South Sudan’s ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) party is widely regarded as a classic example of a common African problem; liberation movements that fail to make the transformation into democratic political parties. That has been cited as the main reason for the civil war that erupted in South Sudan on December 15 and which is still simmering in places, despite a formal cessation of hostilities.
But the SPLM is worse than an unreconstructed liberation movement, according to Alex de Waal, Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation and Abdul Mohammed, Chief of Staff of the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel for Sudan and South Sudan. In an article published in Foreign Affairs journal earlier this year, they said: ‘The SPLM never functioned as a real party – or even as a liberation movement.’ It was really just an army trying to run Africa’s newest country, they essentially wrote, and a badly integrated army at that. This seems to be reflected in the fact that the terms SPLM and SPLA – Sudan People’s Liberation Army – were used interchangeably for a long time. Some of this remains, nearly three years after South Sudan came into being.
All of this means that Cyril Ramaphosa has a big job on his hands. The African National Congress (ANC) Deputy President, whom President Jacob Zuma appointed as his special envoy to South Sudan last month, is now in Juba on the first leg of a week-long mission to try to help resolve the crisis.
So, what value could Ramaphosa add to existing peace efforts in South Sudan?
That crisis erupted on 15 December when shooting broke out between soldiers loyal to President Salva Kiir and those loyal to the former vice president Riek Machar, whom Kiir had fired – along with most of the rest of the cabinet – last July.
The clashes had started as a power-struggle between Kiir and Machar but spread quickly to their supporters; first in the army and then in the wider community. And, since Kiir is Dinka and Machar a Nuer, the fighting soon became tribal.
Thousands have been killed and around 800 000 people were forced to flee their homes in a spiralling cycle of revenge killings. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the regional body, brokered a ceasefire agreement on 23 January, but sporadic violence has continued since and on Wednesday, just as Ramaphosa was flying into Juba, heavy new fighting erupted in the capital.
After a promising start, the IGAD talks appear to have hit a stalemate, says Andrews Atta-Asamoah, Senior Researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS). He attributes this to the difficulty in addressing the deep, underlying causes of the conflict.
Kiir appears to have provoked the fighting on 15 December with an accusation that Machar was about to launch a coup. Machar has denied this, and his supporters – as well as those occupying the middle ground between the Kiir and Machar factions in the SPLM – insist the clash was more about Kiir’s autocratic style of leadership.
South Africa might be seen by the IGAD countries as a 'big brother' barging into their territory
They accuse him of tearing up the rules of the SPLM to prevent anyone else from challenging him for the top job. But, as De Waal and Mohammed suggest, a big part of the problem is that the SPLM has done so little to transform itself into a political party. One South African official was astounded to discover that the president of the party – currently Kiir – is entitled to nominate all the other top positions in the party, including the Politburo.
So, what value could Ramaphosa add to existing peace efforts, which include not only the two IGAD special envoys conducting the mediation there, but also about half a dozen other special envoys, including from the African Union, the United States, the European Union, China and Norway?
Atta-Asamoah says that the main thing Ramaphosa brings is that he is the embodiment of the South African government, which has influence within both factions of the SPLM. As the South African government pointed out this week, Zuma had been invited to mediate by both Kiir and Machar.
And Ramaphosa also brings his proven personal qualities as a negotiator – particularly his experience as the ANC’s chief negotiator with the old National Party, which led to a democratic South Africa.
However, Atta-Asamoah adds that Ramaphosa’s main challenge is that there is no formal role for him within the existing IGAD negotiations. There is a danger that the IGAD countries might see South Africa as a 'big brother' barging into their territory.
‘The most laudable thing he can do is to throw his weight behind IGAD and not establish a second track of negotiations,’ he said, explaining that Ramaphosa could help to break the current stalemate in the IGAD talks.
South African officials say, though, that Ramaphosa is in fact participating in a second party-to-party track of negotiations, which the SPLM has asked both the ANC and Ethiopia’s ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) to conduct.
This second track has been set up because the crisis springs entirely from within the SPLM, and so the SPLM is looking to other liberation movements that have successfully made the transition to political parties for advice and inspiration.
Some SPLM leaders believe the fact that the ANC could withstand the recall of former president Thabo Mbeki in 2008 is proof of the kind of political cohesion the SPLM sorely lacks.
But the South African officials fear that Ramaphosa has a huge task on his hands as divisions within the SPLM run so deep. Both the Kiir and Machar camps are insisting that the other leader has to be left out of the transition to a new dispensation.
That is a sure recipe for continued fighting.
So, some of those in the SPLM's middle group – called the ‘G7’ because seven of their leaders were detained by Kiir in December and then later released – are now proposing that the only way to advance the stalled negotiations is if neither Kiir nor Machar is part of the transition.
South African officials also reveal that Ramaphosa – and Minister in the Presidency, Collins Chabane – were already trying to mediate a resolution to the tensions in the SPLM before the December 15 eruption. According to the Machar and G7 factions, Kiir took little interest in these talks.
‘Now they are saying if he had taken them seriously, all of this could have been avoided,’ says Atta-Asamoah.
If there is a glimmer of a silver lining to this gloomy picture, then, it is perhaps that Ramaphosa at least has a head start in his very daunting mission.
Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa