South Sudan has been in a bloody civil war since December 2013, when Kiir accused Machar, then his vice-president, of plotting a coup. The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) then split into Kiir and Machar supporters. The Machar group launched an armed rebellion against the Kiir-led government. They named themselves the SPLM/A in Opposition.
That Kiir will oversee the talks is a fundamental flaw. He, as a key player in the conflict, cannot credibly oversee discussions to end it. For any national dialogue to be credible, it needs to be conducted by neutral individuals or organisations, which are acceptable to all the fighting parties.
Although the conflict started as one between Kiir and Machar, it is now split along ethnic lines, over grievances between individuals, communities and regions.
Kiir is accused of governing in the interests of his own group, the Dinka, and marginalising the Nuer, to which Machar belongs, and other communities. The irony is both Kiir and Machar had supporters across the ethnic, regional and ideological divide before the conflict.
South Sudan's civil war was caused by a leadership elite in an ethnically diverse society which was perceived to be governing only in the interests of their own ethnic community. This includes appointments and the distribution of government contracts.
The best recipe for development, and a sense of belonging and peace, in Africa’s diverse societies is for leaders and governments to govern inclusively, in the widest interests of all communities. Furthermore, for leaders to be mature, wise and pragmatic and not emphasise differences for political gain or allow their supporters to do so.
Most African countries inherited diverse societies from colonial powers, who accentuated things like physical attributes, languages and grievances, and often turned these into “ethnic” differences, in order to divide the “natives” to better “rule” them. The adage was the more divided the locals, the less they could unite to drive out of the colonial power or settlers.
In South Sudan, like many African countries in the pre-colonial period, there was historical friction between communities over resources such as water and land or blood feuds. Colonial powers in their divide-and-rule policy tried to turn this into fixed “ethnic” differences. The post-independence leaders of Sudan continued this destructive colonial policy to turn historical community differences into fixed ones for self-enrichment, to shore up their support bases or for political expediency.
Sudan became independent in 1956. It was ruled jointly by Britain and Egypt which, in turn, had been ruled by Britain since 1899. From 1930 to 1953, the Anglo-Egyptian condominium ruled northern Sudan, largely Muslim, and southern Sudan, largely Christian and animist, almost as separate countries. At independence, the country had about 600 different ethnic communities speaking around 400 languages.
When South Sudan was still part of Sudan, the country had two civil wars, with the southerners fighting the North-led government. The latter sowed division between groups in the south to prevent them from unifying against it.
South Sudan got independence from Sudan in July 2011, after a drawn-out, violent liberation struggle, led by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).
The firing of Machar was turned into an ethnic issue by groups in both camps, who saw an opportunity to play on historical feuds for their own self-enrichment.
Kiir is being accused of controlling the country’s oil income to mostly benefit his community, his political allies and himself. Recently, Khalid Ono Loki, head of military courts, resigned saying justice in South Sudan was “arbitrary”, “corrupt” and “discriminatory” against those who were not Dinka.
A UN report noted “tribal fissures” were “deepening” and the army, military intelligence and other security organisations were “increasingly dominated by members of the Dinka tribe”.
“The conflict is, therefore, not a simple, binary competition between the government and the SPLM/A in Opposition (Machar's group) and their respective tribal bases”. However, it was “a multifaceted war where allegiances shift rapidly, depending on access to resources, unaddressed grievances and the opportunity for individual politicians and military commanders to exploit the situation to press for military and political advantage”, it said.
Early this year, famine was declared in parts of South Sudan. According to Oxfam, a third of South Sudan's people has been displaced since the conflict started, with 3.6 million forced to flee.
The country is near economic collapse. The South Sudanese pound is in free fall. Inflation is 835% – the highest in the world. Oil accounts for 98% of South Sudan’s budget but the civil war has centred on oil producing areas.
The only way former liberation movements consisting of diverse ethnic, political and ideological factions, and governing countries which are equally diverse, can succeed is to govern in the widest interest at all times, to make appointments on the basis of merit and to actively ensure ethnic, social and gender equality.
South Sudan, because of its ethnic diversity, needs a permanent government of national unity, which includes all groups.
The conflict there has fostered a culture of violence which needs to be addressed. For many young people, guns have become an extension of their identity. Young combatants must be turned into a labour force which builds infrastructure. The country must roll out a mass education programme so they can become plumbers, electricians and nurses.
There also needs to be a mass programme teaching farming skills, encouraging those on land to produce food that is currently imported. The government, with the help of partners, will have to make available seeds and provide basic implements cheaply. Rural villages could pool their skills and limited resources to produce food, initially for themselves but, over time, for the country.
The government must use the revenue from oil to create value-add manufacturing industries. For example, it could insist in return for foreign companies investing in oil, that they set up education institutions and use local products in their supply chains.
There will have to be a mass public campaign to promote new values of gender equality, non-violence and tolerance.
Unless the South Sudanese government brings all groups to the negotiating table, the country could face an all-out ethnic war.
William Gumede is chairperson, Democracy Works Foundation. He is the author of Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg)