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  • Rory O'Keeffe

Federalism unlikely to solve South Sudan's problems

South Sudanese refugees in Uganda are reportedly ‘unanimous’ in their opinion that their state should immediately adopt a federal system, in order to prevent the unequal distribution of power and resources.

They told a Ugandan/South Sudanese national dialogue committee on refugees and international outreach (part-run by the South Sudan National Peace Committee, which includes government ministers) that they want their nation split into three effectively autonomous regions - Greater Upper Nile, Greater Bahr el Ghazal and Greater Equatoria – under a central South Sudanese government.

There are more than one million South Sudanese refugees in Uganda, along with more than 1.1m spread across other states, including Sudan, Kenya and Ethiopia.

War broke out in the state in 2013 when President Salva Kiir Mayadit accused his former Vice President Riek Machar and ten others of plotting a coup.

It is often portrayed as an ethnic battle, and it is true that the majority of the Dinka (Kiir’s tribe) back the President, while most Nuers (Machar’s ethnic group) oppose him. But other tribes are split, or are not engaged in the fighting at all.

We should note that in many cases the idea of a federal state appears a panacaea against all ills, and that the solution has been suggested for Israel, Cameroon and Syria as well as for South Sudan. It is likely that the idea will be floated for Myanmar/Burma if that state’s treatment of the Rohingya does not improve, and it is the favoured option of the majority of Catalan people (some Basques, and a majority of Galicians also favour a federal Spain).

But the matter is complicated by several factors. First is that while many people in South Sudan (and for that matter Syria, parts of Spain and Cameroon) may feel a measure of federalism would solve many problems of ethnicity and finance, a large number of others oppose it.

Some – as in Assad and arguably Mayadit’s case – because they do not wish to give up the power they already have (and in the case of their supporters because they may have genuine fears that such a loss of power might result in devastating violence against them).

Others, as in the case of Spain, fear that a (particularly Catalan) move towards federalism would effectively remove money from the state’s poorest people, in favour of the already wealthy (this fear is not reduced by the slogan of parts of the Catalan independence movement ‘We will not subsidise Spain’).

And in the case of Israel, it is far from clear how, if at all, the federal model would work. Israel is, however understandably, an overwhelmingly nationalist project, and the introduction of a Palestinian minority would make little difference to the mistreatment of Palestinians, while the introduction of a Palestinian majority (which is by far the most likely result, at least by the second- or third-generation of the project) is anathema to the Israeli population.

Finally, we should note that however cynical and pessimistic it sounds, one of the world’s current most successful federal states is the US – where the majority population is overwhelmingly culturally and ethnically similar across the country, each ‘state’ is effectively legally identical and the major ethnic minority groups not only do not have access to the levers of power (in the main – Canada’s Nunavut state, founded to enable the Inuit people a measure of self-governance is an example of where this can happen, but even in Canada some people, notably the Quebecois, are still pushing for full independence) but are also angered by what they see as their mistreatment by federal and national governments, and national law-enforcement agencies. In this case, federalism may be ‘working’ but it works better for some than for others.

Another ‘success’ is Switzerland, where the population is linguistically-divergent (though once again, largely not ethnically- nor culturally-, and the government is deliberately attempting to prevent ‘divergence’ in, for example, religion) yet does hold together as a nation-state.

But we should remember that the US is the world’s richest nation, and that Switzerland’s people are among the wealthiest in Europe. It may well be that federalism helps people to achieve and enjoy self-rule, but while a purely ‘dialectical’ or ‘materialist’ outlook may no longer be fashionable, poverty does drive conflict.

A federal South Sudan may end (or reduce) some ethnic and ‘political’ problems, but it is unlikely to end the state’s major problem – finance and resources so limited that equitable sharing may end in everybody having too little, and once more turning to violence to gain a ‘fair share’

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