With the formation of the transitional government of national unity (TGoNU) there is growing optimism and genuine celebration across most sections of South Sudanese society – both at home and in the diaspora.
Witnessing the former enemies, taking their oath of office in our capital, has made the prospect of an end to the war, and a return to some semblance of normality seem much more real. In our elation, we forget, ever so briefly, that this milestone, though important, is nothing more than a stage in a long and difficult process. A process that promises to be both fractious and duplicitous in equal measure, if past form is to be taken into account.
A recent example is the expulsion of Aly Varjee for what appear to have been spurious reasons. Mr Varjee, had served as a senior researcher at the Rift Valley Institute before joining the secretariat of the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC) tasked with overseeing the implementation of the peace agreement and the conduct of the transitional government. In a terrible indictment of the poisonous atmosphere in Juba, diplomats present at the time, who were joined in their protest by Festus Mogae, the chair of JMEC, reportedly formed a human chain around Mr. Varjee, to prevent security officials from apprehending him at the JMEC offices. This challenge to the authority of JMEC brings with it ominous warnings for the future behaviour of elements of the transitional government.
But for now, we choose to ignore this inconvenient truth. We drain ourselves of negativity and actively drown out the voices of those ever-present naysayers in an unplanned but effective exercise in self-censorship and restraint. Conscious of the fragility of it all, it is we citizens who have, this time, drawn our own red line and that red line screams out: “Let us give peace a chance.”
But this self-imposed myopia will be short lived. The harsh reality on the ground for most South Sudanese demands an immediate improvement in circumstances. But cash strapped as it is, a newly formed government, which hasn’t yet figured out how it can work with itself, will struggle to deliver meaningful change for quite some time to come. This reality brings little comfort for those suffering under the weight of economic collapse. According to the World Bank, 13.8% of the population (over 1 million citizens) have fallen into poverty since the outbreak of the war and those already in poverty have experienced a significant worsening of their situation. Only last week, 61 doctors at Juba Teaching Hospital dropped tools and went on strike in protest over unpaid salaries and dire working conditions. It should come as no surprise that one of the first actions of the TGoNU was to issue a fresh appeal for financial assistance from the international community.
In a separate move, the United States government had declared that it would release an additional $86 million in humanitarian assistance. The move is welcome, because of those who will most benefit from it. They are the displaced and the food insecure, living in the most troubled of regions. This relief might well be perceived by them as a dividend and thereby re-inforce the peace process.
And the peace process will need as much support as it can get. Despite the great and levelling economic crisis that has touched all but the most insulated and privileged members of our society, several deeply divisive political issues remain to be resolved. Chief among these is the challenge presented by Establishment Order Number 36/2015 AD, whereby the previous government carved out 28 states from the former 10. South Sudan watchers will remember that the peace process was almost derailed over this issue. It took the combined efforts of JMEC, regional stakeholders and the international community to cajole and threaten the parties back to the table.
But these herculean efforts only further delayed an already long overdue resolution. The borders of some of these new states are very contentious. And it remains to be seen how an additional 18 states can be financed without significant degradation in service delivery to their constituents. Their introduction has polarised the nation along ethnic lines, and those, either for or against the establishment order, appear to be deeply entrenched in their positions. Whether the TGoNU has the will or the aptitude to reach a consensus remains to be seen. The stakes could not be higher. Social media, so often an indicator of local sentiment, is awash with dark and threatening language from both sides on the matter.
But there remains room for some optimism. The apparent reconciliation of high profile political and military personalities, who only months earlier had sought each other’s deaths, brings hope that reconciliation can be achieved at the grassroots. President Kiir’s apology at Riek Machar’s swearing in ceremony, made to the people of South Sudan “for the situation we the leaders have created” is a welcome sign of self-reproach. The release of political detainees, including Former Governor Joseph Bakosoro and Dr Leonzio Angole Onek, Dean at the University of Juba, along with many others, is an encouraging move that re-enforces the sense of change in direction.
The President went on to ask that we citizens continue to “endure” our leaders. For the sake of peace, and in the hope that the disastrous civil war has knocked some sense into them all, I shall do as asked for now. After all, optimism is all we have left. We know too well the terrible alternative. And so I cautiously welcome developments and hope they usher in a peace for our time.