When the Republic of South Sudan seceded from its Northern neighbour following a peaceful referendum on July 9th 2011, hopes were high amongst the international community that the world’s newest state would harbour the principles its people had fought over six decades to obtain. South Sudan however soon lost the unity fostered during the years of northern exploitation and became rather a loose political association of ethnically separated and geographically disparate groups. Barely functioning as a state the deficiencies of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) ensured South Sudanese never came to see themselves as a nation. The heart of the conflict which erupted in South Sudan on December 15th 2013 is political yet its manifestation is disastrously tribal and ethnic hence greatly diminishing the chances of an easy settlement.
From day one of independence the SPLM under President Salva Kiir struggled to adjust itself to modern political conditions following years of waging war in the bush. Mr Kiir approached and still approaches government with the paranoia and instinct he had grown so used to leading to the degeneration of unity within the upper echelons of the party as he formed a strong base of mainly ethnic Dinka supporters around him. The general population meanwhile found little reason to support the new state. Without the democratic institutions and behaviour that could have given South Sudan’s government popular approval and support, and without the common legislative, judiciary, enforcement and regulatory bodies emblematic of modern states many South Sudanese felt the ruling administration simply did not care for their concerns or woes. Mr Kiir abused and misused the apparatus available to him in the interests of his own personal power and he persistently treated the duties of government with the same outlook he would give a military campaign. In the absence of constitutional reform or any nation building initiatives for that matter South Sudan’s diverse and complicated communities turned to the most tangible and accessible institutions available to them – their tribes. Within the rotting state tribes became the most obvious vehicles of protest, the only organised and most traditional affiliations for people to turn to. Tribal and ethnic loyalties became paramount because the loftier notions of state and nation had failed. The sub-nation is therefore both a replacement of and a means of protest against the nation.
Tribal alliances were easy to turn to because ironically South Sudan’s decrepit institutional structure was already organised into ethnic factions. In 1991 many ethnic Nuer SPLM members split from the main party to form the SPLM- Nasir under Riek Machar, the current Nuer faction and main opposition leader.Machar made peace with core SPLM in 2001 to force Sudan to the negotiating table however the ethnic loyalties forged in the decade long civil war within a civil war persisted despite the creation of a new independent republic. In fact, the reconciliation between the SPLM and SPLM-Nasir merely took the form of Nuer and other tribal rebel units being incorporated but not integrated into the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) meaning that militarily capable ethnic factions were ready in waiting as soon as their respective tribes turned to them in need. Politics under Kiir had rendered many South Sudanese regions into what were effectively tribal fiefdoms again enhancing the accessibility of tribal over national politics to civilian South Sudanese. South Sudan rather easily therefore exploded along its ethnic fault lines that suddenly came to have a new meaning, relevance and purpose.
The conflict therefore now has the appearance of ethnic war even though its causes are primarily political. Whilst the Nuer and other tribes came to assemble themselves in anti-government factions the Dinka tend to demand change yet still protect the incumbent president for fear of Nuer genocidal triumphalism. As fighting continues the nature of the belligerents (their tribal distinctions) means that ethnic war becomes a more potent reality every day. One particularly fearsome group is the Nuer White army, mainly a group of cattle herding Lou Nuer who paint themselves in white ash as protection form insects and who recently advanced on the city of Bor. Members of the Shilluk ethnic group have also organised themselves into fighting units as have many of the Equatorian tribes who fear of a government offensive on their land. Adding to the complexity is that a number of opposition leaders arrested by the government were in fact of Dinka ethnic origin, highlighting the fact that for some at least economic and social frustration can be vented along conventional political and not tribal lines.
If unstopped the conflict in South Sudan has the potential to cause one of the worst humanitarian tragedies of the 21st century. Beyond the capital Juba there are no tarmac roads making it difficult to deliver what aid the government allows into the country. Poor yields, the disruption of the harvest and the destruction of crops by armed groups is making the prospect of famine evermore likely and in May this year 100,000 people were confirmed as having being displaced because of the continued fighting. The war appears to be sucking in South Sudan’s unhelpful neighbours too. The Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) has been hindered by the intervention of Uganda on the side of Mr Kiir. President Museveni of Uganda has always held the belief that autocracy in Africa is the unique path the continent’s governments must follow to prevent social dislocation and so seeks to protect the regime in Juba by committing 4,500 troops to its cause. In addition Sudan has surprisingly got involved to ensure the survival of the current government, most likely because of the mutual interest in maintaining oil production in already unstable border territories. Foreign intervention of the military kind simply has the effect of disrupting peace processes and causing more bloodshed and is therefore an unfortunate development of events.
What South Sudan needs now is profound reform in government and the establishment of nationwide structures that all South Sudanese can trust and respect no matter which tribe they originate from. One huge step towards this would be democratisation and a genuine popular election rather than just another ethnic power sharing settlement that would inevitably dissolve as quickly as the first one. This however is unlikely to happen especially given the intervention of Uganda yet political change needn’t be so dramatic. Other measures to reconcile civilians to the government could be the creation of effective and non-corrupt institutions, the promotion of a pan tribal vision for the country and once peace had been concluded the eradication of warlordism. The kind of pressure placed on both Mr Machar and President Kiir must be in the interests of negotiation and must be from regional and western countries- a military solution of the kind sought by Uganda is simply not going to address the root causes of this civil war. As with so many African conflicts though even negotiations seem a long way off……