.

The crisis was triggered by the July 2013 decision by South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir to unilaterally dismiss several key members of his cabinet, including former vice-president Riek Machar, and to abolish SPLM/A institutions.

The nation stands divided into three groups – the incumbent SPLM/A led by Kiir, the rebel group led by Machar and the third bloc comprising former detained SPLM/A leaders – and no single entity is able to effectively govern South Sudan.

Taking the lead, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) launched an internationally backed mediation effort that resulted in the signing of an agreement to cease hostilities and form a transitional government of national unity within 60 days. However, on June 22, the IGAD-led mediation was adjourned.

While complaining about the exclusive manner in which civil society stakeholders were selected for the negotiations, the rebel group refused to attend consultations and the government similarly requested a oneday postponement of the talks.

With an embattled government dragging its feet, and an opposition always on the fence, the mediation has now reached an important turning point. Regardless of the pronouncements of withdrawal from the talks by both warring parties, the IGAD correctly decided to continue consultations with a wider array of stakeholders.

The possibility of sanctions against spoilers of the IGAD-led mediation is being discussed within the United Nations Security Council. But what course could the future of South Sudan take?

There are at least four scenarios that the fluid situation in South Sudan can evolve into.

Best scenario: Caretaker government

Given the deep animosity between the three groups, the best scenario for South Sudan is for a caretaker government composed of individuals considered independent, and known for professional integrity, to lead the transitional period.

This would require the removal of the two leaders of the warring factions from any state leadership position. Ensuring a transitional process insulated from undue influence by these groups, such an independent transitional arrangement would create a level political playing field for all participants, including those outside the SPLM/A.

This arrangement could bring all South Sudanese political actors into one big family tent. A caretaker government could bring all pockets of legitimacy, including representatives of internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees, as well as the diaspora, together to participate in a national dialogue. What is more, such an arrangement would ensure that stability and legitimacy could be pursued together, without sacrificing legitimacy for the sake of stability.

However, despite being the most desirable, this scenario still remains the least probable, as it depends on the political will of the warring parties. Corporate bodies – and external forces such as the Ugandan government that supports Kiir – may work against such an arrangement, as it may endanger existing financial and other interests.

Acceptable scenario: Government of national unity

Under an acceptable scenario, South Sudan may usher in a transitional government of national unity similar to that of Kenya (2008-2013) and Zimbabawe (2009-2013), where the ruling and opposition parties share power. Governments of national unity do not necessarily lead to democratic outcomes, but as the experiences of Kenya and Zimbabwe show, they are capable of delivering relative stability and reducing political violence.

However, there is no strong judiciary in South Sudan, as in Kenya, and to a limited extent also in Zimbabwe. More essentially, the SPLM/A is not a professionally neutral and united army as in the case of the Kenyan armed forces. Despite many qualms about the result of Kenya’s last election, the Kenyan armed forces have remained neutral. The SPLM/A, as opposed to the professional army of Kenya, still remains an ideologically and ethnically politicised rebel army.

A government of national unity composed of the warring groups is highly probable, given that a stable central government is vital in order to prevent further violence and the total collapse of the South Sudanese state. While seeking the best scenario under a caretaker government, a government of national unity may simply be the best outcome that the IGAD-led mediation effort can deliver.

Bad scenario: Status quo

The continuation of the current situation constitutes a bad scenario, where the incumbent SPLM group in government continues to stay in power. With such dispersed centres of legitimacy, the status quo is unsustainable unless the SPLM/A is reconstituted afresh.

The root cause of the current crisis resides in the unwillingness of the SPLM/A to transform itself into a democratic political party fit to govern. Thus stability and democracy in South Sudan requires radical reform of the SPLM/A or total replacement of the current system of governance.

Only by embarking upon democratic reconstruction of the governing structures of the SPLM/A and commencing an inclusive constitutive national dialogue will the current government be able to achieve popular legitimacy.

The SPLM would perform an important service for the people of South Sudan if it succeeds in closing this chapter, revitalises the role of its collective leadership and finally transforms itself into a popular democratic movement that appeals to its political rivals and the general population with the simple message of unity and equality.

Despite such an opportunity for transformation, like most liberation movements, the SPLM/A is unable to distance itself from its military past, espouse civil norms or transform into a truly popular political movement. With time, the leadership of what was once a liberation movement has become authoritarian, and its primary victims are usually those within its own ranks. The sacrifices made for self-determination that brought and held SPLM/A together have now been replaced by the corruption and sectarianism that killed the popular and political life of SPLM/A.

Facing mounting international and regional diplomatic pressure, including possible punitive global sanctions, and confronted by internal crises and continuation of the government in power, we may yet witness the worst case scenario.

Worst case scenario: Total civil war

After so many years of guerrilla war against the north, a warrior culture has taken root in South Sudan. This perhaps explains why reports about political violence in regional areas are so frightening.

Equally disturbing is the brutal manner in which organisational differences within the ruling SPLM have been handled, thus triggering a mutiny against its leadership. Evidence indicates that the situation is tragic, volatile and so dangerous that an even stronger helping hand is necessary to save the country from sliding towards civil war and humanitarian disaster.

Such assistance is also necessary to build confidence and peace among South Sudan’s various conflicting parties to give a chance for them to put their respective houses in order, and divert the country from its present course towards further suffering and total state failure.