It’s far too easy to say the events of recent days were entirely predictable. And a touch self-serving for those who have. For while the structural issues are well documented, nobody foresaw that a political ‘battle’ (oh, how the language of warfare has been bandied about in civilian politics) would become a tank battle on the streets of Juba.
But now that the initial shock begins to pass, and even if no one really knows what will happen next, that will not stop the usual broad predictions from being made: ‘tribal’ violence; civil war; state failure. And the usual policy prescriptions: send in an external mediator, deploy envoys and foreign ministers, pressure Salva and Riek and their allies to show restraint.
Since no one can claim to have conclusive insight into the current thinking of the president or his erstwhile veep, it’s hard to say when such prescriptions will work, or whether they will have sufficiently lasting effect. Neither Salva nor Riek wants to be blamed for the crisis, but how that affects their ability or desire to accommodate the other is undetermined. Having set in train motion events they can no longer fully control, even a reasonable political settlement will not undo all the damage. But there are implications beyond elite SPLM/SPLA politics, important as those politics may be. Other questions we should recall:
1. To your average citizen, is South Sudanese national identity meaningless without power? (Jok Madut Jok has written extensively on the question of the construction of national identity in South Sudan (e.g. USIP, 2011), work that desperately need to be re-read by South Sudan’s leadership. Envoys, when you visit Juba, please take copies with you for distribution.) Current events may reinforce, rather than discourage, the perspective that power is to be monopolised rather than diffused, and that individuals are members of ethnic groups first, and citizens only a distant second or third. It is not hopeless: I am reminded of happier days during the South Sudan Chiefs’ Tour of 2006, where sworn historical enemies found that, after all, they did have more in common than in what separated them.
2. If you’re from Pibor or Akobo (or any other place in South Sudan affected by conflict), what do you think of the current violence? Do you see it as a deviation from your experience of interactions with the state and with authority, or business as usual? Is it spectacular only because in Juba there are buildings to destroy and economic activity to disrupt, whereas you have nothing to lose except your life? Do you see politicians as a threat rather than an asset? Do you hope the state remains distant?
3. What consequences will spreading or renewed violence have for the economy beyond oil? One difference between the South Sudan of today and the southern Sudan of the civil war era is today’s possibility and opportunity for economic production. I’m sure the sponsors of the recent investment conference are furious at the setback. Can South Sudan show that it has a future outside of extractive industries? Oil companies will always come, no matter whether there is conflict. But diversification is a riskier business. Picture the hesitation on the part of new investors.
4. If you work for UNMISS, have you learned from peacekeeping failures in Abyei and Pibor? Will you demonstrate that your mandate means something when it comes to civilian protection? Or will future analysis consider that, on this front, you were little better than UNAMID?