The turmoil simmering in South Sudan that has the country teetering on the brink of civil war barely two years after independence comes on the heels of the death of Nelson Mandela, fourteen years after the death of Julius Nyerere, and two hundred fourteen years after the death of George Washington. Many attribute it to inter-tribal strife, perhaps fooled by its pretensions. A few of us, though, recognize it for what it is: the consequence of a failed transition from the leadership of the father figure of a revolution to the leadership of one among his squabbling lieutenants.
This is the bane of all revolutionary groups: at their head there is always a leader who is respected and admired by all the membership of the group, and his leadership therefore goes largely unchallenged. That leader is the father figure of the revolution who won power for the group. But the calm at the top is a deceptive calm; it is quite like the calm at the surface of a river that masks its fierce undercurrents. For just below the revolutionary leader, whatever the country, is a ubiquitous mass of squabbling lieutenants torn by mutual contempt, all of them vying for the leader’s attention and all of them jostling to be designated heir-apparent whether by anointment or by popular acclaim. The leader is often aware of this strife, and many times it exists because he foments it to protect his rear and flanks from the advance of a challenger. While he certainly profits from it, his legacy to the nation will be an unmitigated tragedy if he does not manage that strife masterfully.
George Washington saved his country from the grip of that strife by imposing on himself a limit of two terms in power. By inventing this tradition which caters to the hopes of ambitious men by giving them the reassurance of several shots at power, he made sure that such men would hold their peace while out of power in the hope that after eight years at the most, a rival in power would have vacated office. By inventing this tradition, he was also able to take advantage of the fact that under the watchful gaze of a revolution’s father figure, its squabbling lieutenants assume a child-like nature which drives them to act pleasantly lest they draw his wrath. So they will not try to overthrow his successors while he is still alive, and by the time he departs the scene a tradition of peaceful succession would have been established whose momentum would be hard to break. This was the genius of Washington: the recognition that the final great act of a revolutionary leader is to oversee the establishment of a culture of peaceful transition and that the revolutionary leader must carry out this assignment before the diminution of his father figure stature. Lesser revolutionary leaders think that their role stops at creating regime stability and forget completely about stability during transitions.
Julius Nyerere in Tanzania and Nelson Mandela in South Africa availed themselves of this wisdom. There was no succession strife in both Tanzania and South Africa because these two father figures stood watch over their successors and their immense authority kept any potential political predators at bay. In South Sudan the story was different: John Garang died in office, and so President Salva Kiir was not able to benefit from the protection of a father figure. So it was inevitable that the undercurrents of rivalry that existed between Garang’s lieutenants would one day break surface. That is what we are witnessing.