Dancing in Juba: hoping liberators don’t turn into oppressorsBy FREDERICK GOLOOBA-MUTEBI | Monday, July 18 2011 at 12:00
Late last week I heard a self-confessed pan-Africanist mourn the break-up of Old Sudan. It was, the old romantic said, against the spirit of pan-Africanism.
I found his moaning more than a little amusing. It is not the sort of conversation the vast majority of South Sudanese would have had time for at that particular moment as they sang, blew whistles and horns, and danced in the streets of their capital, Juba, and held parties in all the parts of the world where they are to be found.
As for me, as far as I was concerned, the event had not come quickly enough. For one thing, it had created two countries that are likely to be more peaceful and stable as separate entities than they were as the “one nation” old-style pan-Africanists and the like pretended it was.
As the new country exploded into scenes of jubilation and as some of those who were doing the dancing made statements on radio about how good it was finally to be independent, a whiff of déjà vu swept over me.
I do not wish to be a kill-joy and spoil their fun or undermine their sense of achievement. However, the evolution of independent Africa from a collection of European colonies to a continent of self-determining states and the whispering already doing the rounds about how the SPLM has managed the South so far, do not provide rock-solid grounds for being unreservedly optimistic about the new country’s future.
All men and women of goodwill, especially in the Great Lakes neighbourhood, should wish the South Sudanese good luck as they embark on their journey of Independence. However, it is also prudent to be a little guarded.
Let’s face it: Independence for many Africans has, at least in some aspects of their lives, at times tasted as bad as, often worse, than colonial subjugation.
That is because there is a great difference between being oppressed by people who may be foreign or whom you may see as such and who would have acquired power without your consent, and suffering misrule by your own “brothers and sisters” who have come to power with your consent or connivance.
What makes the latter especially painful is that you had been made to believe that, once they took over the government, they would treat you with decency, respect, and consideration, and that they would neither deprive you of your rights nor even steal from you.
It is hardly farfetched to imagine or argue that independent South Sudan could become yet another “normal African country” where Independence leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of those who expected good government, prosperity and the good life, only to end up mired in poverty and general misrule.
South Sudanese must watch out for one particularly serious problem: The sense of entitlement so characteristic of African liberation movements.
In Uganda, we call it the “twatera embundu” or “twalwana” (we fought) syndrome. Having acquired power through the barrel of the gun, former insurgents come to regard power as theirs by right and any challenge as bordering on treason.
Now it would be nice if they balanced the desire to cling on to power for ages with a sense of responsibility that would make them aspire to wield power wisely and justly, in the interest of the greatest majority of their compatriots. They rarely evolve in that direction.
The tendency is to degenerate into old-style, exclusionary autocracies oiled by corruption and patronage. And therein lies the greatest threat to a country emerging out of conflict: A possible return to instability.
Uganda’s NRM is hardly the worst example of a one-time liberation movement that seems to have kicked its once cherished ideals into the long grass. But it serves as a salutary reminder of how easily they acquire the worst attributes of one-party or dominant-party, big-man dictatorships.
Experts may already be talking up the urgency with which South Sudan ought to become a democracy. However, becoming an electoral democracy defined by regular and competitive, possibly rigged elections, is not the most important or urgent step.
Whatever one may want to criticise them for, Museveni’s National Resistance Movement and the Kagame-led Rwanda Patriotic Front offer one important lesson in how to create and maintain much-needed stability over the short and medium term in post-war environments: Consensus among significant elites about how to proceed is key.
The challenge, though, is how to preserve it and avoid defection and sliding back into chaos. Good luck, South Sudan.
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