26 October, 2022
What distinguishes different political systems is not necessary the intelligence or the goodness of their leaders. The contrary opinion is a common political assumption. Systems, as some of you may have noticed with political and social systems in the west, rely on the strength and the integrity of their institutions and their capacity to withstand human weaknesses, ambitions, and greed.
The presidency of Donald Trump serves as an example of how strong institutions can resist callous leaders with totalitarian propensities.
But when institutions are weak, they become the fount of state failure. This is followed by the usurpation of power by the elite to the detriment of the citizens. We see this usurpation of power in South Sudan by the elites.
What happens when leaders and lay people become used to institutional traditions that do not run according to defined regulations and protocols? The result is a culture of chaos. Essentially, the institutional cultures people are used to guide them. Let me illustrate this with an example.
A few years ago, while working as an immigrant settlement practitioner, I met this immigrant woman from the Caribbean. She told me she noticed something that surprised her in a good way.
One day she decided to take a taxi so she walked to a taxi area. What she witnessed surprised her. The taxis were arranged in a line, and people stood in a single line. The one in front of the line took the first taxi to arrive. The second person in line took the following taxi. Everything went smoothly, in that order, without a fight, without anyone jumping the line. She couldn’t believe the level of orderliness and organization of the drivers and the passengers.
In her home country, she told me, that level of organization and orderliness is nearly impossible. Back home, passengers wrangle for taxis the moment they arrive. There is neither a line for the taxis nor one for the passengers. It is, therefore, not the first one to arrive who gets the first taxi. It is strong.
As we talked about that level of organization in Canada, I asked her if people from her country living in Canada wrangle for taxis. She said they follow the line like everyone else. They don’t fight for taxis. They wait for their turns.
I, therefore, told her that the problem then isn’t the people. The problem is the cultural and political set-up they are used to. Why are people in her home country orderly in Canada and not back home? The problem, as you may have already concluded, is the system.
Systems can corrupt people. This is one of the ills that worries me in Africa and in South Sudan in particular. We have allowed unbecoming political practices to be normalized.
For instance, critics of the president are arrested without arrest warrants. Young people who peacefully protest are picked up by the police and the national security agents. The constitution, in this case, becomes less important. The president’s ego and emotions take primacy.
But note that those who arrest or kill outside the law are not necessarily bad people. They believe what they are doing is right. They see others do it. This has been SPLA’s politico-military culture since 1983.
Unless South Sudanese are provided with an alternative system, it would be ridiculous to expect them to change their ways. It has become normal that anyone criticizing the leadership of President Kiir, even for a good reason, must be arrested. For some political leaders, it is disrespectful to criticize the president. This is the systemic bug.
Even leaders become helpless in such a system. Unless we have a leader who is creative and brave enough to risk it all and force change, the same culture will continue. Today, we don’t have such a leader in all branches of government in South Sudan.
Unless this system changes within the next two to three years, what we have now may become the modus operandi of South Sudan’s political and legal institutions in perpetuity. A future instigation for change would become, as it is today, dangerous.
The problem is, therefore, not the people but the system to which they are used. Because political and legal institutions are still in their infancy in South Sudan, it is possible to effect positive change. There is still hope. But we need a leader who is going to initiate change and see it through.
Changing the current system in South Sudan means running institutions according to the constitution and the institutional protocols that govern them.
Once people are used to bad systemic practices, change becomes difficult and, at times, fatal.
Kuir ë Garang is a political commentator on Sudanese and South Sudanese issues. He’s currently a PhD Candidate at York University. Twitter: @Kuirthiy; Email: Kuirthiy@yahoo.com