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South Sudan and the African curse

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 PHOTO: AFP/JUSTIN LYNCH

PHOTO: AFP/JUSTIN LYNCH

Is this what they call the African curse? It has the acrid smell of it. What is going on in the Republic of South Sudan seems typical of the African curse. South Sudan is less than five years old as an independent nation. It is young enough to pursue its dreams with renewed hope and vigour. If its oil and other resources are exploited it should be rich enough to prevent itself from falling through the hole to the state of a deprived and struggling nation.

The Republic of South Sudan is grappling with the curse of a potentially rich but actually poor and wretched nation. It is perhaps the least developed country in the world today with, you would hardly believe it, only 35 miles of tarred roads; only 15 per cent of its population have mobile phones. The challenges facing the new nation are stark. Why do its leaders abandon taking on these critical challenges of its under-development and choose instead to turn their individual into cause of killing their own people?

To answer that question and put the matter in perspective, let us begin this from the beginning. The Republic of South Sudan had a most traumatic experience in its struggle to decouple itself from the Arab north. The world supported its struggle as just and fair. Self-determination is part of the rights of a people – race or tribe.

Khartoum would not let the south go easily. It took 20 years of a brutal civil war, the longest on the continent, and numerous interventionist peace talks for the Sudanese government to accept the inevitable and let go. By the time the civil war ended in 2005, following an agreement that surprisingly held with the Sudanese government, it had taken 1.5 million people down into their graves. Another four million people were displaced and became refugees in their country. Many of them are still roaming the country, in search of food and shelter.

The people of South Sudan finally got their wish on July 9, 2011. Khartoum respected their decision not to be part of the Arab Sudan any longer. The birth of the Republic of South Sudan raised great hopes of a great, new and positive beginning among Africans. The newest country in the world was set to gradually rise from the ashes of its 20 years of harrowing and devastating civil war. The people and their leaders were about to begin the challenging task of rebuilding their new but devastated and impoverished country. Sadly, the fond dreams and the equally fond wishes soon turned into a nightmare in a continent inured to nightmares. It is the African curse. Unknown to us, it had already afflicted the country.

Only two years after independence, the Republic of South Sudan began the progressive squandering of its goodwill. President Salva Kiir Mayardiit, who was in the trenches and shared the trauma of the near death experiences of guerrilla warfare in the struggle for the independence of his country and the freedom of its people and his vice-president, Riek Machar, suddenly found that each had a throat that invited someone to garrotte it.

Kiir did what many an African president before him did to secure their position and turn themselves into dictators. He triggered the crisis when he sacked Vice-President Machar and his entire cabinet in 2013. He accused Machar of plotting a coup against him. Sounds familiar? Obviously. The immediate response to his action was the inevitable shooting war between the two sides, one labelled government forces and the other, rebels. Machar fled for dear life. Machar, of course, is an ambitious man. He too wants to be president. He once split the ruling party, SPLM, into two factions. It might have been pragmatic politics to bring the two men together as president and vice-president but there are numerous examples to show that placing two captains in one ship has always created smooth sailing problems for the ship.

The Republic of South Sudan has hardly known peace since independence. Each day makes it another metaphor in a continent loaded with ugly metaphors of hopes raised and hopes dashed on the rocks of naked ambition and venality. The promises of independence are being squandered by the president and his vice-president. They are engaged in the kind of struggle familiar to all of us – the big man’s right to be the big man. The Arabs to the north must be chuckling. You cannot blame them. The Republic of South Sudan replicates the lot of various republics on the continent.

The war might escalate into another civil war. It has so far driven 2.2 million people from their homes; more than 100,000 others have been killed. Kiir and Machar are surely not so hard hearted as to relish these needless killings and the further devastation of their country. Kiir must know that he bears the greater responsibility for peace in his country.

Dr John Garang must be turning in his grave. Poor man. The American trained economist formed and led the independence movement. His sun suddenly went west when he was killed in a helicopter crash in mysterious circumstances. There is no way we would know if he would behave differently as president but I am sure, he would never have dreamed of turning the dreams and hopes they expected independence to bring them into a nightmare. This was not what fought for and for which he paid the supreme sacrifice.

The Republic of South Sudan is a big country. It is about the size of Texas in the United States with a small population of only 7.5 million. It is rich in natural resources. The Nile valley aids its agriculture and animal husbandry. It has crude oil. Crude oil, like the devil, wears Prada. Wherever political ambition turns into a naked pursuit, look closely and you are likely to find the so-called black gold as the culprit.

Crude oil and tribes are always a combustible mix in Africa. We need not pretend that South Sudan is different. There are ten ethnic groups in the country, much fewer than what you might find in Adamawa State. The two major tribes are the Dinka and the Nuer. Kiir is Dinka and Machar is Nuer. As it is in our country, politics being a game of numbers, the two big tribes have cornered the country’s political power. No smaller tribe has challenged them. So, why does Kiir want to grab all the power and push out Machar into the political wilderness?

Easy to guess. Petrol-dollars are beginning to pour in through the barrels of crude oil. He knows from the experience of his fellow African leaders presiding over the wealth from petro-dollars that one hand in the public till is safer than two. He wants to chop alone with his family and cronies. Few men resist the temptation to enrich themselves at the expense of their country and people. At least, there are not many examples of such angelic men in Africa.

What is going in the Republic of South Sudan is a shame on all of us Africans. African leaders watch and mouth guarded condemnation of what is going on. These will not silence the bazookas or turn Kiir away from the obvious path of self-destruction. What is in the African gene that makes our leaders cave in so easily to the lure of power and the lure of lucre? Greed? Venality? No prize for the right answer.

The UN is trying hard to save the situation. It has a 7,500 strong peace keeping force in the country. It is asking for more. The odds against it are frightening. Aid agencies are battling to stave off the looming famine. This is a country that has known hunger for more than a generation. The war would surely compound the valiant efforts by the aid agencies to feed the nation. The challenge of rescuing this unfortunate new nation from the clutches of the African curse is complex and complicated. No one should expect a quick fix. Guns are every where in the country. Anyone can grab one and turn himself into a tribal war lord, possibly at the head of a rag-tag militia.

More harrowing still, the killings have degenerated into ethnic slaughter. When other tribes turn into enemies, the mess befuddles the mind. Machar’s forces control Bentiu, capital of Unity State from which crude oil flows. You can see why it would be naïve to expect a quick fix even if another interventionist peace talk silences the bazookas. It is awfully sad that one more African country finds itself afflicted with the African curse.

Weep for Africa, brother.


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