Kenya: The Horror in South Sudan, and Why Nairobi Hotels Are Not Good for Peace


The horrors from the conflict in South Sudan are not just a colossal tragedy for the people there, but also the kind that makes one ashamed to be an African. Soldiers — and rebels — are gang-raping girls, then burning them alive. They grab children who are being breastfed, throw them into fires, then rape their mothers. Little boys are being castrated. Now stereotypes about “Sudanese fury” are all over the place. What went wrong? The hard-nosed analysts are saying it was a mistake to negotiate an end to the South Sudan war. That you get the kind of result you have in Burundi, where the victors, the fellows who come to be chiefs, did not win a clear victory on the battlefield and therefore their claim to power is challenged.

That a situation like Rwanda, where after the 1994 genocide President Paul Kagame and his Rwanda Patriotic Front/Army won a decisive victory, works better. You are the jogoo and can invite others to the table, with them knowing clearly it is on your terms. According to this view, efforts by President Uhuru Kenyatta to reconcile the rival factions of President Salva Kiir and his former vice-president and now foe, Riek Machar, are futile. They should be left to fight, kill each, and eventually, when the country has bled to exhaustion and one of them is standing over the corpses of his enemies, they will sober up and stabilise their homeland.

However, we live in a world where that is simply not conscionable and the obligations of the international community just do not permit it. We can, however, learn from the mistakes that were made in the Nairobi negotiations of the South Sudan (and Somalia agreements).

The same mistakes were repeated recently in the South Sudan negotiations in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. To put it simplistically, Nairobi and Addis Ababa hotels, and per diems, are not good for peace. In the recent talks in Addis Ababa, the South Sudanese delegates were more intent on enjoying the luxuries of the Sheraton and collecting their allowances. They did not want it to end, so they dragged out the talks. Desperate and fed up, the Ethiopians downgraded them and put them into cheaper hotels.

Why does any of this matter? Because anyone who is a citizen of a once-broken country which dug its way out of a hole knows that there is no shortcut to the slow and frustrating work of building block by block. If you spend four years in a fancy hotel talking Somalia or South Sudan peace, and the Kenyan government and donors are footing your bills, you forget how to live on what you earn. You want to replicate the hotel life when you go home to become a minister in the new government born out of the peace settlement.

You end up with parasitic elite that does nothing to build the country. Thus you have the absurd situation in South Sudan, which did not have paved roads to speak of, but with the highest number of brand-new Toyota four-wheel-drive cars per capita in the region — and possibly in Africa. Also, because it is easier to buy a Prado from taxpayers’ and oil money than to build a house, we had those photos of South Sudanese big men, with their $100,000 cars parked outside grass-thatched houses where they lived. What makes this complicated is that rebel movements like the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement had members who live in the Diaspora and are successful professionals in London, New York, Kampala, and Nairobi, and too were used to a good life.

Some of these too are not willing to take the haircut necessary and live simply when the negotiated spoils of war arrive.

Without a hardcore who lived a hard long life battling in the caves and mountains, as happened in the case of Meles Zenawi’s Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, willing to take a little more pain to build things, these former “freedom fighters” usually quickly fall into a food fight. This is what happened in South Sudan.The lesson here is that the next time Kenya, for example, is holding peace negotiations for some African warring parties; it should not check them into the Intercontinental or Serena hotels and hold the meetings there. It should pitch for them a camp in Ngong Forest.

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

The author is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa.