Ethnicity and Conflict in South Sudan: The Triggers of Current Conflict
By Duop Nyidar Lap,
July 21, 2015(Nyamilepedia) —- After nearly two years of independence, the new state of South Sudan was thrown in bloody war on December 15th 2013. The newly acquired independence, proclaimed on 9th July 2011, was thrown into uncertainty. The young state ability to perform even the most basic functions of governance has crumbled under the strains of the on-going protracted conflict. South Sudan state is increasingly acquiring the characteristics of a failed state: death has become banal whether by starvation or bullets in government or rebel controlled areas. Domestically, an enfeebled and weak civil society lacks the capacity and space to present realistic alternatives for a peaceful solution while IGAD and various international peace initiative attempts fail.
Current South Sudan’s armed conflict, although admitted by its own perpetrators as power struggle within the SPLM/A (Arusha Declaration), continues to be depicted as a tribal/ethnic conflict between Nuer and Dinka by those who want to see the two communities to fight to the finish. This trend of thinking is an attempt to simplify and reduce the nationalistic concerns of the leaders of SPLM/A IO about the way the leadership of the SPLM/A was and continues to manage the new nation. Historically, inter-ethnic conflicts between the Nuer and Dinka were mainly environmental conflicts in which multiple Nuer and Dinka groups and clans compete over scarce resources for cattle grazing. Cattle raiding were commonly committed.
The global climate change exacerbated resource scarcity, and contributed to intensifying the conflicts and developing ethnic cleavage. The type of conflict drastically shifted from resource-driven to identity-driven conflict during the civil wars between 1972 and 2005. During these periods some elites have, however, used the country’s resources to further their own selfish political and economic interests while the majority of the people of South Sudan lead a miserable life.
There are many underlying causes of the conflict which many political commentators tend to down play. The ongoing tragedy is also the result of the dominant political-military reluctance to share power and wealth within an inclusive multi-ethnic and multi-cultural political system. The current war has historical roots and is a direct consequence of the major divisions between the leaders that formed the liberation movement in 1983. These divisions were partly the result of bad management of liberation movement at the time in which certain ethnic groups were badly mistreated causing deep animosities among the Nuer. As a result the liberation movement was divided into two antagonistic groups – the SPLM/A and A2. The SPLM/A was led by Dr. John Garang while Akuot Atem led the A2. Both leaders came from the same former Bor District. Although the A2 was initially formed to fight Khartoum separately from the SPLM/A, it did not conduct any operations against Khartoum. At the surface the differences between the SPLM/A and A2 seem ideological but deeper these differences remained ethnic and tribal.
During the scramble for Africa, Sudan came under the control of the British Crown. As part of the colonial administrative policies Southern Sudan ethnic/tribal groups were placed under different centrally administered units (districts and provinces). In the latter years the colonial authorities adopted a policy of divide and rule ostensibly to divide the struggle against colonialism and to isolate the North from the South at the time. This inevitably led to the politicization of ethnicity as different ethnic/tribal groups retreated into primordial constructs for cultural and political self-preservation.
The role of ethnicity in triggering and sustaining the current civil war provides an understanding of how the major political-military forces have used ethnic politics for different yet equally destructive purposes. For president Kiir the formal and informal ethnic/tribal networks in mobilizing the Dinka, Nuer Wew, UPDF, Israel and Sudan rebels to fight on his behalf, has been detrimental in maintaining his grip on power against the odds of domestic and international pressures. On the other hand, the SPLM/A IO have successfully used ethnicity/tribalism to rally and sustain popular support among the Nuer and Equatorians to fight the Juba regime.
While the conflict rages on leading to the collapse of governance, unaccountable and opportunistic elites continue to loot public resources worth millions of dollars. Meanwhile reconciliation and peace continue to remain elusive for foreseeable future especially in the absence of a vibrant civil society with the ability to bridge the ethnic divide separating the warring parties and provide alternative forms of governance. A governance that is informed by a new inclusive and transparent political system that is based on democracy, justice, equality, equity, human rights and rule of law.
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