ANALYSIS - Salva Kiir’s pardons: Is he digging his own grave?

KiirAPphoto(Alberta) - The French say ‘the more things change, the more they remain the same.’ This mantra could not be more true in southern Sudan.

We are just 90 days away from the referendum and am afraid the struggle which has claimed millions of our people may not change much. I hope I’m wrong, and I hope my expression does not lump me in the same category as those rooting for the collapse of a southern Sudanese nation state.

Obviously, I'm a southern Sudanese optimist who wishes and works for the betterment of our precious country. But if you detect a dose of skepticism in my voice, it’s probably true. And it’s so because I’m alarmed by Kiir’s recent decrees pardoning Athor and Tanginya, among other warlords, although they are responsible for killing hundreds of civilians and soldiers.

“I, General Salva Kiir Mayardit, President of the Government of Southern Sudan and Commander-in-Chief of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), do hereby issue an executive pardon for Lt. General George Athor, officers and men under his command, regarding any crimes committed by them severely or jointly as a result of their rebellion against the Government of Southern Sudan,” Kiir wrote in one of his decrees Wednesday.

Curiously, the above sentence leaves a wiggle room of doubt that crimes “were committed” with the insertion of the phrase “any crimes committed” when the latter couldn’t be further from the facts. 

While many questions abound, the immediate questions are to ascertain for what gain and at what cost are the pardons to Mr. Kiir?

As I gather, the rationale behind the President’s evidently rushed decrees, is to present a united southern front ahead of the referendum vote.

Granted, times are too serious and the south  and the SPLA cannot afford to be distracted at their own backyard while preparing to counter any hawkish move from Khartoum.

What’s more, I must cut the President some slack in that he probably has less flexibility than I may do as a writer. Even so, I think we should be gravely concerned with the dangerous precedent Kiir sets with his pardons, which let off the hook a bunch of criminals and thugs who deserve to come back home handcuffed.

Instead, the time-honoured tradition of rewarding criminals by the SPLM for evil behaviour was shamelessly vindicated on Wednesday. This time it was effected with decrees and not through a political settlement, which is ultimately silent about accountability. With due respect to Mr. Kiir and those applauding his decision, I say there is very little to cheer for, unless the principles we fought for are meaningless.

If we fought for liberation to bring about justice, accountability and fairness to the system, then we ought to guard against our own hypocrisy.  In my view, Kiir’s move was politically expedient. It was a politically popular thing to do, although, in my humble judgment, it remains a catastrophic blunder.

If at all the President’s wholesale forgiveness of warlords was warranted, it should have been carried out in a politically sensitive way, and he should have used it to gain some concessions too. I firmly believe this decision could conceivably come back to haunt Kiir. For instance, it’s possible, having failed to impose their will on the SPLM all this time, these men (Athor, Tanginya etc) and other murderers who have already been entrenched  in the system could work out a plot from within to destabilize the system and shovel Kiir out of the window.  However, it’s not Kiir’s foreseeable political misfortunes that keep me restless at night. Rather, it’s the harm his indiscretion inflicts on the victims of these terrorists and its long term impact on our trajectory.

On the surface, Kiir’s pardons may bring about a temporary reprieve –although he has been misled to believe that reintegrating Athor and Tanginya will restore tranquility before the referendum –and maybe, just maybe—it will provide him political cover (He’s also met Lam Akol today in his office and the two appeared together like old lovers). Yet, at a deeper level, however, Kiir’s pardons (directly or indirectly) communicate a shameful message to the widows and orphans of these evil men—some of whom are still mourning— ‘stuff it, I forgive these men on your behalf.’  

This kind of political heartlessness fosters a culture where the rights of elites and militias trump the rights of the common man. It’s a culture that must not be permitted to erect its roots in our long awaited country.

In the words of a young man whose brother was callously hanged last year by Khartoum, a victim of the Soba Aradi incident: “We must make human life means something in Sudan.” 

We cannot pretend  that incorporating the culprits into the system without being held to account for their crimes will save more lives in the future (In fact, if the chief concern is the referendum, then we should appreciate that those southern rebels out there also have a stake in whether the south succeeds or fails). The mantra ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ couldn’t be more true right now.  

For those who are banking on future culprits being punished for their crimes, I say that could be false hope. There may never come a time when we begin to prosecute militias and warlords for their crimes, for I think the future is not in the future. The future is now! Similarly, there may never come a time when we start to care for the widows and victims of bad men.  That future is now!  And while we approach the referendum period, a period which is pregnant with countless possibilities and impossibilities, let’s not lose sight of our ideals.

Let us not lose track of what and who we fought for.  We did not fight to keep our leaders and elites in power, whether they are our relatives or not. Nor did we fight to make our leaders sacred cows or the law unto themselves.

To the contrary, we strove to bring about a fairer system of governance that works and keeps everybody—including our leaders—accountable to the law. We fought for the principles of justice, equality and accountability. We must stay true to them.

Pardoning mass murderers erodes the gains of our revolution our relatives so daringly fought and died for. It does not add; it subtracts.

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