New U.S. friend in Africa has spotty record on democracy

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 19, 2011 

JUBA, South Sudan — Barely 24 hours before South Sudan officially became the world's newest nation, Onyoti Adigo sat in his office one night earlier this month nursing a swollen lip and bloody gums.

The opposition politician and seven of his colleagues had just been released after two hours in the hands of South Sudanese military intelligence. Adigo lost a tooth in the beatings, while others in his entourage got sent to the hospital coughing up blood.

Their crime: putting up opposition party posters in the capital, Juba, congratulating South Sudan on its independence and calling for human rights and political freedoms. The new nation's ruling party — a rebel army-turned-political movement — didn't seem to like the message.

"Unless the government changes, this will not be a democratic country," the gray-haired Adigo, the opposition leader in parliament and a member of one of South Sudan's minority tribes, said with resignation.

South Sudan's independence on July 9 marked the emergence of a new, Western-friendly nation in volatile East Africa, one to whom the United States would be "a true and lasting friend and partner," as U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice told cheering crowds in Juba. But in six years of autonomous rule, the former rebel army, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, has done little to encourage faith in its democratic credentials.

Instead, South Sudan enters the community of nations as yet another African one-party state, with that party, known as the SPLM, following in the footsteps of many other revolutionary movements on the continent — prizing solidarity over political diversity and, according to opponents, tightening control over elections and government posts.

Adigo, who said he was scuffed up by SPLM military intelligence, leads an inconsequential bloc of only four non-SPLM members in a parliament with more than 170 seats. Elections last year were kept under tight wraps by the party, which didn't hold primaries but instead hand-picked politicians to run for powerful gubernatorial or parliamentary seats.

Some spurned SPLM politicians then decided to run as independents, but few won. Allegations of rigging dogged party unity the rest of the year, and sparked several armed revolts that continue today.

The new country's stumbling emergence on the world stage raises the troubling proposition that the U.S. could find itself propping up yet another fragile, autocratic state in Africa. The U.S. already has invested $2 billion in development projects since the war ended in 2005, including more than $200 million on building South Sudan's first highway. Millions in other funds went to supporting to the former rebel military, which international human rights groups have accused of human rights abuses.

"The United States must recalibrate its relationship with the south to reflect post-partition realities and the new republic's incredible diversity," said Zach Vertin, an analyst for the International Crisis Group, a research group that studies conflict prevention.

"The liberation struggle is now over, and Washington should convince the ruling party that an opening of political space — both inside and outside the party — will be critical in winning the confidence of the people," Vertin said.

The SPLM was long one of Africa's most admired revolutionary movements. It led its country through one of the bloodiest roads to statehood ever — two decades of armed rebellion against northern Sudan that cost 2 million lives. The United States' leading role in brokering a 2005 peace deal between the Arab-led north and the mostly African south — which paved the way for South Sudan's secession this year — is seen by many in Washington as one of the key foreign success stories of the past decade.

SPLM leaders insist they are committed to democracy and defend their elections last year as an imperfect but commendable first step in the right direction.

The new government will be "democratic, inclusive and accountable," pledged South Sudan's president, Salva Kiir, who's also the party chairman, on July 9.

In his independence day speech, Kiir said that some detractors already had written off his infant nation before its first steps.

"They charge that we are quick to revert to violence. They claim that our concept of democracy and freedom is faulty," Kiir said. "It is incumbent upon us to prove them all wrong."

Yet local activist groups doubt the government's rhetoric, saying the new government needs to learn to resolve issues through dialogue and stamp out rampant official corruption.

A joint statement by 15 domestic activist groups this month called on the SPLM to end arbitrary arrests and the detentions of journalists, activists, and political opponents.

South Sudan's regional neighbors do not set the democracy bar very high. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, once regarded as a reformist by the United States, is now comfortably entrenched in power after nearly three decades. Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia has no patience for political dissent. In Kenya, contested polls and allegations of vote rigging in 2007 sparked ethnic violence that led to the indictment of several senior politicians by the International Criminal Court last year.

Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia also all happen to be strong U.S. allies. Experts worry that South Sudan's leaders will make a similar calculation that, when push comes to shove, political freedoms will not define their relationship with the West.

Privately, some U.S. officials suggest that a one-party state is inevitable, and the most the U.S. can hope to do is to encourage liberal voices within the party while boosting its governing capacity. In September, the U.S. is holding a multilateral donor conference to raise funds for South Sudan.

Princeton Lyman, the Obama administration's special envoy to Sudan, said that democracy and human rights would help determine Washington's relationship with the new nation. He compared the SPLM to the African National Congress in South Africa, which led the revolution against apartheid and has controlled the political sphere ever since.

"That's the challenge, because how do you have that overwhelming political power and still leave that open for others?" he said.

Lyman also said there was concern over the nation's transitional constitution, which passed the parliament with little internal debate. The constitution grants Kiir emergency powers to dismiss the 10 elected state governments and the national legislature, and removed an earlier clause imposing term limits on his presidency.

The SPLM must allow a multi-party system to unfold, Vertin said. Failing to do so, he said, "would risk emulating the kind of overly centralized, autocratic and unstable state the south has now finally managed to escape."

(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His reporting from Sudan is supported in part by Humanity United, a California-based foundation that focuses on human rights issues.)

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