Power Sharing: A Panacea for South Sudan?

Published on 7th January 2014

Machar and Kiir in happier days
As the delegations representing the competing sides in the ongoing South Sudan commence their business to negotiate an agreement which will hopefully put an end to the ongoing crisis, a few voices have suggested that a negotiated settlement in the form of a power sharing agreement or a consociational government ranks among the top in best case scenarios. I disagree. While that has been the favoured option in many countries in Africa, the latest being Kenya and Zimbabwe, some caution is needed in the case of South Sudan. The context is not just different, it is also arguably true that many of the recent coalitions governments in Africa, have, at best, returned the countries to where they were before, and at worst, been used by the leading coalition partner to solidify his grip on power in order to avoid any contested outcomes in subsequent elections.

A favoured response to political crisis and civil war, consociational governments (sometimes referred to as government of National Unity or Coalition government) have taken many forms in Africa. One can certainly recall the transitional forms of governments in post-civil war Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, and lately Somalia; as well as post-genocide Rwanda. In many cases, these have led to versions of ‘democratic elections’ and winner-take-all postures. In other cases, power-sharing regimes have been more of transitions to separation rather than unity. This is where South Sudan was before the referendum. In the case of Kenya and Zimbabwe, a consociational government followed disputed, or more specifically, badly handled elections. This is where politicians decide to put faith on each other rather than the democratic process they created. Analytically, one can argue that South Sudan falls in two of the three scenarios - disputed SPLM internal leadership processes and a possible end to the ongoing civil war. Yet, it is also true that contextually South Sudan is different, and in this case, offers a lesson on the need to rethink this animal called coalition government as a way out of political crisis in Africa. Four main assumptions inform this opinion. 

Firstly, calls for, and operationalization of consociational governments operate from the premise that the divided and intransigent political class at the top and an ethnically polarized and violent mass from below have strong vertical correlation along clan/ethnic, religious, military and, in rare cases, political party and ideological lines. Put differently, there is an assumption that the political class and their masses tightly share common interests and grievances. To a larger extent, this belief can be conceptually misleading and practically dangerous when relied upon as a basis for crafting power-sharing agreements to end political crisis. Politicians do not absolutely and unilaterally own the masses. In Kenya for example, the Luo, Kalenjin and Kikuyu communities are not Raila Odinga’s, William Ruto’s or Mwai Kibaki/Uhuru Kenyatta’s earthly possessions in absolute terms. Politicians only provide avenues through which countless, diverse and contradictory forms of grievances among the citizenry are raised and hopefully settled. It is, therefore, inconceivable to assume that an agreement among the political elite translates into a process of addressing the grievances of the masses. At best, it may reduce the crisis but cannot be the frame for addressing structural causes.

A second assumption lies in how political crisis, such as the case of South Sudan, are conceived and interpreted. They are largely understood as, in the words of Nassim Taleb, Black Swans: Events that are largely outliers (not expected to occur). When they do occur, it becomes a crisis that is almost unmanageable. But then when experts start commenting about them, it is always a case of retrospective predictability. Indeed, for many, the post-election violence in Kenya was inconceivable. How could an island of peace descend into such level of chaos? In the case of Rwanda, popular arguments about the genocide present an image of some ghostly invasion in the middle of the night. When political crisis is treated as an outlier, there is a tendency to forget its historical construction and, instead, choose to deal with it as a here and now problem, an instanter. When deployed in crafting power sharing agreements, the focus falls upon the proximate causes of the crisis, and somehow belatedly, a few lines are thrown here and there on the need to continue discussion on the structural causes. The parties are then left to interpret the agreement on their own terms and interests. The historical complexity of the problem, the multiplicities of the causes and exacerbating factors, the external influences, the internal ambiguities, and contradictions are all suspended in favour of an agreement to end the violence.

Thirdly, there is an assumption that resolving the crisis can be put on a timescale. Here, the concept of time is manipulated in very interesting ways. The negotiating team has less time to agree, but will probably be given all the time they need to implement the agreement and iron out contentious areas. When the end of the violence is tied to the progress of the talks, the result is a coalition government with huge and disparate agendas.

Finally, there is an assumption that the process brings together bitter enemies and sometimes adversaries. A consociational government, therefore, represents a huge victory, almost unthinkable in such a context. But, as many know, conflicts are between groups who know each other very well. It is an expression of a particular form of relationship in given contexts. As such, it is possible that they can even predict the agreement. They are, therefore, unlikely to treat the outcome with the same zeal, respect, and constructive engagement imagined by those who celebrate it. A consociational government is more likely to return them to their familiar territories, where they will start the feuds again.

If you square these assumptions in the round but also hugely complex context of South Sudan, then you are less likely to favour a power-sharing agreement as an outcome from Addis Ababa, more so one that is led by President Kiir and Dr. Machar. Currently, Dr. Machar is speaking the language of democracy in the SPLM party, but I wonder whether his supporters are committed to the fight for the same reasons. President Kiir termed the crisis as a coup. However, it is also possible that his troops are fighting for a course larger than, or even different from, dealing with mutineers. Similarly, a power-sharing agreement may not fulfill the wishes of the supporters on ethnic terms, i.e. by having one of their own in power. The grievances are structural, built through history, mutating on social and political axis and are indeed larger than President Salva Kiir's or Dr. Riek Machar’s current political calculations. As such, they cannot be put on some time scale, and must therefore be taken as a process.

The biggest opportunity that South Sudan has on the current crisis lies in the fact that President Salva Kiir and Dr. Riek Machar know each other very well. And on this, I want to be radical in my proposal. I suggest that rather than becoming the midwives of a new form of democracy in SPLM, the two be given the recognition they deserve and requested to exit the political stage. They have served their motherland through the most difficult times, and did well for that matter.

In exiting the scene, I propose that they assume other more important duties as statesmen. They should form a different coalition, specifically a coalition for nationwide reconciliation, not as president and his deputy but as respected citizens of their young nation and without the trappings of power. This At a time that Africa is crying for another Mandela, there is no grand way to imagine fulfilling those huge shoes of Madiba than a South Sudan reconciliation process spearheaded by former political leaders, partners and later adversaries.I believe that once you remove the two from the scene and into a greater calling, the politics of brinkmanship is lessened and a broad based government with a drive to deliver may emerge.

By Joseph Hongoh

The author is a Doctoral Candidate, School of Political Science and International Studies, the University of Queensland, Australia

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