- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Southern Sudan will become Africa’s newest nation in July, but politicians are already squabbling among themselves and worrying Western supporters who hoped for a smooth passage to democracy after the continent’s longest civil war.

The ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) excluded most opposition parties from a committee to draft a temporary constitution. Some advocates for democracy fear that move could foreshadow the creation of just another one-party government in Africa.

“It does not appear that the process has been that open. So, unfortunately, it is not developing into a great story yet,” said a U.S. official, who spoke on background.

“There is a lot of concern given the track record of other African countries where there is a trend for single-party liberation movements that become entrenched after independence or elections. Clearly that is something to watch out for in Southern Sudan,” the official added.

The real test for the government will come when it begins to draft a permanent constitution.

“That’s when the fireworks will fly,” said a Western official based in Sudan, who also spoke on background to freely discuss developments.

The SPLM and the opposition disagree on the length of the transition period, which begins on July 9 when the south gains independence, and power-sharing arrangements in a new government.

The committee Wednesday presented its constitutional recommendations to Salva Kiir, president of the Government of Southern Sudan, who will open a seven-day public comment period before submitting the document to the legislature. He hopes to sign an interim constitution on July 9.

Southern Sudan started life with a great promise of democracy. More than 98 percent of voters endorsed independence from Sudan in a January referendum with a turnout of more than 3.8 million.

The election was part of a peace treaty with the government in Khartoum, ending a civil war of nearly 21 years that killed at least 2.5 million people and displaced another 5 million.

But the unity broke down with the creation of the committee to prepare the transitional constitution.

The opposition parties are getting “bent out of shape” over the draft document because “they think this is going to be a real serious problem for them down the road,” said the Western official in Sudan.

Initially, the SPLM held 19 of the 20 committee seats. The lone opposition member, Gabriel Changson, boycotted the panel and called for greater representation for minority parties.

Mr. Kiir later added more opposition leaders and civil society representatives, increasing the committee membership to 52. However, he reserved 41 seats for the SPLM.

Eight opposition parties withdrew from the constitutional review process, questioning the SPLM’s commitment to democracy.

The committee was “more or less an SPLM body,” Mr. Changson, president of the United Democratic Salvation Front, told The Washington Times in a phone interview from the Southern Sudanese capital, Juba.

The distrust between the SPLM and the opposition parties presents a “critical challenge” on the eve of the country’s formal independence, said Sarah Johnson, assistant director of the democracy program at the Carter Center in Atlanta.

“The process thus far has been less than ideal, but there is still a chance to be inclusive,” she said.

Princeton Lyman, the U.S. special envoy for Sudan, said agreement on an interim constitution is critical for a smooth transition to independence for Southern Sudan.

“The document … will serve as the south’s framework for governance while they develop a permanent constitution, help solidify the makeup of the legislature after independence, and establish a timeline for new elections,” he told The Times.

Mr. Lyman urged the government to use the constitutional review process to “demonstrate to its people and the international community its commitment to democracy, good governance, and respect for human rights.”

“Key elements of this include fostering inclusive, democratic institutions; encouraging the development of robust civil society; fully involving all political parties in the political process; and increasing transparency and rooting out corruption,” he said.

A government official defended the committee’s work.

“The drafting of the constitution is not a political work. It is a technical work that needs to be dealt with technically,” said Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth, head of the Southern Sudan office in Washington.

“The political part will come later when it is actually being debated and discussed in parliament, and the civil societies and all the community organizations will be involved in the discussions and debate,” he added.

Lawrence Korbandy, chairman Southern Sudan Human Rights Commission and a committee member, said the opposition parties are “confusing people and making them feel excluded.”

“This is not a constitution-making process. It is a review process. Therefore it is a misunderstanding to ask whether the process includes everyone,” Mr. Korbandy told The Times in a phone interview from Juba.

“Everybody, even political parties and the church, are aware of the process,” he added.

• Ashish Kumar Sen can be reached at asen@washingtontimes.com.

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