National Dialogue with President Kiir as patron will not save South Sudan

Salva Kiir in a gloomy face after a peace talk in Addis Ababa on May 26th, 2014(Photo: file)
Salva Kiir in a gloomy face after a peace talk in Addis Ababa on May 26th, 2014(Photo: file)


27, February 2017 — South Sudan’s peace deal is dead but the government in Juba, the Igad member states and the African Union, think otherwise. This thinking is visible in President Salva Kiir’s latest decree in December convening a National Dialogue hinged on the dead Peace Agreement.

The reality that the August 2015 Peace Agreement is dead couldn’t be more glaring. Conflict continues unabated in several areas in South Sudan.

New armed groups have entered the fray, exacerbating conflict dynamics. Riek Machar, the agreement’s key signatory on the side of the armed opposition, has been forced into exile in South Africa.

The African Union, including Igad, tacitly endorsed this forced exile; member states, South Africa included, have restricted Machar’s free movement. His spokesman, James Gadet, was deported to South Sudan by Kenyan authorities in November and detained.

In the meantime, Taban Deng, formerly the armed opposition’s chief negotiator, has replaced Machar. However, Deng lacks support among troops in the armed opposition and by all accounts is a figurehead.

To be fair, new ideas are needed to revive the dead agreement. The National Dialogue, if genuine, could potentially be helpful.

Over the years, national dialogues have gained popularity as potentially useful platforms for resolving conflicts and establishing political transformation as exemplified in Tunisia and Yemen in 2013-2014.

However, national dialogues can also be tools for elite manipulation and consolidation of power. Last year, a government-chaperoned national dialogue in Sudan, for instance, was notable for its exclusion of the armed opposition, through a series of measures including the absence of a neutral venue.

In the end, the process was akin to a “national monologue,” as the government ended up speaking to itself thorough a clique of proxy political parties

Still, the purported dialogue’s final recommendations proved too prickly for the government. Subsequently, it refused to release the report to the public.

In its history, South Sudan has never held a national dialogue. However, there’s a precedent for the political elite getting together to thrash out differences, dating back to the 1980s. But these elite initiatives were not and cannot be compared to national dialogues, which are normally much broader and inclusive in scope.

Elsewhere in Africa, a crucial factor in the initial success of previous national dialogues, as exemplified in Tunisia, is tied to the fact that the key protagonists deemed the conveners credible.

This is not the case with South Sudan. In what seems to be a typical zero-sum game, President Kiir has declared himself patron of the process, compromising avenues for an impartial discourse.

The National Dialogue Committee assigned to guide the process contains a substantial number of close cronies of the president. Although church leaders will lead the committee, the fact that it is stacked with powerful individuals and institutions that subscribe to the president’s policies has dented confidence in the process.

Also problematic is the proposal to convene the National Dialogue in the capital Juba. Although the government has guaranteed the safety of the armed opposition, there is little reason to trust the regime, especially when security agents have wide-ranging powers of arrest and detention without trial.

The government will probably argue that First Vice President Deng will adequately represent the armed opposition. The issue here is that Deng represents a faction of the armed opposition that is part of the government and subscribes to the pretence that the peace deal is still viable. Also, in the absence of a ceasefire to de-escalate tensions, it will be difficult for civilians who live behind rebel lines to participate in the process.

No date has been selected for the process. Ideally, the National Dialogue should be held in the dry season, which runs from January to April, because that’s when roads across the country are passable and people from different parts can travel easily. But the dry season is also traditionally the season for fighting.

Troops and armour can move easily because waterlogged roads have dried up. To create a conducive atmosphere for dialogue, a ceasefire agreed upon by all protagonists in the conflict needs to be in place.

The timing of the announcement of the national dialogue is also problematic. In December, South Sudan faced intense pressure after the UN warned that genocide could unfold in the country.

At the UN Security Council, a US-sponsored resolution that could slap an arms embargo and targeted sanctions on key members of the regime, was about to be tabled.

These events isolated South Sudan and the government felt pressured to come up with ideas to reconcile communities to thwart the possibility of an ethnic pogrom.

If the National Dialogue process had an altruistic design, this response could have been a genuine and credible move. However, it appears that it was created to deflect international scrutiny and thwart any Security Council resolutions against South Sudan.

For the National Dialogue to be credible, a rethink of the process is required. For starters, the role of the patron should be re-evaluated and independent conveners should lead the process.

Brian Adeba is associate director of policy at the Enough Project.

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