The ongoing civil unrest in South Sudan may shatter the country’s dream of joining the East African Community (EAC),The Citizen has learnt.
Right from the outset, the newly independent South Sudan cultivated warm relations with its southern neighbours within the EAC.
Motivated by economic pragmatism, and perhaps seeking a sense of belonging, South Sudan, Africa’s youngest nation, submitted an application to join the regional economic bloc in November 2012, just months after gaining independence.
The five partner states – Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi – were more than eager to bring the oil-rich country into the fold of the EAC. A verification team was sent to Juba in July 2012 and a timetable for negotiations has since been drawn up.
However, the ongoing political chaos in South Sudan may see these plans crumble swiftly. The Treaty for the Establishment of the EAC sets out stability and good governance as one of the requirements for membership. An attempted coup and political chaos mean that South Sudan is now far from meeting this prerequisite.
“The current internal crisis in South Sudan does not augur well with its bid for membership in the Community,” noted EAC Secretary-General Richard Sezibera in a statement.
The EAC Charter, Dr Sezibera observes, requires that a country meet standards on “universally accepted principles of good governance, democracy, the rule of law, observance of human rights and social justice.”
Clashes broke out in Juba on December 15, following what the presidency claims was an attempted coup. They have since escalated, with reports indicating that violence has spread to other cities. The United Nations has put the death toll so far at about 500 people.
Following a meeting of the EAC Council of Ministers in November, the secretariat had scheduled the first round of negotiations with South Sudan for January 13 to January 22, 2014.
A decision on South Sudan’s membership in the Community was expected from the heads of state in April 2014.
With Juba in a shambles, it is doubtful whether President Salva Kiir’s government will make this date with the EAC, let alone meet the standards required set out by partner states.
“We pray that this programme will not be jeopardised by the ongoing internal conflict in the country,” reads part of Dr Sezibera’s statement.
Prof Macharia Munene, an international relations scholar at the United States International University, noted in a telephone interview that the current crisis in Juba should not have come as a surprise to the EAC partner states since South Sudan has struggled for stability since independence.
President Salva Kiir has blamed soldiers loyal to former Vice-President Riek Machar, whom he sacked with the rest of the Cabinet in July.
Prof Munene reckons that the speed with which the conflict is resolved could be key in determining whether the timeline for South Sudan’s integration into the EAC will be interrupted.
“The question now is how the government will handle the situation. If it is resolved quickly and is seen as no more than a hiccup, then the schedule might not be dramatically interrupted. If it is a prolonged crisis, then there might be problem,” he said.
Even in the early stages of verification of South Sudan’s EAC membership application, there were cracks. A team sent to Juba last year noted that the government was divided over what the timetable would be for joining the EAC.
The verification committee also raised concerns about the “highly militarised society.”
“Proliferation of illicit arms and light weapons is a threat to national and regional security and stability,” read the team’s report.
Was it an attempted coup d’état? That is neither fully established nor highly important, pretty much like the question as to whether this is a Nuer-Dinka clash.
There has been incessant violence in different parts of South Sudan, but not to the military, humanitarian and political scales of the clashes between factions of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) last Sunday and the civilian killings that followed.
The arrest of ten or more senior figures of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and the search for others is also unprecedented.
The violence has extended from Juba to Jonglei State and could spread further.
It has retained the form of clashes within the military with civilian casualties. Similarly, government clamp down on suspected dissidents has also gone beyond the capital city.
There are reports that local SPLM officials in Warrap State have been arrested for questioning over their roles in the alleged coup attempt. These developments are unfortunate but not surprising.
Signs of growing disunity in SPLM and the possibility of a potentially violent conflict between two rival groups under President Kiir and Dr Machar Teny have only been getting clearer by the day.
Historical antecedents to the current crisis, especially the more recent ‘catalysts’ are fairly well known.
The dismissal of Dr Machar as vice-president, coupled with the sacking of several ministers following dissolution of the Cabinet and the suspension of SPLM secretary-general Pagan Amum in July this year, gave the strongest indication that SPLM was at war with itself.
Before then, the president had issued decrees sacking the governors of Lake and Unity states at different times this year and appointing office holders in interim capacities.