THE DECEMBER crisis in South Sudan presented Africa’s youngest nation with the greatest threat to its existence to date.
What is reported to have began as a personal feud between President Salva Kiir and Riek Machar exposed cracks in the leadership of the ruling party, the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Movement and in the military.
To a certain degree, the tensions split the army, the political class and in some localities the population, along ethnic lines of the Nuer and Dinka, the two main groups.
The eruption of violence pointed to the possibility of the country descending into utter chaos. That it has not, came as a surprise to many.
For starters, we now understand much better the ease with which identity based conflicts can escalate into full-blown armed warfare.
Second, we know the role of the elite in fanning the flames that burn whole communities. Third, we are aware that our socioeconomic circumstances produce a ready-to-mobilize army of ‘youth militias.’
Our experience also tells us that the mobility of the elite allows them to escape the fires they helped fan, while the immobility of the ordinary people means that they become victims of quickly deteriorating humanitarian situations.
In South Sudan, this has meant the loss of human life of close to 10,000 people, according to recent estimates by the International Crisis Group.
Further still, close to 4 million people, one third of the country’s population, are in need of food, while around 860,000 people have been displaced by the conflict, according to reports by the BBC.
Further, the difficulty of de-escalating a conflict situation that has spread into local communities is now well understood and should surprise no one.
That is why this statement by the United Nations humanitarian coordinator in South Sudan Toby Lanzer comes off as disingenuous: “Nobody in mid-December… could have foreseen the scale of the emergency that now faces us. We are doing everything we can to avoid a catastrophe,” he told the BBC.
If we are to give him the benefit of the doubt that indeed seasoned practitioners are unable to predict and prepare for such scenarios, our choices remain very limited.
It would appear that the solution would be either to insist on our elites desisting from fanning particularistic flames or to establish mechanisms for the protection of civilians in the event of a breakdown in social harmony.
Nowadays, few of us can invest optimism in the first option. The latter, however, appears to have a chance. This is big. Talking about it requires one to be matter of fact about it: The intervention in South Sudan by the Uganda People’s Defense Force (UPDF) with its Rapid Response Unit was the decisive act that saved South Sudanese from themselves.
Uganda responded because everybody else was “dithering,” a Uganda General was reported saying.
So, despite some misgivings some may have about President Museveni with regard to his domestic politics and what many consider his military adventurism, we have to give credit where it is due: Prompt and decisive action on his part prevented a bad situation from getting much worse.
However, according to his critics, this was not good enough. Many elaborated their displeasure using abstract notions of democracy, the ‘principle of separation of powers’ to be more particular.
The argument goes that Museveni, yet again, circumvented the approval of parliament in his decision to send troops to South Sudan.
Secondly, that the explanation given that the army was deployed to rescue Ugandans caught up in the mayhem was cover for propping up the government of President Salva Kiir and to tilt the scale of war in his favor.
There is some truth in some of the claims. For example, the entry of Uganda in the equation allowed government forces to maintain its authority, allowing for the much- needed coordination of troops as it went about reclaiming territories the rebels had seized.
As for Museveni circumvention of parliamentary approval, at least initially, don’t get me wrong. It is important to entrench democratic principles in our political systems which are still in their formative stages.
However, that lives of ordinary people were saved matters more than legal niceties. The argument that Museveni ought to have sought parliamentary approval before acting obscures realities of democratic processes: They often involve prolonged negotiations and deliberations, and are therefore time consuming.
Taking that route would mean the loss of large numbers of lives. So Museveni chose to do it backwards, deploying the troops and then seeking and receiving both parliamentary approval and the mandate of the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (Igad). Did he receive Igad’s mandate, or tacit approval? I am not sure myself.
Critics also ignore the fact that even in advanced democracies, there are such things as Executive Decisions, which are intended for similar scenarios. Their criticism is therefore more than a little misplaced. As ideas, the critics raise important points.
As practice, however, they fall short of championing the lives of the ordinary South Sudanese. It suggests that the chattering classes, somewhere in the metropolis sipping on café lattes and lemon tea, may be detached from the concerns of ordinary citizens.
That South Sudan dodged the bullet, avoiding what many considered an imminent apocalypse, has lessons for the prevention and management of future conflict situations.
That’s why the current noise regarding procedural issues recalls that classic cautionary tale of throwing away the baby with the bath water.