18 August 2014

South Sudan: The Dilemma of Peace and Accountability

Photo: Human Rigths Watch
A home burns in Malakal, South Sudan

opinion

All we have known is war. From the moment my generation was born our country and our people have fought against a series of enemies who looked to crush the South Sudanese dream of independence.

We joined the SPLA when we were still teenagers and spent decades in the bush fighting to free our nation from oppression and to fulfill our right to a dignified existence and self-determination. We struggled and we endured and after 60 years of civil war we witnessed the birth of our dream - an independent South Sudan.

Beyond the countless challenges that any new born political entity must face, we are in the midst of an especially difficult process of transformation and re-education. We must form a new political discourse, establish core democratic institutions and develop a better level of engagement between our political echelon and the people of South Sudan.

We have also been presented with exceptional infrastructure challenges.

For decades, while living under Sudanese rule, our region was purposefully neglected and only in the past few years, have we been able to think of dedicating resources to the most fundamental projects like road building, schools and hospitals. Yet, perhaps our most critical challenge is pulling together the beautiful mosaic of tribes and ethnicities under one overarching national identity and one dream.

The unfortunate truth about any state building process is that the journey will inevitably be rife with instability. Even the most effective and committed bureaucrats go through a constant learning cycle where new standards and ideas must be implemented and new challenges seem to appear almost daily. This process is completely natural and in the long run, leads to better governance and more effective services.

The problem lies not in the inherent difficulty of the process, but in the ease by which it can be manipulated for personal gain.

In any new country, citizens are asked to trust that the long term benefits of independence will quickly overcome the short term risks.

Rome wasn't built in a day, and building an effective democracy is a process that requires time and patience. The issue becomes all the more tense in an environment where ethnic loyalties are replaced by political identity.

Completely rational decisions to initiate services in a given region can be manipulated by problematic parties to suggest that those behind the decision are attempting to privilege a specific group based on preexisting biases or preferences. While the bulk of these claims are based on nothing more than personal aspirations for power, their impact can be heavy, especially in times of economic uncertainty or wider instability - the exact situation created by the state building process and the transition to democracy.

Recently our country plunged into a vicious, unnecessary civil war that limited the attempts at development we had been witnessing. Ethnic identities were manipulated and exploited and the progress we had worked so hard to achieve was set back by petty politics and power grabs.

Ethnic insecurity is a fatal element in the growing pains of various African nations. The most readily distinguishable political category both for identification and mobilization in the pre-state period was ethnicity and the transition to defining ourselves politically through a wider national sentiment is a process that takes time to strengthen and embed. In order to quell our insecurities political transparency, accountability, peace and justice must be attained and continued efforts to emphasize our shared history and future must be prioritized.

We need to learn to emphasize the question of how we are to be governed rather than constantly asking who is governing us and where that individual comes from. As a country made up of a myriad of peoples, it is imperative that we gather together under the heading of our national identity and agree as a nation how we'd like to be governed.

Inclusivity, participation and social engagement will only strengthen the very foundations of the political identity we are still building.

Over the last 60 years, we've collectively suffered some of the most unbearable and inhumane experiences the world has ever seen, yet we came together and resolved to build a better future. The army defending the people of South Sudan is strong, but what my people truly deserve is a future free of violence. This will be achieved when a balance of power is reached between formal and informal power structures.

The contours of our democratic system must be built to increase public engagement and bring neo-patrimonial practices under public scrutiny giving way to the proper accountability a democratic nation requires.

And yet, for justice to prevail as a permanent value within our society our court of law must be as strong as our army. Wrong doers must be penalized for breaking the laws that are designed to protect all the people of South Sudan. Only this way will the next generation distinguish between nefariousness and nationalism.

Moreover, political competition must become the avenue for airing grievances and we must collectively swear off violence as a means for political advancement. Our diversity makes our nation great and should serve as the foundation for incredible achievements and progress, but it can only do so if we see it within the wider lens of who we are as South Sudanese - diversity, alongside unity must be the pillars of our future.

Col. Aguer is spokesman for the SPLA (the South Sudan army) and a lecturer at the Department of Political Science and the College of Social Studies and Economics at Juba University.

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