By Deng Dekuek, Nairobi, Kenya
January 24, 2017 (SSB) — Many people have expressed scepticism, opposition and outright rejection of the announced National Dialogue, in private and in public. The most offered explanation is that the National Dialogue is “not inclusive”. It has been denounced as “dead on arrival” and “a monologue.”
Most appear to miss that the “National Dialogue” has neither began – at least the talking bit – nor has all its mechanisms been put in place. Some may wonder then, what has happened? Two things – first, the president announced before the parliament that there shall be a dialogue between all South Sudanese – all South Sudanese means all South Sudanese even those outside the country such as Riek Machar, Lam Akol and many other groups. Second, the president has issued a decree appointing a number of people and think tanks as a “steering committee” to establish the mechanisms for the National Dialogue – call them ground rules if you will.
The decree has been the most contentious. The most sustained criticism has been that the appointees are not representative of all stakeholders thus making the National Dialogue “not inclusive”. Some supporters concede that the appointees are not representative and argue that the appointees should not be partisans in the first place but that they are eminent personalities and their jobs is just to facilitate or establish the mechanisms for the National Dialogue. They argue that the appointees are not stakeholders and do not represent the government.
In a sense both arguments are right. The appointees are representative in that they come from various tribes, and in fact some are seen to be very sympathetic to some opposition parties or factions. The opposite is also true, the appointees are not representative in a sense that none of them was a nominee of parties outside the government. Furthermore, some people within the SPLM have also argued that, with exception of few individuals from the church, the nominees are virtually a collection of “NCP traitors” in their eyes – they argue that these individuals spent most of their adult lives fighting the SPLA/M on the side of Khartoum.
Therefore, the question whether the steering committee – not the National Dialogue, because remember, it is yet to start this is just a preparatory phase – is representative (“inclusive”) or not depends with where one’s sympathies lie, with the government or the exiled opposition.
Critics of the National Dialogue have also argued that the president is illegitimate and that the agreement is dead. They added that the president should not have made himself the patron of the National Dialogue. The president as the head of the government is a stakeholder and hence he cannot be a patron or a convenor of the National Dialogue too.
Whether the agreement is dead or alive is an interesting argument. Lately, there seems to have been a change of rhetoric in Riek’s faction. Mrs Angelina Teny was recently asked by Zeinab Badawi of BBC’s HardTalk of the seeming contradiction in the argument that the agreement is dead and that it needs to be resuscitated. Her response was that “the agreement has collapsed” and that it needs to be reviewed to be “resuscitated”. In other words the agreement is not dead per madam Angelina’s argument. This change in rhetoric is in line with government’s argument and seems to have by passed the critics. The agreement can be deemed dead if it was embodied in the individual personalities of Riek Machar and Salva Kiir. However, if it was embodied in the parities that signed i.e. the government, the rebels, the former detainees and the other political parties, then it is difficult to come to the conclusion that it is dead. There is no doubt the compromise agreement has been compromised with the departure of one breakaway faction of a key signatory but the other signatories are still there.
On the question whether the president is illegitimate again depends on where one’s sympathies lie. Riek’s faction argues that he is “the legitimate First Vice-President,” it is perplexing where he derives his legitimacy while leaving the government illegitimate. The whole question around legitimacy needs to be addressed in South Sudan. How does any one attain legitimacy? Elections? No elections have been held since 2010. The government has neither been elected nor has the rebels. Is legitimacy attained through arms? Almost everyone is armed in South Sudan including common criminals. Is it through tribes? Everyone belongs to a tribe. Is it through the agreement? Well then the argument can go in circles.
The criticism on decreeing the steering committee is reasonable. After delivering the speech to the parliament, the president should have left the rest of the work to the parliament, the three think tanks and the church. The parliament should have been asked to form an ad hoc law to anchor the National Dialogue into some legal footing. The three think tanks and the church should have been tasked with negotiating the steering committee among all the stakeholders and present an agreed list of a steering committee acceptable to all stakeholders to the parliament where it can be approved. That way any questions of representations or inclusivity and legality of the whole affair could have been easily avoided. The president would still have had a say because he has to sign the finalised bill into a law. The decree was a lazy and shabby way of trying to hasten a process that needs to be meticulous and thought out.
It is not too late. The President can still task the church and three think tanks to talk to the other stakeholders and ask them to nominate additional members to the steering committee.
The National Dialogue is still in the setup stage and has not began therefore talk of it being dead on arrival or a failure is nonsense.
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