On 9 July 2011, three years ago last week, the world joined hands to welcome a new state. A combination of high-level negotiations, persistent lobbying and, sometimes, puffed advocacy, had helped create a new country, aptly named South Sudan.
It seemed like a new dawn. Women, men and children – faces painted in the colours of the new national flag – braced the scorching sun to be part of their country’s history. You could feel the excitement. Even Omar al-Bashir, the President of Sudan, hitherto an adversary, was present.
Good will messages came in from all corners. David Cameron, who was represented by William Hague, said it was “an historic day, for South Sudan and the whole of Africa”. Barack Obama said it was “a reminder that, after the darkness of war, the light of a new dawn is possible”. Women ululated, men jumped up and down in joy, as young boys and girls waved paper flags – all full of hope. It was big news and the story of a new country was on the front page of most newspapers in the world.
How things change. There are many people in the world, including some South Sudanese, who did not even notice that July 9, 2014 marked the country’s third impendence anniversary. I still remember where I was on Friday 9 July 2011. I was up north in beautiful York trying to finish my dissertation. I remember receiving a Facebook poke, followed by a message from one of my fellow students (Sudanese) who was overjoyed at the prospect of an independent South Sudan. He joked that he was thinking about petitioning to change the name to something without the word Sudan in it.
So much can be said about the tragedy that has become South Sudan. It is hard to even believe that since fighting broke out in December last year between loyalists of President Salva Kiir and his rival, former Vice-President Riek Machar, an estimated ten thousand South Sudanese have been killed and over 1.3 million forced to flee their homes. While there remains a multitude of opportunities for the warring parties to get back together and for South Sudan to steady itself, I still believe that the country’s undoing was the general assumption that secession/independence would be the magic wand.
Attaining peace, as we all know, is a complicated process which involves many variables, and players. It might seem surprising to many how a country could suddenly go from the joyful scenes witnessed on that sunny Friday in July 2011 to the disastrous ethnic killings of the last few months.
The South Sudan experience has cast doubt on the argument for independence-driven self-determination. It begs the question: is secession the answer to solving protracted conflicts? Is there anything flawed with self-determination as we know it? Last year, I was at a talk about the situation in eastern DRC, organised by the Royal African Society, at the time when the UN group of experts had released a report accusing Rwanda of arming and supporting the M23. One of the speakers (a Rwandan) infamously suggested that eastern DRC should be annexed to Rwanda. Her comments irked the many Congolese present, so much so that the event had to be cancelled for hers and everyone’s safety. It seems to me that while the right to self-determination is a core principle of international law and enshrined in a number of international treaties, its application vis-à-vis the process of building peace (not peacebuilding) remains contentious. And this is not least because the likes of South Sudan have created drastic precedents, but also because it negates the fact that there are many variables in the peace maze and separation will not always necessarily translate into peaceful co-existence.
I’m not an expert, but I clearly believe that while it might be understandable for the sake of peace and nation-building to ignore and incorporate adversaries (including spoilers), for peace to work, and particularly so in young states, there has to be a way of ensuring that impunity is not condoned, and that wrongdoers – however powerful or well-connected – are held to account for their actions.
There are of course so many factors that could help explain South Sudan’s current mess, including for example, as my colleague Jo Robinson said to me, the lack of a collective, national identity, or the fact that the international community, which the new state relied so much upon financially in the lead up to independence, has since gotten tired of providing endless financial support. But it also cannot be denied that one difficult truth could be the fact that the major players in the country are corrupt monomaniacs putting self-interest ahead of state unity. I’m pretty sure that President Bashir does occasionally look south and giggle.
Long live South Sudan – if only!