South Sudan is in turmoil. Most of it self-inflicted through incompetence, corruption, tribalism, nepotism and intolerance of its leaders.
On December 3rd, 2013, South Sudanese President, Salva Kiir Mayardit, sensationally claimed that he had quashed a coup attempt by his former Vice-President Dr. Riek Machar, when many knew that Kiir was only trying to consolidate his iron hold on power ahead of what many South Sudanese expected to be a remarkable ruling party leadership convention a few days away.
South Sudan has had a troubled history. When it eventually won her independence in 2011 after decades of a withering and devastating liberation war, many South Sudanese breathed a sigh of relief and exuberantly hoped that their country would provide them with basic social services that they have lacked for centuries.
However, installed in Juba in 2011 was a thoroughly incompetent and corrupt group of former guerrillas with little, if any, democratic credentials.
All they had was military experience. They had been suddenly thrust into top leadership of a new state in a modern, technologically advanced world five years before under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. They were like crawling kids on a canvas. They were most likely going to hurt themselves and cause a mess.
What I saw when I attended the South Sudan independence inauguration on July 9, 2011 was a ragtag, weather-beaten, weary and hungry former guerrilla leaders wearing pinstriped suites.
Although the inauguration had been planned for a long period of time, they hadn’t even constructed a mini-stadium for the event in the five years they had been in power under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.
Not had they thought of hiring a large tent for the occasion if they couldn’t construct a stadium. The event was embarrassingly held at the Dr. John Garang de Mabior Mausoleum.
And as we waited for hours for the sombre occasion to begin, virtually all the former SPLA/SPLM guerrillas arrived in brand new air-conditioned Mercedes and MBW 4x4 vehicles. I was stunned by this unnecessary opulence and obvious misuse of public and donor funds.
Some of the main guests like the South African, Nigerian and Sudanese presidents arrived in Toyota Land Cruisers, which were more appropriate for the weather, the topography and the state of the road infrastructure. In fact, there was only one paved and tarmacked road from the airport to the Mausoleum.
The protocol was chaotic. The hosts hadn’t stationed welcoming teams like ushers for invited guests at the airport. There were no customs or immigration desks for travellers to be processed through.
Getting out of the plane was a challenge as planes were taxing on the same runways that alighting and boarding passengers were using. I was pleasantly surprised that there were no fatalities during the occasion.
There were no welcoming teams at the Dr. John Garang Mausoleum, either. Many foreign guests ended up siting in the harsh sun on the grass and paved sidewalks at the Mausoleum. Even former President Moi sat with us on the pavement in the hot sun.
Nigerian President Jonathan and South African Jacob Zuma had to fight their way to a small place reserved for heads of states and governments upstairs in the Mausoleum. Zuma’s bodyguards comically engaged Kiir’s bodyguards in a bad display of pushing and shoving up the stairs as we watched.
Apparently, Kiir’s bodyguards felt that that only Kiir and his cabinet should have been permitted to sit upstairs at a place reserved for the VIP. Many feared that a fire fight could breakout.
There were no printed programs. When the sun became unbearable and many of us were nearly dying of dehydration, some South Sudanese wearing “VIP Usher Badges” started distributing bottled water.
However, to our utter amazement – and contrary to our expectations of African hospitality - the bottled water was only given to fellow South Sudanese. Invited guests tried to catch their eyes to no avail.
There was a huge white tent behind the Mausoleum, which was reserved for VIP lunch after the event. Surprisingly, the place was being run by the Ethiopian wife of a South Sudanese cabinet minister.
All the waiters, cooks and servers inside that tent were Ethiopian. When we inquired why, we were shocked to learn, from a South Sudanese, that South Sudanese don’t like working.
I took that to mean that they prefer to do white collar jobs. Ironically, most South Sudanese don’t possess academic qualifications and experience that can make them useful in the available ‘white collar jobs.’ In any event, a country must have people participating in all the required endeavours.
There must be those engaged in agricultural production, factory workers, teachers, cleaners, nurses, technicians and physicians, et cetera. A country must have construction workers, drivers and toilet cleaners as much as it also needs professors and other professionals.
But what astounded me most profoundly, apart from the protocol chaos and the absence of even a small stadium for the occasion, were three things.
First, there were no acknowledgements, even from President Salvar Kiir, of regional leaders like Moi who had played pivotal roles in their independence.
No mentions and no opportunity to address the gathering. A leadership that could suffer such amnesiac attack at independence couldn’t remember its promises to its own people, I remember thinking that day.
Second, apart from a cursory mention of Dr. John Garang de Mabior, the SPLM/SPLA leader from 1983 to 2005, the new South Sudan leadership had all but forgotten him completely.
Even though the most solemn and significant event was being held at his mausoleum, no South Sudanese leader of note paid tribute to him.
His widow, Rebecca Garang, who was seated with other heads of government upstairs, was barely mentioned, too, even though at the time, she held the lofty but meaningless title of “Advisor to the President of South Sudan.”
Thirdly, when Kiir stood up and read what he said was the complete text of the South Sudan draft Constitution, there was no mention of the term limit for the president; no mention of when democratic elections would held; no outline of any values and vision for the new country; and clearly nothing said about a roadmap towards the ratification of the country’s permanent constitution. It was as if we were attending a coronation of a President for Life!
I remember mentioning to members of our delegation on our way back that the event was a huge disappointment. I could detect the new leadership’s main agenda was consolidation of power and self-enrichment.
And now, as we mourn the cascading and spiralling of the evolving political crisis, we must demand a few things of the regional and international leaders who are currently intervening.
First, those involved in trying to resolve the crisis must remember that only neutral and professional mediation will succeed. Partisan meddling and power games will not do.
For a mediation exercise to be both credible and legitimate, it must be conducted transparently by a neutral without any bias or interest in the outcome.
A mediation exercise that starts by prescribing outcomes or taking sides in what is clearly an internal political power struggle within the SPLM/SPLA can never be considered legitimate.
Second, it is imperative that the South Sudanese government creates an environment that allows free, fair and democratic competition and elections within the SPLM/SPLA and the country at large.
Everyone should be allowed to participate. Free, fair, transparent elections premised on secret ballot must be the basis of choosing leaders; not tribal considerations. We must encourage the South Sudanese to choose leaders based on their tested record, competence and integrity; not tribal loyalties.
Third, the South Sudan government needs to initiate and conclude a process that will quickly result in the enactment of a new, democratic constitution with term limits on its presidents and checks and balances on its institutions of governance.
Without these, South Sudan will break down into a civil war and the long suffering people will never realise their independence dreams.
We cannot allow that to happen!
Miguna Miguna is a lawyer and author of Peeling Back the Mask: A Quest for Justice in Kenya and Kidneys for the King: Deforming the Status Quo in Kenya.