By James Mabor,
Oct 20, 2015(Nyamilepedia) — Scholars on government and ethnic politics recognize that ethnicity, poor governance, dictatorship and abysmal poverty have caused political instability, chaos, bloodshed and the myriad conflicts in some African countries. Africa has numerous ethnicities:- Nigeria has over 250 ‘tribes’, Kenya over 40, Tanzania over 60 and South Sudan over 60. However, having ethnic groups is not an abnormal situation because they are primordial. We found them there and ourselves born into them with least effort or choice of any preferred tribe. Hence, our pride of belonging to such a tribe has no logic. We are then in danger when some politicians and other leaders want to achieve their objectives (political and/or economic) by invoking “ethnic action and nationalism”. Conflict then begins in a vicious circle with no end in sight.
There are political leaders seeking politico-economic power but may lack tangible agenda for their countries. They resort to mobilizing their tribes claiming that they are being marginalized and alienated. They work on their tribe’s psychology to see that it is well received to cause conflict. Those leaders pretend to defend ethnic interests but actually use ethnicity to organize people for their own political action. Such leaders need to know that a nation exists when its state apparatus serves its entire people. These leaders supposedly have a leading role in uniting the people, instilling in them a strong sense of nationhood and stirring up their patriotism. However, ethnicity is not envisaged to disappear but can be tamed through good governance (federal system), social justice and increased economic development throughout the country.
The Republic of South Sudan is composed of 64 ethnic groups (tribes) that were lumped by the colonial power under one administration with the Northern Sudan to make one Sudan. Some of these ethnic groups, in their normal life, have contacts over water sources, grazing lands, and fishing activities that at times resulted in tensions. These tensions are usually managed by the native elders- the administrative structures, created for them. However, under that one governmental administration, their ethnic political leaders have to compete over the running of the formal government structures and the allocation of the resources for development.
Whether it is the central or local/regional authority, the elites of these ethnic groups compete by all means over the state functions and facilities. In the absence of an ideology, tribalism filled that vacuum and then became the trend of things in governance. This seriously affected the cohesion of the Southern people as well as facilitated the dismantling/demise of the regional autonomy in 1983 (covered in detail by this writer in his “Rise and collapse of the regional autonomy” forthcoming). It further crippled and split the liberation movement in the bushes of the South in 1991. Tribalism was allegedly made the criteria for appointment to the government positions during the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) period- 2005. The latest was the December 16, 2013 incident in Juba that was sparked by political competition, with tribal connotations, over the SPLM leadership.
The tribal predicament is emphasized by the research that this author conducted (2008-2011) on ‘Impact of tribalism on the politics of Southern Sudan during 1980-2005’. A sample of 250 respondents from Southern Sudan representing academia, politicians, students, media, intellectuals, party leaders, community leaders, officials and teachers were interviewed. The respondents- 99.6%, confirmed the persistence of tribalism in the Southern Sudan government being perpetuated by civil servants and politicians for various reasons. Tribalism is believed to be reflected in the allocation of government positions, recruitment into civil service posts and land grabbing in Juba-the supposed South Sudan capital.
The overall effect of tribalism has been proven to raise the level of corruption thus undermining good governance and efficiency, heighten communal hatred in consequence and hamper development. Perhaps one way out of this predicament could be establishment of a fluid multi-party system that may suppress tribal sentiments as the parties are usually guided by definite principles or ideology.
With the inception of Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), there existed a pattern of cooperation that extended to election period onwards to the independence vote (referendum) of the South. That euphoria was never envisaged to breed factionalism or be followed, in any case, by fragmentation. It was only the formation of the Government of Southern Sudan structures that added an element of ambiguity. There generated a feeling of loyalty to one’s own ethnic group when the SPLM- cherished inclusive thinking trend failed to be applied to the satisfaction of some stakeholders. Nevertheless, the SPLM/SPLA solidarity prior to national independence was carried over to post independence period. But the operation of the SPLM party towards the end of the second transition (2012) developed ethnic rivalry and competition over the political succession and political reforms of the party (SPLM). This bred mistrust and hastened the leadership gap.
Therefore, when the leader in power works politically for his ethnic group to placate and control the government, the ensuing political conflicts will undoubtedly be perceived in ethnic terms. Instead of unifying citizens by combating ethnocentrism, the government reinforced tribalism (ethnicized politics) and thus fragmented the whole society.
Recollecting the generation under the SPLM orientation and indoctrination, it was thought that ethnic identity should be on the decline. The members of this generation are characterized by forgetfulness or ignorance of the parents’ language, customs, mores and values. The melting pot theory is not envisaged here but a somehow detribalized generation that only cherished comradeship was bred during the struggle. One then assumed that in normal life the sons and daughters of this generation (now in the leadership) would live to the norms they learned and not affiliate with their ethnic group organizations, unless they are aspiring politicians trying to exploit their background for votes.
Contrary to that expectation, political ethnicity in South Sudan has grown, encouraged by some groups and by the elites in the government. New ethnic associations are springing up- unfortunately even in the universities, adopting the activist tactics and strategies to defend and promote ethnic-group ambition to gain political power and positions for the ethnic group. Accusations of marginalization and discrimination in the political appointments at all levels of government have become common. These feelings have inevitably led to rivalry, resentment and conflict between the dominant group and others. Each isolated group believes that it is no less deserving of attention, privilege or preference than the dominant ruling one. The complaint is further promoted to under- or over representation of the group not by virtue of its proportion of the total population but that its leadership has the grip of the state power, amenities and apparatus.
No one would grudge the holding of tribal festivals or celebrating and participating in their fraternal, cultural or benevolent societies, publishing their histories and involving their sons and daughters. We are aware that the social clubs and organizations are intended to nurture their languages, stories, memories, folkways, and the cultural and ethnic history of their forebears. This does not prejudice any other ethnic group because it tends to only advocate understanding and appreciation of all human groups. This may lead to understanding, tolerance, acceptance, and admiration of the other groups which I assume will, in turn, strengthen the democratic nature of the society we hope to cherish.
During the formation of Government of South Sudan (GoSS), the disadvantaged and aggrieved ethnic groups seeking a revision of the established ethno-political order had a non-violent proactive action. That action of petitioning the SPLM leadership, in light of the above, posed a challenge to the constitutional order. Challenges to the constitutional order mean, of course, challenges to regime legitimacy. Such legitimacy issues are likely to be especially severe in newly establishing or newly established political systems, since such systems lack a past performance (except the liberation) on which to base their legitimacy. Any perceived inequities in the system are particularly likely to be deemed unacceptable. The situation in the state then approaches anarchy, because the elected authority was not legitimately capable of resolving disputes between the ethnic groups e.g. Shilluk-Dinka, Murle-Lou Nuer, and even within sub-elites among the Dinka secions in Rumbek. Moreover, the government controlled by the ethnically dominant group does not enjoy full legitimacy even among the dominant ethnicity, due to rivalries among ethno-nationalist leaders and sub-élites.
Under such circumstances, virtually every issue of ethnic cleavage and dispute over the official versions of the historical past, will often acquire a salient political dimension, and will generally turn into contests for power or become instrumentalized as such. When power conflicts between ethnic adversaries are particularly likely to become extreme and to be viewed as questions of survival, the likelihood of violence will increase dramatically. This is highly reflected when Riek Machar, who spearheaded SPLM reforms, was projected (designated) an ethnic adversary. President Kiir, the head of one dominant group that controlled government, appeared to have viewed the contest for power as a question of survival and dramatically resorted to increase violence. He mobilized, trained and armed the Dinka as agents of his government to violently repress the Nuer.
Therefore, the central (ethnically dominant) government Dinka President resorted to violence to repress the Nuer-his supposed contestants. But the group (not all Nuer at all) that stood with Dr. Riek Machar were not struggling for ethnic redistribution of political arrangements. They were for transformation of the party- SPLM, and change of government policies towards citizen’s oriented programmes. This was the point of transition from non-violent to violent collective tribal action.
It is worthy of note that at no stage was there an ethno-political conflict between Dinka and Nuer except for the power struggle within the SPLM during the liberation period. It was when Riek Machar and his group theoretically ousted John Garang from the movement’s leadership in August 1991. But in the case of Kiir-Riek contention for power within the SPLM, the central government instead took to repressing the Nuer ethnic group. At this stage the ethnically dominant government of Kiir calculated that the challenge cast by Riek and his supposedly aggrieved ethnic group jeopardized the regime’s legitimacy in toto. The dominant ethnic group and its governing elite escalated the internal party conflict into ethno-political. When the agents of central government reached that stage of brutal repression, they never experienced any reaction commensurate with their action and so continued violence with impunity.
The so-called democracy experienced in South Sudan is theoretical and has neither eroded nor transcended ethnic aspirations. It has instead allowed or rather facilitated tribalism to survive and even flourish. Under such system, this South Sudan nation is already plagued with intergroup suspicions, resentments and conflicts and shall continue to be characterized so for quite some time. This is a serious checkpoint worthy of reflection for a smooth crossing after which we can highlight and handle the issue of corruption- the second checkpoint.
The author can be reached at email@example.com