3 December 2012

South Sudan: Isn't It Too Early to Talk Reconciliation in South Sudan?

opinion

Over the last couple of weeks, the Government of South Sudan has been drumming up efforts to chart a new chapter in the country's bitter past. This new chapter is supposedly to be opened through national reconciliation - one that is akin to that of South Africa and Rwanda.

Much of the credit goes to the Vice President, Dr Riek Machar who has been working diligently to start a national healing process - one meant to address the bitterness of the past violence against each other, injustices of tribal establishments and the open chasm that continues to threaten national cohesion. In fact, the Vice President is seen to be the first politician to come out openly and denounced his role in the infamous Bor massacre. Much as the Vice President's gesture received mixed reactions across the country, a lot of commentary viewed his gesture as good leadership on national reconciliation. Now, the Government of South Sudan is looking into something bigger and more powerful: 'Reconciliation'.

So far, this sounds good and definitely something that South Sudan should do at some stage. However, is this the right time to talk reconciliation in our country? I think, it's not. In my view, it's just too early and there isn't enough groundwork to support this 'healing' process. When talking reconciliation, one thing is certain: it is an extremely messy and difficult process - sometimes, the goal of which may be impossible to achieve. The reason for this is that, finding the right measure between justice and healing, retribution, forgiveness - or whatever is the premise of the reconciliation project is a very difficult task. It needs time and resources to support the project and much more than anything else, it needs popular consensus - that the society is ready, willing and able to create a new chapter. This is not the case in South Sudan. There are so many challenges in South Sudan, that talking about national reconciliation is probably a secondary puzzle that people are interested in solving. It is such a risky business at the moment that, instead of healing wounds, talking about national reconciliation is likely to exacerbate bitterness and widen chasm.

Mary Burton, a Commissioner in South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission had this to say: "we know that many South Africans are ready and eager to turn away from a past history of division and discrimination. Guilt for wrong doing needs to be translated into positive commitment to building a better society". It is evinced from Commissioner Burton's statement that people must be willing and eager to turn the tables on the past and must be followed by commitment to build a better society. South Sudan isn't ready and eager to undertake this process and commit to building a better society. At least, the status quo does not justify an argument in contrary.

As long as there are daily incidents of injustice that pervade across our society, no one honest person will be inclined to talk about the past and welcome the future. We need to know that reconciliation is an all-encompassing project. It's not just limited to tribal or sectional problems or political issues. In the present day South Sudan, innocent civilians are brutally beaten and tortured by the security forces and the army for no apparent reason. As long as we do not find ways to ensure that our national security forces treat citizens with respect and dignity, any national discourse on reconciliation is a waste of time. As long as South Sudanese do not have equal access to opportunities and equal employment, a section of our community will always feel unequal and will always bear sentiments of injustice. As long as our people remain embedded in deep poverty, illiteracy and neglect whilst a tiny fraction feasts on the national cake, a sense of injustice will always prevail and tribes will always find scapegoats in each other.

As long as we continue to practise politics of witch-hunt - ostracising some of our brilliant and seasoned politicians because of their political convictions, any attempt to chart a new path in our country will be inadequate and a serious abuse of our resources. Let me take the Vice President as the reference point on this as he is the chief architect in this debate. As recent as few weeks ago in his speech to a South Sudanese community in the US, the Vice President launched a tirade against Dr Lam Akol, a leading opposition figure in South Sudan. The VP unleashed the usual but a very serious rhetoric that Dr Akol is involved with militia groups in South Sudan. This is a grave issue of treason with serious implications that someone of the VP's stature should be cautious in labelling against another politician. It is a matter only within the province of courts to make that call based on credible evidence not on aspersions. Such issues of fear-mongering do not help national healing. First up, we need to know Dr Akol is a person and secondly, a politician who represents a particular constituency, that is South Sudanese. Demonising Dr Akol unnecessarily is tantamount to ostracising his constituency from the national debate - thus, a sense of injustice.

Amongst other things, the VP has also spoken about Kokora - which I understand to bean Equatorian engineered protest against the Dinka and Nuer back in the days of earlier administrations. I must mention a lot of South Sudanese of my generation do not know much about what transpired in that period to inspire this protest but so far as what has been written goes, land issues formed the crust of this event. If that is the case, then the current land issues in Juba will not make it more favourable for reconciliation to take hold. If the government is indeed committed to this cause, then, I'd imagine enacting robust land laws and addressing land grievances should precede any talk of national reconciliation.

Looking at the conditions that helped foster the national healing projects in South Africa and Rwanda, it is clear these two societies had better conditions and institutions on the ground for national reconciliation to take place. In all honesty, South Sudan has a long way to go to establish the right conditions for people to talk about the past, grieve, forgive and proceed with national healing. If the Government of South Sudan, particularly, the Vice President is serious and committed to this important national process rather than some short- term political expediency and opportunism, then we need to address completely or in part, some of the most obvious injustices that our people face every day. Let's not be on the wrong side of history.

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