Oh no, not another GNU!

Cabinet posts have been assigned, and South Sudan's new government of national unity is ready for lift-off. Or is it?

Yet another African transitional government of national unity is about to be launched, this time in South Sudan, on 22 January, to try to resolve yet another terrible conflict.

Wars don’t come much uglier than this one, which devastated Africa’s newest country after a fallout between President Salva Kiir and his erstwhile deputy, Riek Machar, in December 2013 quickly descended into mutual slaughter between Kiir’s Dinka and Machar’s Nuer people.

Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo’s commission of inquiry for the African Union has documented some of the atrocities, including cannibalism, mass rape, torture and wide-scale murder.

But in August last year, under considerable regional and international pressure, the three split factions of the ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) – Kiir’s government, Machar’s SPLM In Opposition (SPLM-IO) and the smaller intermediate faction of dissidents who had not taken up arms (SPLM Former Detainees) – signed a peace agreement brokered by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD).

It provided for a ceasefire and for a Transitional Government of National Unity (TGoNU). Comprising the three SPLM factions and other parties, the TGoNU was to be established within six months and to govern South Sudan for 30 months, preparing the country for elections for a democratic government.

The SPLM factions surprised critics by agreeing to the allocation of cabinet posts

And last week, the signatories surprised critics by sticking to the deadline and agreeing to the allocation of cabinet posts in the TGoNU. Kiir’s faction gets 16 ministries – including the key ones of defence, finance and justice; Machar’s group gets 10, including petroleum and interior; and the SPLM Former Detainees get two – including foreign affairs.

Other political parties also got two cabinet posts, including agriculture, according to the August agreement, even though they had not signed it.

South Africa’s Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa appears to have helped things along. He was in Juba, as President Jacob Zuma’s special envoy, to attend the extraordinary national convention of the SPLM which preceded the allocation of the cabinet posts.

The convention’s main purpose was to incorporate democratic party reforms into the SPLM constitution, designed to dilute the absolute powers of the party chairperson (Kiir), which had been a key cause of the fatal split in the SPLM. These reforms had been accepted by all in the Arusha agreement of January 2015, brokered by South Africa’s African National Congress and Tanzania’s ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi, at the conclusion of a separate party-to-party track of negotiations running parallel to the IGAD process.

The SPLM-IO of Machar and the SPLM Former Detainees had threatened not to attend the convention, because they had not agreed to the timing of it. Machar, for one, did not feel Juba was yet safe enough for him to return. But Ramaphosa persuaded Machar’s chief negotiator, Taban Deng Gai, and Deng Alor of the Former Detainees to attend, and so their factions were represented.

That ‘went well to foster unity and reunification of the SPLM,’ Ramaphosa said in a statement. He went quite a lot further in his address to the convention, enthusing that, ‘we can truly say that indeed the conflict that engulfed the SPLM has today come to an end and the guns of war have now been silenced.’

Was Ramaphosa jumping the gun, so to speak, in consigning this bloody civil war to the history books already? Berouk Mesfin, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Addis Ababa certainly thinks so.

Was Ramaphosa jumping the gun in consigning South Sudan’s civil war to the history books?

He believes that ‘nothing democratic can come out from the current SPLM, which does not have the political will and the capacity to pursue serious and comprehensive political reforms.’ That would require ‘wise and far-sighted leadership and an authentic concern for the well being of the civilian population,’ which the party doesn’t have, he believes.

Mesfin also fears that the mistrust between the Kiir and Machar camps caused by the terrible fighting remains very high, and suggests they have entered this agreement only for what they can extract from it. If these ambitions are frustrated, they could easily resort to force once more. ‘The international community, including South Africa, should lower their expectations,’ he warns.

Other analysts are more optimistic – or perhaps just more guarded. ‘It must be seen as an important achievement and a positive step towards establishing a Transitional Government of National Unity,’ said a Western diplomat close to the process.

Paula Roque, an independent Africa expert, agreed, saying, ‘When there is political will, there is implementation, which bodes well for the long transition ahead for JMEC.’ JMEC is the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission, headed by former Botswana president Festus Mogae, which IGAD established to oversee the implementation of the August agreement. Roque and others, though, are also reserving final judgment until they have had a chance to see the TGoNU actually get up and running and working together.

Riek Machar’s best chance for a comeback is through the peace process

The Western diplomat detected a worrying omen in the way the cabinet posts had been allocated. This seemed to have been a deal done by the three SPLM factions among themselves, rather than according to the precise formula set out in the August agreement. As a result, it seems that other political parties got less important portfolios than they would otherwise have received.

Ramaphosa’s decision to attend the SPLM’s extraordinary national convention was also a little unfortunate, the diplomat said. According to him it reinforced a perception – rightly or wrongly – in the opposition that Ramaphosa favoured Kiir.

He suggested that the difficult economic predicament of the government, and Machar’s failure to win enough support to change the military situation, had created a mutual dependency and need for peace between Kiir and Machar; to the exclusion of other parties. ‘Machar’s best chance for a comeback is therefore through the peace process,’ he said. Mesfin agrees.

Kiir placed a big question mark over his commitment to the August agreement in October, when he departed from it quite radically by unilaterally increasing the number of states in the federation, from 10 to 28. His intentions appear to have been two-fold, analysts have suggested. The first would have been to create more opportunities for patronage, to compensate for the 14 national cabinet posts he had been obliged to surrender to the opposition.

Kiir might have believed that this would help him to mitigate the opposition of the hardliners in government to the power-sharing deal, which the Western diplomat saw as the greatest threat to the deal. In carving up the states, however, Kiir risked jeopardising fiefdoms of state governors, which could provoke insurrections.

Kiir’s second aim in creating 18 more states, as Mesfin suggests, was to give himself an opportunity to gerrymander state boundaries to dilute the power of his arch-rival, Machar.

Will South Sudan’s new government really see power shared in a meaningful way?

Much depends on the JMEC’s Mogae to resolve such issues. This week he encouragingly announced that the parties to the August agreement would meet again to re-negotiate the 28 states. The Western diplomat said that Mogae would also have to be very vigilant in ensuring that other aspects of the agreement were implemented properly; especially the key reforms relating to the re-constitution of the army, accountability, transparency, the constitution, electoral reform and peace and reconciliation.

Part of his concern was that any departure from the agreement could open the TGoNU to legal challenge. Kiir’s unilateral creation of 18 new states evokes a universal question raised by all such power-sharing governments; do they really share power in a meaningful way?

The Zimbabwe precedent of 2009 to 2013 demonstrated that they often do not. President Robert Mugabe held onto all the security portfolios to ensure he conceded no real power to the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). And in those ministries that the MDC ostensibly controlled, Mugabe ensured that Zanu-PF loyalists in key positions undercut the MDC ministers’ authority.

Analysts see some early signs of a similar approach in South Sudan, with indications that Kiir would appoint loyalists to run the national oil company Nilepet – to undercut the petroleum minister to be appointed by Machar. They further note that oil concessions would probably also continue to be issued from the Presidency. That Kiir had recently replaced a lot of police generals, suggested he might also be doing that to undermine whoever Machar appointed as interior minister; a person who would constitutionally be in charge of the police.

The brow-beaten MDC, never up for physical battle, grudgingly submitted to being effectively sidelined in Zimbabwe’s so-called unity government. Machar, with an army at his disposal, might be less willing to do so.

Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

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