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By Dr. Robert A. Portada III - 18 Oct 2019

Opinion | What South Sudan can learn from Ethiopia’s peace process

Leaders cling to authority, building corrupt financial fiefdoms while stunting economic development.  Unable to compromise with their longstanding political rivals, they turn their repressive security agencies on their own citizens, imprisoning thousands and intimidating an entire generation of young people.  Tribal divisions, ethnic divisions, and geographic divisions fuel decades of conflict and displacement with no end in sight.  Peace agreements, even when signed, function simply as collections of false promises.

Unfortunately, these trends have all too often reflected the harsh political realities of East Africa and the Horn of Africa.  However, several countries across the region are currently engaged in new approaches to confront these realities.  In Ethiopia, for example, a path is being forged toward democracy and peace that is forward-looking and cautiously optimistic. The Ethiopian leadership has built local and international confidence in the peace process with Eritrea, so much so that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his comprehensive but still incomplete efforts.  With an eye toward the future, and with much work left to be done, Ethiopia is indeed offering lessons for the region in how to move on from the intractable conflicts of the past in a spirit of rebirth and openness.

There is no country in the region that needs more desperately to learn these lessons than South Sudan.  As the 12 November deadline fast approaches, the prospects for the formation of a unity government according to the Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS) have been treated with deep skepticism.  Over the past month, President Salva Kiir and Dr. Riek Machar have each threatened not to join a unity government.  Reports of extensive corruption and human rights violations committed by the National Security Service (NSS) have been documented with increasing depth and detail by the United Nations Panel of Experts, Amnesty International, and The Sentry, among others.  Collusion between oil conglomerates and warlords have led to widespread atrocities and vast environmental degradation.  The United States has affirmed that sanctions will be forthcoming in the event of South Sudan’s leadership refusing to form a unity government, and the East African Community (EAC) has threatened to suspend South Sudan from the regional bloc for failure to pay its dues.

Meanwhile, South Sudan’s prisons are filled with people who have been unlawfully arrested and denied their human rights.

An international spotlight remains high over South Sudan. Regional leaders are hosting mediation forums in the capital Juba, and representatives of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) will arrive on 20 October to monitor progress toward the implementation of R-ARCSS. The whole world is watching what will happen next.  If the leadership of South Sudan aims to be both strategic and sincere, they should quickly take the path laid out by the Ethiopian government to restore confidence in the promise of 12 November.  In taking this path, the first thing South Sudan should do is release all unlawfully detained prisoners in the country.

To be certain, every country has problems which are unique to its context.  The leadership of each country must face their own conflicts and historical circumstances.  In Ethiopia, a violent war with Eritrea that took tens of thousands of lives resulted in a border agreement signed in 2002 that was never fully implemented.  Ethiopia maintained troops on Eritrean territory, and Eritrea refused to negotiate any outstanding issues before the implementation of the boundary decision.  A paralyzing environment of insecurity, compounded by Ethiopia’s conflict with Somalia, heightened repression throughout the Horn.  Widespread arrests and tight censorship turned Ethiopia into a virtual police state.

Finally, a boiling political crisis that included mass protests and vast internal displacement of ethnic groups led to the resignation of PM Hailemariam Desalegn in 2018, opening the way for Abiy Ahmed’s election within the ruling coalition of parties in the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) as the new prime minister of Ethiopia.  Very rapidly, he initiated a diplomatic dialogue with Eritrea that has reduced tensions, reunited families, and made likely the eventual implementation of a peace deal on the border.  PM Abiy Ahmed lifted the state of emergency and apologized for the government’s complicity in the killings of protestors.  He is now working with opposition parties outside the ruling coalition to make further democratic and constitutional reforms, and he is participating in mediation projects across East Africa.

All of these works in progress were cited by the Nobel committee in awarding their most prestigious prize to PM Abiy Ahmed, as was the very first action he took as prime minister: he released thousands of political prisoners from jail.

The process of releasing prisoners began during the leadership transition and continued into PM Abiy Ahmed’s tenure.  The Ethiopian government recognized that to restore social cohesion and create the conditions for peace, past patterns of injustice required redress.  A clean slate was needed, for the country and for the thousands of citizens who had been arrested arbitrarily and detained for unlawful reasons, including journalists, bloggers, members of civil society, leaders of rival political parties, and ordinary citizens simply caught up in the maelstrom of state repression.

Only an atmosphere of inclusion could inspire the energy required to address issues of this magnitude.  The democratization process is still incomplete, because in addition to leadership, compromise, and sacrifice, entrenched conflicts require time to reach resolution.  There is much healing left to be done, ethnic tensions are increasingly volatile, and the government has not completely eliminated its authoritarian tendencies.  But fundamental questions of sovereignty, ethnicity, and security are now being addressed with hope and optimism, and with support and investment from the region and the broader international community.

South Sudan’s leaders would be wise to take a page from PM Abiy Ahmed’s playbook: to set the peace process forward, to strengthen the stability of a new unity government, and to earn the faith and support of both their citizens and international partners, South Sudan’s leadership should release all political prisoners in the country right now.

Countless stories of arbitrary arrest, intimidation, and the failure to organize transparent legal procedures permeate South Sudan’s prisons.  Kerbino Wol, Peter Biar Ajak, Simon Dau, Benjamin Akany, Bol Akech, and Dar Duer Dar remain incarcerated after being unlawfully arrested in separate instances and then handed long-term sentences after peacefully protesting the torturous conditions inside the NSS headquarters, the Blue House.  The public trial held in Juba from March to June of this year was labeled a sham by international observers.  It did not consider the original reasons for their arrests, and was marred by the ubiquitous presence of NSS, army, and police agents in the courtroom actively intimidating judges, lawyers, and the general public.  Indeed, a case seeking justice for human rights violations committed against Kerbino Wol during his confinement and the illegal closure of his businesses and bank accounts remains active in the East African Court of Justice (EACJ), where a separate case is also seeking accountability and redress for the abduction and extrajudicial killings of South Sudanese human rights lawyer Dong Samuel Luak and SPLM-IO member Aggrey Ezbon Idri in 2017

While political prisoners remain languishing in detention, young people in South Sudan and diaspora communities throughout East Africa are made to fear for their lives if they dare to speak out, assemble freely, or post their views on social media.

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and others have reported that hundreds of people have been illegally arrested and detained without charge in South Sudan for months, and often for years.  Such is the painful reality of the country, despite the fact that the release of political prisoners was made a key pillar of the September 2018 peace agreement that is meant to be implemented on 12 November.  The current leadership previously dragged the country down the road of a murderous ethnic war.   If South Sudan’s leaders deserve another chance at unity and peace, then surely the unlawfully detained prisoners in South Sudan deserve the full rights and responsibilities that come with freedom and citizenship.

Further delays and broken promises threaten to halt the momentum toward peace and progress across East Africa.  To be sure, the national political and economic issues that divide South Sudan will take time, effort, and sacrifice before any solutions can be reached.  Right now, however, the leadership of South Sudan can choose to instill hope and confidence in international and regional stakeholders, as well as their own citizens, that this time is different, that the peace process, while extremely difficult to implement, is moving forward in good faith.  They can unilaterally release all prisoners who have been arbitrarily arrested or detained for political reasons.

Releasing the prisoners is a starting point, a first step.  It is an action that acknowledges that the usual patterns of corruption and conflict will not continue.  It is an action that signals that the current leadership is finally willing and able to commit to building a stable and prosperous future.  It is an action that renders true the belief that all citizens will have an opportunity to participate in the rebuilding of the country, that all young people who want to innovate solutions to South Sudan’s problems need not be afraid.

Many who have been released in Ethiopia are now participating in the political and economic revitalization of their country.  Citizens of South Sudan must be afforded the same opportunity to take part in their society’s reconciliation process, with assurances that their participation will be welcomed rather than punished.  The surest path toward doing so is to first release the prisoners.

The protracted conflicts throughout East Africa and the Horn have become generational struggles.  And yet, the fragile peace processes on the cusp of implementation have positioned the broader region to stand at the forefront of the global struggle for peace and justice.  The leaders of South Sudan must establish trust with their citizens and their international partners.  Sources of international support must make aid and financing contingent on full adherence to the terms of R-ARCSS.  The region must be assured that progress toward peace and regional standards of justice will not be halted or violated.  Citizens must know that raising their voices will not land them in jail.

South Sudan can initiate these difficult processes by taking the example set by Ethiopia to start anew.  The release of prisoners is not the end of peace, it is the beginning.

 Dr. Robert A. Portada III is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Kutztown University, USA.

The views expressed in ‘opinion’ articles published by Radio Tamazuj are solely those of the writer. The veracity of any claims made are the responsibility of the author, not Radio Tamazuj.