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The Root of South Sudan's Crisis is Constitutional not Ethnic

Any lasting peace deal must bear in mind the political underpinnings of the ongoing violence and dismantle South Sudan's centralised, high-stakes, zero-sum political system.
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South Sudanese police hold hands in camaraderie during celebrations to mark the International Day of Peace, 21 September, 2011. Photograph by UN Photo/Isaac Billy.

Last Friday, President Salva Kiir and former Vice-President Riek Machar signed a peace deal in Addis Ababa, renewing tepid hopes that the crisis in South Sudan will soon draw to a close. The breaking of the ceasefire in the days since the agreement, however, suggests there is still some way to go.

On the one hand, part of this difficulty no doubt arises from ongoing animosity between the country's two largest ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer. The violence, which began last December, has largely occurred along these ethnic lines and has led to the deaths of over 10,000 people and the displacement of over 1 million.

However, on the other hand, it is crucial not to underestimate the political and constitutional underpinnings of the crisis. The power structures in South Sudan, codified in the transitional constitution of 2011, centralises an inordinate amount of power in the office of the President. This ultimately undermines a system of checks and balances and establishes a system of ‘winner-takes-all’ politics. Understanding how this political structure contributed to widespread violence will be necessary if the current fighting is to be halted and prevented from repeating.

Crisis in the constitution

In understanding how the violence began, it is important to note the political situation in South Sudan prior to the crisis. The tensions between Kiir and Machar did not burst forth unannounced, but rather can be traced to the changes to the transitional constitution of South Sudan made in 2011.

Though billed as ‘technical' changes to the 2005 transitional constitution, the revisions were sweeping. The 2005 constitution, developed in light of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, granted significant authority to districts and laid the foundation for a system of federalism following the scheduled referendum. The 2011 changes “rolled back federalism,” according to Kevin L. Cope, a visiting professor at Georgetown Law, and concentrated power in the national government. The reforms, says Cope, gave the president power to “dissolve state councils and dismiss state governors” and to implement emergency provisions under which individual rights can be suspended and the president is able to take “any such measures as deemed necessary.”

Under this centralised system, there is little incentive to compete for state-level government seats. The office of the president, officially vested with the authority to appoint certain members of the legislature and dismiss state-level officials, is the only position worth competing for since control of the executive amounts to control of the entire political system.

In addition to vast political power, there are also significant financial opportunities that come with the presidency. South Sudan is an oil rich country and the revenues from production are highly concentrated at the federal level. 98% of the government’s revenue comes from oil and the federal government is responsible for distributing revenues to the sub-national states. Furthermore, given that that some oil fields are believed to be past peak production and that oil production is expected to decline in coming decades, control is also time-sensitive, increasing the current stakes even more.

A lasting peace

Prior to the outbreak of violence, peaceful attempts at reforming the new 2011 constitution had been made. Machar circulated one such reform agenda calling for term limits for the presidency and for the removal of the clause in the ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement's (SPLM) own constitution that gives its chairperson the power to nominate 5% of members at all levels of the party. This proposal was voted down and Machar was accused of “parallelism” by President Kiir, foreshadowing their impending fallout.

Tensions rose over the next two years as Kiir exercised his right to dismiss politically insubordinate governors, including the Lakes State governor, Chol Tong Mayay, in January 2013. Then, in July of that year, Kiir dismissed his entire cabinet, including Machar. In response, Machar and his allies accused President Kiir of acting extra-judicially and creating a constitutional crisis.

These tensions finally burst forth in December 2013, when clashes between elements of the army erupted into wider instances of violence. Kiir accused Machar of attempting to stage a coup. Machar denied this but amassed a rebel group and clashes spread across many areas of the country. A ceasefire was signed in January, but it was repeatedly violated. Thousands have been killed, the humanitarian crisis has deepened, and because the violence disrupted the planting season the country is now poised to suffer a disastrous famine.

While the international community has been eager to institute a transitional agreement between the two sides of the conflict, it is clear that past deals have done little to establish a sustainable ceasefire. After all, long-term peace in South Sudan will require, amongst other things, an agreement that will alter the environment created by the 2011 constitutional changes. The political underpinnings of the crisis need to be addressed and for an agreement to be sustainable, power will have to decentralised once more, diffusing some of the political competition to the sub-national level. A lasting peace deal must bear in mind the constitutional roots of the ongoing violence and dismantle the current high-stakes, zero-sum political system.

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Comments

South Sudan had the great misfortune of having leaders who fought to end yesterday's tyrants only for them to become the new tyrants - sadly a common tale in Africa!