For those who care for the interest of South Sudanese people, the news that formal negotiations have began in Addis Ababa can only be welcome news! As they say, a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. This is commendable, coming a few days after a stalemate while the situation in South Sudan was deteriorating.
It is my hope that the two negotiating teams will ease their demands in a true spirit of give and take, devoid of trickery and underhand dealings. Early reports from Addis Ababa indicate that the government has refused to heed to any of the demands that have been put forth by the team representing Dr. Riek Machar. Among other demands, they have asked for release for political detainees being held by government forces, withdrawal of Ugandan forces from South Sudan and uplifting of state of emergency which government imposed in the country.
All these latest efforts are good. However, I would like to throw a word of caution to those involved in the South Sudan negotiations. After the post-election violence that erupted in Kenya after the 2007 presidential elections, the international community, via the African Union, came to the rescue of Kenyans. Kenyan political leaders who were fighting for power at that time were forced to the negotiating table. The first item on the agenda was to call for cessation of hostilities. As we speak now, hostilities are still ongoing in South Sudan. That is regrettable.
Anyway, let me not digress. The point I want to make is that in the negotiations for peace in Kenya, we had two political sides that participated in the talks, mid-wived by AU representative Koffi Anan, former UN Secretary General. At the end of the process, one of the recommendations was that leaders should embark on preaching peace and reconciling the whole nation.
Unfortunately, once the politicians got what they wanted i.e. positions of power and influence, they forgot about reconciling the nation. Up to this very day, no one in Kenya has ever stood up and confessed for any wrongs that they did. Neither has the country seen any restitution of property for those who grabbed what was not theirs at the peak of the violence. Unlike the situation in South Africa immediately after the dismantling of apartheid in early 90s, or Rwanda after the genocide in 1994, the Kenyan situation has not achieved any serious reconciliation among communities.
During the 2013 elections in Kenya, two leaders from the two communities that were the most hostile in 2007 came together and the issue of reconciliation of the Kenyan nation has taken a backstage in their engagement. What is clear here is that as long as the politicians are satisfied, then every other person from their community, even those who were directly affected by the violence are assumed to be satisfied. This is a fallacy that should not be allowed to take place during the ongoing peace process in South Sudan.
South Sudan is much bigger than the two major tribes that are reported to be at the centre of the conflict. But more than that, there are many more stakeholders who need to be involved in the peace process other than President Salva Kiir and Dr. Riek Machar. I fully concur with a group of Nuer and Dinka in the Diaspora who over the weekend wrote an open letter to the political leadership of South Sudan, saying “We want you to do what is necessary to heal our wounds, without putting yourselves first”.
From the Kenyan experience, what is clear is that if the politicians are left on their own, they will make deals that only benefit them and their cronies. For now they may claim that they are speaking on behalf of their tribes but nothing is further from the truth. For many of them, it is about their own personal interest. Where is the Church and the civil society to speak for the voiceless and those who not fall in either of the two camps? Who is speaking for the youth, the disabled and other marginalized groups? Who is speaking for the small tribes like the Acholi and the Shilluk?
This is the time to involve all the other parties who also have an interest in the affairs. The South Sudanese themselves know what they want more than even the neighbouring countries and their leaders, some who are coming into the negotiation not with good faith, and whose interest is more economic than long lasting peace and stability in South Sudan.
The time is now to involve all interested parties in the peace process. If the negotiations are left to the politicians alone, they will only come up with self-serving, short-term solutions that only appease them and their local and foreign cronies.