The youngest nation in the world, South Sudan, is currently entangled in civil war following a dispute between the sitting (elected) president Salva Kiir and his former vice president Riek Machar. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees over 200,000 civilians have fled their homes with more than 1,000 fatalities.
South Sudan was born out of a long period of conflict between the Sudanese government and rebel groups in the south which killed more than 2 million civilians. The international community therefore wholeheartedly welcomed the results of the referendum in January 2011 which made way for independence in July that year. Now, with the recent violence and political volatility, there is the real risk of relapsing back into civil war. The ongoing dispute centers on who should lead the country, with some groups claiming the current government plans to stay in power indefinitely, and that it does not represent the nation as a whole with particular neglect of tribal groups in rural areas. For South Sudan, independence has allowed new and latent conflicts to come to the surface and created new forms of instability in terms of leadership, governance and national politics.
South Sudan is not the only new nation to face such crisis. Many African countries have shared a similar fate after independence following colonial rule, secession or after a revolution. Since its independence in 1969, Somalia has hardly experienced a whole decade of stability as the country continuously struggles with civil war and the disintegration of the state. The Rwandan civil war from 1990 – 1993 resulted in genocide after inter-communal violence between the Hutus and Tutsi groups. In Burundi, from 1993 – 2005, more than 300,000 people died as a result of ethnic conflict. Angola descended into a long civil conflict for 26 years after independence.
Putting the past behind them, Burundi, Rwanda and Angola are in many ways on the path to relative stability and strong economic development. There are also some new opportunities for Somalia to experience a reduction in violence if it can bring greater national unity and a peace dividend under the central government.
Exhibiting a slightly different path, the Central African Republic has been unstable since its independence from the French in 1960. Recently, violent conflict between Muslim and Christian rebels has resulted in a humanitarian emergency and fears of mass killings and large-scale destruction. Many more country examples could be cited − including Egypt and Libya− that are engaged in civil strife due to tribal, ethnic, religious and ideological divisions among rival groups struggling for power.
One wonders though, ‘could these conflicts have been anticipated?’ Also, to what extent did the arbitrary delineation of African borders by former colonial powers contribute to the current state of affairs? Many scholars have argued that artificial countries created by colonial rulers arbitrarily brought together many different ethnic groups under the rubric of a ‘nation-state’ that did not reflect nor have the ability to accommodate or provide for the degree of cultural and ethnic diversity.
Various UN agencies and bodies have moved to assist (interim) governments of newly independent states with the establishment of rule of law principles. The fact is that rule of law cannot flourish if a nation is divided on the most basic grounds, especially if those in power and principal opposition groups cannot find ways to unite for peace and development for the sake of the civilians in the country.
Successful unification programs, which are strongly correlated with more stable governance, deserve more widespread attention. The UN, in particular, ought to invest more in unification programs of groups who are divided along the lines of tribal and religious grounds, both prior to the election of leaders and afterwards. This type of proactive approach and early warning system is dependent on negotiating the constraints of state sovereignty but there are important examples and opportunities to learn lessons.
An example of such a unification program is the one put in place by Yemen, the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), at which all stakeholders in the country are invited to participate in a series of discussions about the main matters that divide the nation and which lead to civil unrest− especially with reference to the dispute between southern and northern tribal groups about the governance of the country and the use and distribution of natural resources in the south. At this conference, the participants are invited to recommend solutions for the way forward. Even though the Yemen NDC program cannot yet be evaluated for its success, it serves as an example for the kind of process that may be used for unification.
The process of bringing rival groups together cannot alone go a long way in the unification efforts. Yet through the process of unification and the content of such a program, a lot can be learned regarding the type of governance that is most appropriate to the context. Such a strategy may prevent civil conflicts such as those we witness today. Perhaps this is a new task for the Rule of Law unit of the Secretary General’s office.