BY: Tongun Lo Loyuong, SWEDEN, NOV. 30/2012, SSN;
In recent days, there is much discussion about a ‘first-ever comprehensive peace and national reconciliation conference’ to be convened in South Sudan in April 2013 (Sudan Tribune, August 24, 2012). Credit is due to those who have finally picked up on this long overdue but integral exercise to the service of sustainable peace in South Sudan.
To be sure, there is no peaceful transition where atrocities and egregious human rights violations have been committed against a political community, or in countries transitioning from authoritarian regimes, without transitional justice and redressing the past. In light of this, the imperative question is: how to redress the violent past in South Sudan?
While addressing the significance of a national reconciliation, both President Salva Kiir and Vice-president Dr. Riek Machar pointed to trauma as the reason behind organizing this event. For them, South Sudanese are still waging wars in their minds as a result of trauma caused by decades of violent conflicts in Sudan. The President is even reported to have cited himself as leading the pack of the traumatized South Sudanese. “Even me I need people to come around me and talk to me,” acknowledged our “social” President (Sudan Tribune November 28, 2012).
The Vice-president on the other hand, appealed for the acknowledgment of the past to right the current wrongs, which he attributed to popular trauma in South Sudan. “People should accept the past even if not necessarily forgetting it and come to terms with it,” the Vice-president is quoted as saying (Sudan Tribune, August 24, 2012).
Consequently, it is not far-fetched to suggest that both the President and his Vice are appealing for psychological counseling and help. They see a national reconciliation process as presumably the remedy for the popular trauma and alleged warfare in the minds of South Sudanese and the overall violence in the country.
However, though one of the rarest commendable moments during their more than seven years of dark tenure in the first and second offices respectively, what Kiir and his Vice do not seem to be informed about is that there is much to a reconciliation practice than simply accepting the gloomy past, or merely addressing individual incidences of trauma, as important as these may be.
In addition to uncovering and acknowledging the truth about past political atrocities to bring healing and closure to an atrocious history, first of all, reconciliation is primarily a democratic project, which must be calibrated with other equally important democracy-building issues. This must entail issuing reciprocated public apologies by our political leaders involved in previous human rights infringements and meting out of political injustices and violence against those perceived as political opponents.
Then there must be visible respect for freedom of expression without physical suppression or intimidation, while the rule of law and the constitution must be upheld through impartial law enforcement on all. Furthermore, human rights and human dignity must be safeguarded, just to mention few examples none of which are seen to be practiced in South Sudan at the moment.
In other terms, the current rampant attempts to silent critics through physical coercion, and the violation of the rule of law and the constitution through rigorous practice of arbitrary and indefinite detention without pressing charges and without due process, as well as intimidating, eliminating or isolating political opponents, civil society leaders and human rights activistS, cannot be reconciled with a reconciliation exercise.
The two practices are diametrically opposed, and therefore, any discussion of the latter must be preceded by the undoing of the former.
In order for reconciliation to be a genuine, effective and meaningful effort, therefore, opposition political leaders like Peter Sule who is regarded as one of the heroes and early advocates of South Sudan’s separation must not be punished by being arbitrarily thrown in prison without charges or due process for more than one year running but be rewarded for his contribution to the independence of South Sudan. He must be immediately released or conversely prosecuted, if he has violated the law.
Others like Dr. Lam Akol must not continue to be held in political pariah in the confines of South Sudan nemesis up north, because certainly this will not serve the interest of South Sudan. Instead, he must be invited for a genuine political dialogue to examine what role he can play in promoting peace and building our nascent nation-state. After all, like it or hate it, the man is revered in his community, and is hailed as a hero by some South Sudanese.
Likewise, the grievances of the David Yau Yaus and co, whether legitimate or not must not be easily dismissed, and useless and more costly attempts be made to crush him militarily, because this only leads to violent escalation and civilian suffering. Moreover, as the history of the north-south civil wars and indeed most incidences of civil wars across the world suggest, it is impossible to crush an armed dissent that boasts popular support militarily.
If this were possible, the north-south conflict in itself would have been settled through a decisive military victory probably in favor of Khartoum’s military might. But despite its fire power, Khartoum was not able to bend the will of South Sudanese from wanting to be free through physical coercion.
As result, a negotiated peaceful settlement in the shape of the CPA came to be the only viable solution to resolve the conflict, as ill-fated and counterproductive as this agreement may be.
It is therefore incumbent upon the political leaders of South Sudan to pursue a different policy of peaceful negotiation rather than armed confrontation to address the grievances and end the violence perpetrated by armed groups in South Sudan, if a reconciliation exercise is to be a meaningful one.
In short, forgiveness or amnesty is another ethical practice of a genuine reconciliation attempt aimed at healing public trauma to ensure closure to atrocious episode of a violent political past.
The President is, therefore, advised to extend amnesty to all his political opponents, before the hosting of the national reconciliation conference, if this is to be a holistic and a political turning point event in his negative legacy thus far.
Second, as a democratic project a reconciliation exercise must equally entail reparation mainly paid to the victims or relatives of the victims of past political violence in the event that the victims are deceased. But in South Sudan, everybody bears the scars of the past or has lost someone as a result of past political violence. We are all victims, though some of us might be perpetrators. As victims of violence, marginalization and unmet expectations, we all need reparations.
A more assured and cost efficient way of distributing reparations in South Sudan is by providing access to existential livelihoods through effective social and economic service delivery. Widows and orphans who are directly affected by past political violence must be given priority in having access to social and economic benefits as reparations for their lost.
But ultimately, more schools need to be built and quality education provided to the South Sudanese victims of marginalization, impoverishment and underdevelopment in an effort to secure the future of the children of those who have been less fortunate over the course of the north-south divide. Public hospitals must be rapidly erected and multiplied, and affordable life-saving health services must be made available to the general public.
If our ruling elite do not go to our hospitals that means our hospitals are not good enough, and therefore must be improved. After all, the political leadership is voted in the public office to serve the public by enhancing the quality of life; they were not sent to the parliament and the ministries to serve and enrich themselves at the expense of the general public.
Effective service provision is, therefore, long overdue.
Roads must be urgently constructed to connect major towns and ease mobility and trade. Employment opportunities must be made possible on the basis of credentials and competence, and not on the basis of clientele and kinship relations. Indeed I have met people with master’s level qualification for a position at the ministry of foreign affairs, for example, but who have been turned down, because they do not hail from the right tribe or know the right patron.
This policy must end immediately, because it is not in the service of state and nation-building or peace-building and reconciliation for that matter.
In short, there is no reconciliation without reparations and addressing existential issues through effective service delivery and social and economic development, which effectively means there is no place for nepotism, corruption and misappropriation of public funds. The chorus of zero tolerance to these practices must be enacted in practice before there can be any genuine discussions of reconciliation in South Sudan.
Reconciliation simply put is administering justice in all its forms, to restore right relationships in a society.
Lastly, following the acknowledgment, apology, forgiveness, and reparation, a reconciliation exercise cannot be complete without building memorials for those lost during past political violence. Simple gestures of naming roads and bridges after the victims can go a long way to bringing the atrocious past to a closure, leading to healing and restoration of dignity and civic rights of the aggrieved.
In all this, however, it is important to point out that reconciliation is not guaranteed to happen, because it still remains an individual choice, which must be respected. What can be guaranteed is that the politics of reconciliation is the morally right thing to practice in South Sudan if sustainable peace is to prevail in this country that has known little but violent conflicts.
Regardless of the consequences and the differing premises on the importance of reconciliation in South Sudan, what is important is that at long last two of the most powerful individuals in the country have now simultaneously acknowledged that a national reconciliation effort is integral to a peaceful transition in South Sudan.
The discourse on reconciliation between South Sudanese is always a re-assuring conversation that provides a glimmer of hope that reconciliation is being rightly perceived as one of the pillars upon which a peaceful and prosperous nation can be built following a major violent political transition.
However, this initiative can only generate the intended effect, namely healing, closure, and a sense of national unity and cohesion between the diverse tribes of South Sudan, if it is perceived as a democratic project, intricately linked to other issues of good governance. Without this, the touted comprehensive national reconciliation project is as good as dead even before it is born.
The author of this article is a South Sudanese currently residing in Stockholm, Sweden, and is reachable at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Disclaimer: The views expressed above are those of the author and not of the website)