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South Sudan: What Reconciliation, What Healing? I

13/03/2013 14:35 GMT | Updated 11/05/2013 10:12 BST

There are two ways in which a tethered domesticated bull can untangle itself: either its shepherd unties it or it muscles its way out of a leash. The world's newest nation is a captive bull that everybody agrees must escape bondage but disagrees on the optimal approach.

The country's bloody long war of liberation to wrest itself of foreign hegemony and control got a boost in 2011 when humanity ratified its people's overwhelming vote for independence, paving a stage for its Caesarean birth.

Although South Sudan has overcome war, its society is deeply fractured by years of strife. Like a wounded veteran I recall from late 1992 in the town of Kapoeta, the country limps ahead. The veteran soldier lost a leg in the war and supported himself with forearm crutches.

The amputee caught my six-year-old cousin's attention as he strolled along our home. "His leg is chopped!" acclaimed my little relative, with childish wonderment. The veteran froze with the crutches, looked the child in the eye and told him politely; "It's the liberation struggle, kid" and took a step forward. "His leg is chopped!" repeated the bewildered boy. "It's the liberation struggle, kid," the man replied, and set about on his journey.

That brings me to a raging debate on a proposed reconciliation project to tackle the country's lingering effects of war.

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Entitled "A Journey of Healing and National Reconciliation" in South Sudan and spearheaded by Vice President Riek Machar, the reconciliation initiative's stated aims are to 'promote reconciliation and build trust' among and between South Sudanese communities.

In the pursuit of freedom, some South Sudanese inflicted untold misery on their own people and no one has been held accountable for these grave crimes.

Mr. Machar goads citizens of the new nation to start a new page and let go of past injustices.

At home and abroad, the project's noted for its potential to inspire a nation of over sixty ethnic groups to bury their hell and heal. However, vital questions about the process and the people who are tasked with leading it, are unsettled.

A conceptual document says the project will emulate South Africa's post-Apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Nonetheless, there're unresolved ambiguities. The document conflates 'truth and reconciliation' with 'peace and reconciliation' as though they were interchangeable.

The first requires truth telling while the second approach puts peace search before the truth. It also fails to clarify the questions of accountability and amnesty for perpetrators of crimes and what's being asked of the aggrieved.

Justice Deng Biong of South Sudan's National Public Grievances Chamber, argues that justice should precede reconciliation. "Like the doctors do, can we diagnose the disease first before applying any drugs for its treatment?!" he asked in an op-ed.

Set to launch next month in Juba, the project will be ineffectual without addressing fundamental impediments of approach and motive.

Wrong Approach

The lion's share of the funding for the project so far has come from South Sudan government, like it should, but with a caveat: the management is not, sort of. The government has released $2.6m for the first part of the project and earmarked additional sums of $1.8m for training of 200 'peace and reconciliation mobilizers.' Majority of these staff are foreign nationals, hired by a foreign NGO, Initiatives of Change International, to whom the Vice President has outsourced the project to.

Curiously, Mr. Machar bypassed an existing national Peace and Reconciliation Commission and undermined a presidential Organizing Committee by approving $70,000 to set up a local replica of the international NGO, Initiatives of Change-South Sudan.

In a gross politicization of the process, the wife of the Vice President and his office manager, among handpicked cronies have been tapped to run the local outfit of the international NGO.

"The initiatives of Change national association in South Sudan (IofC-SS) has project management responsibility on behalf of the Organizing Committee in areas such as logistics, security, protocol, accommodation and selection of delegates," according to the document.

Both Initiatives will collaborate with one another as well as with Machar's Organizing Committee, slamming the door on independence, even by admission of the authors of the reconciliation document: "IofC-SS is constitutionally independent of government and has separate governance structures. At the same time it is currently funded by government and hence cannot be considered as fully independent."

Disturbingly, too, a large chunk of the $2.6m budget will pay for airfare, accommodation, security, food and other expenses to bring between 70-90 eminent world leaders-- the likes of Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and Nobel Peace Prize Winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu-- to grace the April conference kickoff.

The move will not only be a costly pursuit of international limelight-- a hollow Nobel Peace Prize alert from the champions of the process-- but also a elitist way of aborting the project in Juba before it expands to the grassroots where it truly matters, or where will more funding come from in the age of austerity?

Wrong Motive

The Vice President, the chief architect of the reconciliation vehicle, is driving a political agenda and not a genuine healing process.

Bereft of any moral authority as South Sudan's merciless killer, Machar, and prominent actors from the armed struggle should distance themselves from the process and appoint neutral personalities to its helm.

The "Journey" is about nation building and those who took part in destruction cannot construct it, as a veteran former commander once confessed.

Fortunately we have religious leaders who command our utmost respect. One of those is Bishop Emeritus Taban, the winner of the 2013 prize from UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. The Bishop, dubbed 'South Sudanese Desmond Tutu' by some knows our struggle intimately and is a fair arbitrator.

For starters, Machar recently owned up to a 'massacre' that occurred in 1991 during a cataclysmic tribal split in the ranks of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), then the main rebel army. Machar, a Nuer, broke away with most of his tribal officers and formed a rival SPLA-Nasir.

He accused the late Dr. John Garang, a Dinka head of the mainstream SPLA , of dictatorship and promised democracy, human rights, rule of law and self-determination.

Rhetoric aside, Machar turned on the Dinka Bor of Dr. John Garang. The outcome was the "Bor Massacre" carried out by Sudanese-allied Nuer militia loyal to Machar, armed Nuer civilians and the Nasir troops.

According to HRW/Africa, the 'massacre' wasn't a single day event. It was a series of massacres carried out in various villages, spanning days, and in which thousands died both during the massacres and ensuing "Hunger Triangle."

For our incarcerated bull called South Sudan to successfully heal itself of war trauma, the first affirmative step to take is for those who have caused that trauma and their associates to steer clear of the process for it to exhibit a shred of credibility. After all, the TRC model was victim-centered and not perpetrator-dominated like ours. Past actors must also resign their positions at the reconciliation project and take a backseat. And the institutions that are trailblazing reconciliation must be organically linked to the ground and profess independence.

Failure for the tainted pioneers of the "Journey" to comply with the simple requests will justify my friend Joseph Deng Garang's harrowing question: 'Is there a disqualifying reason in South Sudan?'

Likewise, not heeding public opinion might also revive citizens' worst fears about the reconciliation initiative being a mockery and Vice President Riek Machar's chilly chase after Presidency.