Argument

With Negotiators Like These...

Peace talks won't solve the crisis in South Sudan. Africa-style justice will.

After a power struggle between South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and his former vice president, Riek Machar, plunged the world's newest state into crisis in mid-December, the international community dutifully mobilized to bring the warring parties to the negotiating table. Right now, as South Sudan slides toward open civil war, representatives from both sides are engaged in direct, face-to-face talks in Addis Ababa. Unfortunately, however, the international community is misleading Africa yet again. The track record for face-to-face negotiation in post-colonial Africa -- and in Sudan itself -- is abysmal. Instead of trudging down the same, well-worn path toward failure, South Sudan should look to traditional modes of conflict resolution to end the current standoff.

More than 40 wars have been fought on the continent since 1970. Year after year, one African country after another has imploded with deafening staccato, scattering refugees in all directions: Sudan erupted in 1972, Angola and Mozambique in 1975, and Ethiopia in 1985. Then came Liberia (1992), Somalia (1993), Rwanda (1994), Zaire (1996), Sierra Leone (1997), Congo (1998), Ethiopia/Eritrea (1998), Guinea (1999, 2010), Ivory Coast (2001, 2005, 2010), Libya (2011), Mali (2012), and now the Central African Republic and South Sudan.

Almost without exception, attempts to reach peace accords have ended in failure. The most common modality has been the direct, face-to-face negotiation between the warring factions -- a Western approach often pushed by a well-intentioned international community. But this has seldom worked in Africa.

Face-to-face negotiations only succeed when factional leaders want peace or are forced to pay a price for the mayhem they wreak -- conditions that have rarely been met in Africa. More often than not, conflict becomes profitable for warlords because it provides them with opportunities to rape, pillage, and plunder natural resources. For rebel soldiers, their weapons are often their livelihoods. Likewise, government soldiers sometimes live by looting, since they are routinely unpaid by their cash-strapped governments. Countless examples can be drawn from the wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Conflict also gives national governments a ready-made excuse -- "national security" -- to suspend development projects, halt provision of social services, and keep their defense budgets secret, thereby shielding corrupt dealings from scrutiny.

Face-to-face negotiations often reinforce these wartime patterns by failing to dole out punishment for combatants. Often, militant leaders are actually rewarded at the negotiating table, gaining the respectability and influence that comes with international recognition. Back in 1993, the late Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aideed was transported in U.S. military aircraft to Addis Ababa to take part in peace negotiations. The spectacle raised Aideed's stature and bolstered his confidence in becoming Somalia's next president -- only months before his forces killed 18 U.S. Rangers in Mogadishu. In a similarly outrageous arrangement brokered by the international community, the head of the notorious Revolutionary United Front (RUF) -- which chopped off the limbs of everyone, including women and children, who stood in their way -- was made Sierra Leone's minister of lands and mines in 1999.

A related problem with direct, face-to-face negotiations is that they often lead to the establishment of what are invariably termed "governments of national unity" -- clumsy attempts to forge power-sharing agreements between warring factions that have only just agreed to put their weapons down. This, of course, defies common sense. How are mortal enemies expected to cast all suspicion aside and blithely work together for the benefit of all? Most of the time they don't, and conflict breaks out again (See: Angola in 1992, Congo in 1999, Sierra Leone in 2000, and Ivory Coast in January 2003). But it's not just that unity governments are destined to fail; it's that when they succeed, they amount to blueprints for the joint-plunder of the state. Ministerial and governmental positions are divvied up between government and rebel leaders -- invariably igniting bitter squabbles in the process -- and then the rent-seeking begins.

Making matters worse, African leaders seldom honor agreements they append their names to, much less implement them in good faith. During the Ivoirian crisis in 2003, for example, a peace accord was signed in Ghana establishing a power-sharing deal between the government of President Laurent Gbagbo, which controlled the southern half of the country, and rebel groups that controlled the north and much of the west. But conflict soon erupted over the distribution of cabinet posts, and Gbagbo flouted the accord by refusing to spell out the powers he would cede to the opposition and only funding the government ministries he controlled. Predictably, fighting broke out again, threatening to reignite the civil war.

A similar script played out in Liberia during the civil war that saw tens of thousands slaughtered, raped, and maimed between 1999 and 2003. At peace talks in Ghana in June 2003, President Charles Taylor, who had been indicted for war crimes by a U.N-Sierra Leone court, pledged to step down under a cease-fire his government signed with two of the rebel groups battling his regime. The agreement called for Taylor's resignation and the formation of a transitional government, composed of the government, rebels, and political parties, among others. But within hours of signing the accord, Taylor's government was backtracking on the question of his resignation. In the end, it was only after an intense bombardment of Monrovia -- coupled with heightened international pressure and an offer of political asylum in Nigeria -- that Taylor finally resigned in August 2003.

More than 30 such peace accords have been brokered in Africa since the 1970s -- and the track record has been appalling. Only Mozambique's 1991 peace accord has endured, and even now it appears shaky as clashes between the government and the rebel group Renamo have flared recently over implementation. Elsewhere, peace accords were shredded like confetti even before the ink on them was dry. The most spectacular failures occurred in Angola (1991 and 1994), Burundi (1993), Rwanda (1993), Sierra Leone (1999), Democratic Republic of Congo (1999), and Ivory Coast (2003). All collapsed because face-to-face talks were marred by brinkmanship and broken promises.

Even where peace accords are successfully concluded and unity governments are established, they are almost always short-lived. Angola's unity government failed after six months in 1992. Congo's 2003 unity government created four vice presidents but did not bring peace to the eastern part of the country. Burundi's civil war flared up again in August 2003, despite the establishment of a unity government brokered by former South African President Nelson Mandela and Ivory Coast's 2003 unity government has proceeded in fits and starts. Kenya's unity government has floundered since 2008; Zimbabwe's since 2009.

Given this record, it is difficult to be optimistic about South Sudan's current peace talks in Addis Ababa. Add to this the fact that the South's 2005 power-sharing agreement with Sudanese President Omar Bashir failed miserably and that Kiir and Machar have already tried a unity government, and the third time looks even less likely to be the charm. Another unity government simply doesn't make sense. Rebel leader Machar almost certainly won't agree to a deal in which Kiir remains president, and Kiir is unlikely to resign. Nor is there a clear military solution -- a bitter lesson from the post-colonial era is that no African government has successfully put down a rebel insurgency.

But perhaps Africa's own indigenous conflict resolution mechanism can offer a way out of the conundrum. The key ingredient in the African method -- missing in the Western approach -- is engagement with civil society. "When two elephants fight, the grass gets trampled upon and hurt," goes the African proverb. African conflict resolution, then, requires four parties: the two elephants, an arbiter, and the "grass" (composed of all those affected by the conflict.) Just as it takes a village to raise a child, so too does it take one to resolve a conflict.

In most traditional African societies, when two people cannot resolve their differences by themselves, their case is taken to a village chief's court for adjudication. The court is open and anyone affected by the dispute can participate. Both parties are invited to make their case. Next, anybody else who has something to say may do so. After all the arguments have been heard, the chief renders a decision. The guilty party may be fined, say, three goats. By default, his or her family is held liable. The injured party receives one goat, the chief is given a goat for his services, and the final goat is slaughtered for a village feast for all to enjoy.

The latter social event is derived from the African belief that frayed social relations need to be healed -- the "grass" restored. More importantly, the interests of the community supersede those of the disputants. If they adopt intransigent positions, they can be sidelined by the will of the community and fined for disturbing social peace. In extreme cases, they can be expelled from the village. In other words, there is a price to be paid for intransigence and for wreaking social mayhem -- a price exacted by the victims. The current system of internationally-mediated peace talks, by contrast, imposes no such punishment on the combatants.

Already, there is limited evidence that traditional dispute-resolution mechanisms can work on a much larger scale. Indeed, following the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1989, African traditional methods were revived to sweep dictators out of power and transition to a democratic order. In 1989, after unpaid civil servants went on strike and demanded the resignation of Benin's military dictator, Mathieu Kerekou, a sovereign national conference was called representing various political, religious, trade union, and other groups encompassing the broad spectrum of Beninois society. The conference, chaired by Father Isidore de Souza, held sovereign power and its decisions were binding on all, including the government. It stripped Kerekou of power and scheduled multiparty elections that ended 17 years of autocratic Marxist rule. Similar inclusive national conferences in Congo and Niger (both in 1991) brought dictatorships to an end and set the stage for free and fair elections.

In South Africa, the vehicle used to make the difficult but peaceful transition to a multiracial democratic society was the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA). It began deliberations in July 1991, with 228 delegates drawn from about 25 political parties and various anti-apartheid groups. The government of F.W. de Klerk made no effort to control the composition of CODESA. Political parties were not excluded, not even ultra right-wing political groups, although they chose to boycott its deliberations. CODESA strove to reach a "working consensus" on an interim constitution and set a date for the 1994 elections. It established the composition of an interim or transitional government that would rule until the elections were held. Most importantly, CODESA's decisions were binding. De Klerk could not abrogate any decision made by the convention -- just as the African chief could not disregard any decision arrived at the village meeting.

Instead of facilitating direct negotiations in Addis Ababa, the African Union should serve as an arbiter between South Sudanese civil society organizations, and political and religious groups. An interim government should be set up -- headed by neither Kiir nor Machar -- and a date set for elections. If the two leaders remain recalcitrant, they should be fined proverbial goats for disturbing the social peace. By default, they should be expelled from the "village" and handed over to the ICC for prosecution for crimes against humanity. And just as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) did to Mali when Gen. Amadou Sanogo seized power in March 2012, the African Union should close all borders with South Sudan and impose an economic blockade. When elephants have trampled the grass, they should not be rewarded with additional stomping grounds.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

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