Opinion: The Nuer’s contemporary political dilemma: an insider’s analysis
By Matai M. Muon
“What makes one sleepless is one’s own cause.” Says the Nuer.
September 17th 2019 (Nyamilepedia) – The Nuer (formerly Nath) is a significant political unit strategically located at the northern most part of South Sudan. It is the only nation out of more than 63 political units of the world’s nascent country that borders two foreign lands. The Nuer borders Ethiopia in the East and Sudan in the northwest. This is a strategic geographical advantage in political terms. By some measures, the Nuer is the second largest political unit by demography and land mass. The Nuer’s major occupation is farming; cattle herding in particular. Although the Nuer has some tradition in crop farming and fishing, nothing beats the Nuer’s love of and desire for cattle. The rest serves as a supplement to the Nuer’s cow.
In historical context, it was in the Nuerland that the “southern problem” as it was known then was first contextualized. The Nuer’s contributions in political and social foundations of what is now South Sudan does not require a lecture. It is abundant in our national archives. The Nuer, like no any other nation in South Sudan has paid the biggest price before, during and even after the war of struggle. Its proximity to Sudan and Ethiopia both served as a strategic advantage and at the same time, a disadvantage. The war of struggle for example, cost the Nuer heavily both in material and human terms. At the same time, it had opened up the Nuer to the life of modernity especially the eastern and central Nuer.
The trillion dollar question that begs every analyst for answers then is: why is the Nuer here? Why for over 70 years since the times of John Both Diu, has the Nuer languished in endless political dilemmas? A dilemma is a situation in which one has to make a difficult decision. In this situation, the dilemma for the Nuer is to either diversify their politics or perish altogether as a misled political organism in the 21st century.
Let us begin this debate with some rhetoric. If the Nuer does make up such a strategic position in South Sudan, why are they suffering politically? Is it because someone hates the Nuer? Is it because the Dinka does not want the Nuer in leadership? Has the Nuer been cursed into this?
None of these is true. Two things are fundamental to these questions. One is that the Nuer today just like they were 70 years ago, have not defined their strategic position in the political sense of the word. The Nuer assumes politics as they assume their cattle. When the Nuer cow leaves its peg at noon, the Nuer assumes that it shall return home in the evening for it always returns. This is not just a matter of political experimentation but also a philosophical illusion.
In deductive philosophy, the statement that “the sun will come up tomorrow since it has been the case since time immemorial” attracts scientific investigations. What if it fails to rise? What would happen? Likewise, the Nuer must not make assumption about politics. They must make strategic plans with concrete action points (a B, C or even D plans) if they were to succeed. In politics, unless one becomes smart, one dies many times unlike in war where one dies only once. Political assumptions have killed the Nuer for several decades. The most worrying part is that the Nuer seems to learn none of these lessons. Somebody says that if one does not learn from history, he is doomed to repeat it.
Few examples are fundamental. In the early 20s, the Whiteman almost decimated the Nuer population in endless wars as they resisted its invasion. Grandfather account says that the Nuer would face the superior weaponry of the English with their clubs, sticks and sometimes, their mere bodies. Suicidal attempts were rampant. One included a war formation of two lines; the armed line would take the lead while the unarmed ones would follow immediately. The plan was that once the armed ones were finished, the unarmed ones would take over. What a disaster!
The Nuer did not know that the Whiteman’s bullet could kill two birds with only one stone. Their resistance although celebrated even today left them more vulnerable than they would have been otherwise. The point was not whether they could have done so. It is how it should have been done. But we might reserve this criticism for the Nuer of the 20s did not go to school so as to draw a line between primitive bravery and organized warfare.
In recent memory, was the Gajaak Nuer massacre in the late 80s by the SPLA under John Garang. This killing was premediated at best and if the Nuer had had proper political formation at the top, this consequential damage would have been avoidable. Political assumptions are very dangerous to say the least. When one assumes the outcome of any political calculation, one dies almost automatically.
The second important answer to the Nuer’s political dilemma lies at the heart of the Nuer’s political thought – their basic making of politics is fundamentally flawed. The Nuer’s conception of politics is anchored on a misguided loyalty; a blind one if you will. This disastrous conception of politics has stolen the Nuer minds for more than three decades. It is a community that takes its orders from a sole political figure who manipulates the rules, transform the structure as time allows.
They conceive that politics should be based on the idea of “One Man, One Society.” This is very dangerous. In politics, a society which does not accommodate diverse opinions and fresh ideas dies before its time. The Nuer socially speaking, are very conservative. This natural setting unfortunately extends to their political arrangements. However, the contemporary political space rejects conservatism. Rather it celebrates liberal and progressive ideas without judgement. The English says that you cannot judge by its cover. Likewise, the Nuer cannot determine who would be better in managing their affairs without giving them a chance.
The Nuer’s political architecture has been designed over times, on the need that the society must follow one direction, sometimes even without any sense of questioning. This reality has played out well into the recent times. When one questions that tradition by going their ways, the Nuer castigates them, names and shames them publically so that they become social outcasts. The intention is to disempower them, isolates them and disrupts their liberal mindsets. In contemporary times, names such as “Nuer wew” and “Chamjiec” have emerged, invading political discourses. The results of this internal war of words have birthed more destruction within the Nuer’s political atmosphere than previously imagined.
The Nuer lacks better words for those who think differently. It does not entertain diverging opinions. They are always perceived as traitors. This is problematic. No society develops politically without accommodating its diverse views. The consequence of this results in a political pretense. For instance, the Nuer wew of yesterday become today’s heroes and the Chamjiec of last year turn out to be the guardians of now. The explanation to this hypocrisy lies in the fact that the Nuer lacks a coherent political road map. Without a strong political vision, success becomes a nightmare. This causes long term political marginalization leading to social and psychological torture. The fruits of this nonsensical tradition have the capacity to infect the posterity.
These fundamental shortcomings of the Nuer’s political tradition have created a favorable avenue for political exploitations by the Nuer’s small elites. In this space, I will make the case of Dr. Riek Machar to represent the Nuer’s contemporary political confusion. He is an interesting case as a matter of fact!
Dr. Riek Machar and the Nuer Politics
Analyzing Dr. Riek Machar from the perspective of the Nuer without reference to his education defeats the logic of such an attempt. It is important to accept that it was Riek’s educational elitism among the Nuer that made the greatest difference in the early 80s. Personally I grew up knowing only Riek Machar as the most educated human being among the Nuer. It was only after I obtained the power to read that I discovered the otherwise.
Combined with his social charm and amazing grasp of the Nuer’s basic strengths and weaknesses, Dr. Riek would capitalize on these very things. Having a quality education was everything among the Nuer in the 80s. This strategic, intellectual advantage would earn him a greater cake than he possibly deserved in the land. He would become everything, more or less like a Plato or the Aristotle of the Greek. Riek was/is being described as a pilot, a doctor, a meteorologist, a foreteller, a political scientist, a genius and so forth.
All these constructed skills and qualifications have made him the most preferred and by some measures, the most feared human person in this part of the earth – in fact, some have immortalized him, regarding him as the symbol of Ngundeng. There is no problem of doing so. But there is a problem in politics. All these colors blind the Nuer and make them remain in that one murderous political location since the 40s.
Today just like in the late 80s and early 90s, most people among the Nuer think that the name Riek Machar is synonymous with the name Nuer and the Nuer is the same with the Riek Machar. How did this come about? The answer is simple; it came about as a result of a society that builds its politics on assumptions. A significant number of the Nuer, including the educated class, has willingly and voluntarily surrendered to Riek’s leadership. For over 30 years, their political underpinnings have been influenced by Riek’s choices – majority of which have caused disasters for the Nuer than peace. If that is not a problem to you, I have no idea what is.
In the early 80s when Riek Machar joined politics formally, the Nuer were still very naïve politically speaking. Riek Machar would obtain unquestionable powers among the interior Nuer. None had the gut to dare ask who the man was. He was an educated Nuer, humble and had a great sense of listening. He was also courageous in some sense, and willing to take on battles (most of which he won but none of which he sustained). These traits are admirable among the Nuer. But if he listens much, Riek implements less. Again, this takes us back to the second fundamental problem of the Nuer politics; the idea that “one man one society” rules the land.
If a leader listens to you but he implements none of your proposals, what sets him apart from him who listens not? Riek has a great pride in traditional administration within the Nuerland. Prior to the 2013 catastrophe, he would convene endless meetings with the Nuer chiefs, gathering in places like Juba, Fangak or Bentiu on topics he claimed to be of importance. This was one of his ways to keep them interested in his politics of death and destruction of the Nuer nation. His policy worked. Today one does not question Riek’s leadership at the watch of a Nuer elder. They can be cursed instantly. What a society!
In 1991, Riek Machar took the Nuer to war, fighting for his cause that he would lose a decade later. The Creeping Rebellion as it was called was for the right cause but it lacked a strong political vision to sustain it. This is the same reason why the Father of the Nation had gone somewhere else. If you fight without a qualified vision, you can rest assure that you will lose the war.
The Nuer’s White Army, naïve and innocent as they were, took to Bor and had it razed down. It was Riek’s political war. None had asked what was in it for the Nuer. Riek Machar had disagreed with Garang. That was enough to fight. Some would claim that the Gajaak Massacre of the mid 80s motivated the Nuer to fight. But you are a victim of Nuer politics if you so believe. Why were the Gajaak massacred? Was it not because the Nuer were absent at the top? If so, who was at the top then? You are the boss!
In 1993, following Riek’s Bor war, Gawaar Nuer Massacre followed. About 3,000 innocent men, women and children were set ablaze in churches and huts. Again, who do you blame here? It was not Kuol Manyang. It was your Riek Machar. If you kill people next door, you don’t snore as if you have killed a chicken. Again, politics kills many times, war kills once. The killing of these innocent souls would remain in the dustbin of history. Life as usual under Riek’s political mathematics would have to continue. After all, he had guaranteed the Nuer in life and in death. The biggest problem Riek Machar has as a Nuer political figure is that he likes the Nuer so much so that he takes their lives.
Riek used his education in the past and still employ it now to harm the Nuer rather than helping them. Indeed, Dr. Machar remains the only Doctor of Philosophy who has caused more wars than he could solve in the entire history of higher academia. What good is a PHD if it cannot save lives? Trading in the Nuer’s natural character of sentimental reaction and emotional outburst in matters of war, Riek has led the Nuer for more than 30 years in untold human suffering, death and large scale material destruction. His political wars have trashed one of the most courageous human beings on earth into a simple, degraded social class in recent times.
Today, the Nuer remains the least educated class in the whole of South Sudan and this makes it the least educated on the planet. They have filled the entire region’s dilapidating refugee settlements, living in the 15th century human conditions. The Nuer girl is raped five times on average. She gets abducted and traded for sex slaves. The Nuer boy does not attend classes. He attends the Riek endless frontlines, fighting for a future that only Riek knows. He dies in frontlines, his mother gets raped and sometimes killed just after as we have witnessed in Bentiu’s Leer, Mayiandit, Pagak, and Ayod. His father gets wounded in Riek’s wars and dies without treatment. In the eyes of a Riek politician, he dies a hero and a patriot. Whose patriot? The dead’s patriot I supposed. The Nuer must understand that only the living can build a living society.
The Nuer houses have become public shelters, accommodating strangers while they languish in disease-infested areas of the Rhino Camp, UNIMISS POC 1 & 2, Kakuma 1 & 4 etc. Some of whom have since become insane, bearing long term memory loss and permanent psychological damage. Their women carry babies of different genetic compositions including foreign DNAs as dirty as that of the UPDF of Uganda.
The Nuer people for the first time in more than 1000 years are begging. Yes, the Nuer is begging. If you didn’t know, now you know. Some have turned to prostitution as a matter of fact. The Nuer’s beautiful girls and young women of the highest respect and dignity are selling big at the foreign bureau of sexual exchange! Endless wars and fighting that Riek had and still imposing on the Nuer results in a backward society that cannot compete in the 21st century. For how long would this have to continue? This is a question that demands for strategic answers.
In 1990s, Garang had educated his Bor town by smuggling his boys and girls to outside world. Today, the Bor Dinka makes some of the well educated people in South Sudan. Riek Machar, instead of taking advantage of Ethiopia, the only country which borders the Nuer, decides to conscript on a mass scale compared to none, young Nuer boys to the useless frontlines he would leave later. The biggest question any intelligent Nuer should ask today is: Does Riek Machar intends to invest in you or in his own long political aspiration? Historical data confirms the former.
Riek’s public records regarding the Nuer nation are the poorest. He had failed to protect your lives on several instances. There is nothing higher than a human life on a good leader’s plate. His leadership quest had led to your ongoing devastation and embarrassment both in social and economic measures.
He fights big but has a poverty of strategy. Making matters worse, he takes no ideas but his own. For how long is the humblest of questions? During the bush times, he had not prepared you for the future. While the rest of Southern Sudan was being educated, he had chosen the contrary, educating you in battles and conflicts. You know why? Because if he had educated you, you would be able to ask these questions I am now asking. You think this is not true? Good for you.
In 2013, Riek Machar failed you again. Don’t raise your dirty hands to Salva Kiir. It was Riek who killed you. Salva Kiir had no obligations whatsoever the case and will never have any in the foreseeable future to protect your lives. South Sudan as it stands now does not have face to perform that duty. Nobody had given him that legitimacy. The events leading to December 2013 would convince even the staunchest supporters of Riek that he indeed, was responsible for the massacre that would follow. Riek knew very well he had once killed the Dinka. Salva Kiir also made it very clear prior to the December 15 that the events of 1991 would not repeat themselves.
But what did Riek do as your leader? He pressed on, calling for a leadership contest in a city that didn’t guarantee his life and that of his community. In revenge, Salva Kiir sent in his tribal men whose training he had begun while Riek himself was at the second most powerful position in the land. Genocide would ensue, creating one of the biggest humanitarian catastrophes since the 1994 Rwanda.
More than 20,000 (est) innocent Nuer would be massacred in a week, forming another historical death statistics by Gatmachar. If you think this is not true, you are a victim of Nuer politics. Strategically speaking, Riek had a political choice before then. He chose not because after all he had the Nuer; a fighting machine that does not ask questions when it comes to battles.
What did he do once the egg broke? He would employ his usual weak leadership tactics, listening well but implementing none.
In 2014 at the first IO Meeting in Pagak, he listened to his camp. Suggestions were made here and there that would have made the biggest impact. Because of his Riekocratic theory which has failed him more than three times, he would go against his Men of War, dismissing their strategic war plans. They left his camp and he would say “kac lorӓ” leaving his once strong opposition weak and fragile. History was repeating itself.
In situations of war, the last person you disagree with is an army general. For strong military is the foundation of a strong, powerful political force. Riek didn’t care. He would lose Men like Gatdet Yaka, the only General who stood for him and with him while his very life was in harm’s way. Gabriel Tang who endangered his life, walking the bushes of the Equatoria just to send a message that Riek Machar is indeed, a person with all the rights and freedoms to ask for a contested position was denied a medical treatment. Both men had since passed on. The later was killed in a frontline by Riek forces while the former died in mysterious events in Khartoum. Rest in peace, Gaatnath!
Riek would lose his strategic fighting force in a matter of a week. Again, poor strategic leadership was the cause. It is said, and I agree, that there will be no better formidable force the Nuer would ever have than that of the Pagak 2014. No one creates men. Only God does. Riek should know that humans are mortal and their lives deserve protection.
In 2015, Riek signed a peace deal that some of his able diplomats and frontline negotiators had helped draft. Riek would then send his able right-hand man, General Taban Deng as a leader of the advanced team to Juba to prepare the way. Taban did indeed prepare the way, creating a favorable political airspace in murky waters. Had it not been his charm and courageous political maneuvers, Taban would not have succeeded and indeed, the whole thing would have slipped off the balance.
Riek would fly into Juba with his 1,300 men carrying minimal weaponry. His security just like that of 2013 was in a state of quagmire but he went in anyway. For Riek had been used to killing the Nuer both in uniform and without. Few weeks later, he would commit yet another political blunder, giving strategic ministerial portfolios to non-Nuer. The big names who had committed even personal resources to sustain the two years’ war that Riek had created would be left with no meaningful positions. In politics, this was a very bad mathematics; the one that would not escape repercussions comes Ngundeng or what. His argument was based on his usual Riekocratic theory that politics, even in matters of war, is not a zero sum game.
General Taban, one of the best known political realists of our times would not buy that theory. His much awaited Ministry of Petroleum was being traded away for Riek’s Riekocratic peace theory. He didn’t want to play the Nuer politics of “wait and be patient.” Politics Gen. Taban believes is a game of time. It operates under strict schedules and political opportunities come only once. Riek Machar should have understood this simple logic. If he did, it could have saved the lives lost in 2016 dogfight.
General Taban would do the unthinkable; conspiring with the desperate regime of Salva Kiir and was awarded the second highest medal of leadership in the land – the First Vice President of the Republic. Kabaaw! This was the greatest and perhaps the most unthinkable political making in the entire history of the Nuer’s political thought. The Nuer if you ask me today needs more of this. The Nuer has been held hostage for so long. Let the politics play and the music is on ladies and gentlemen. Get a glass of wine and join the disco because time is one thing the Nuer lacks now.
None of the Nuer, not even their very own Ngundeng had seen this coming. Again, politics is dynamic. It is a very complex science that requires strategic thinking and quick decisions. The result of those changes is in the public library. Riek would be pursued into the Congo. His head was allegedly given more than $16 million. His presence suddenly became a number national emergency. He was saved by the gallant Nuer fighters but the death toll on the Nuer soldiers remains a far-reaching consequence. His poor political judgement would once again make the Nuer women widowers for the fourth times in history. Is this the leader worth fighting for? If you ask me, my answer is, NO.
In political calculations, if the net losses are more than the gains, rethink. One would wonder why it took the Nuer more than 30 years to discover that they needed a different kind of a leader. The Nuer nation is vast both in geography and in landmass. In terms of intellectual capital, the Nuer today has some of the finest leaders and intellectuals who can do just right. The Nuer’s addiction to Riek Machar has no excuse at all. Any society that does not change suffers in politics. And in a least developed country like our very own, it is a stupid choice to choose a passive position in political spectrum. Welcome to African Politics 201!
Having one person to micromanage the whole society creates long term suffering and this should not continue. It is rather disappointing to continue sugarcoating a leader who causes the society more harm than good. Riek Machar’s name is being sung at the alcohol joints. He is praised in songs and in deeds, but the man had not done anything to deserve this. Gatpaan Biel’s YouTube song, for example, viewed more than 100,000 times praises Riek’s leadership quest despite the fact that his quest for power had been responsible for the death of the Lou-Nuer boys for 30 years counting. He said in the song and I quote:
“….We should not worry even if we don’t have peace, we the Nuer. You will see the Doctor sitting at the helm of power one day. Whoever messes with Riek shall crumble…”
Three things are fundamental in the song. One is that the artist agrees that the Nuer don’t have peace. The second thing is that he places his hopes on Riek Machar (Doctor) and the third being the warning for anyone who questions Riek Machar.
For the benefit of space and time, I will focus on the last one. For a very long time, Riek Machar has enjoyed political and socio-cultural monopoly of the Nuer. He has assumed Nuer powers and prestige and has even colonized the Nuer’s public discussions. Today it is not surprising to hear the Nuer young people talking about Riek Machar as the Nuer leader. But who has elected him? I don’t have a single memory of an election in the Nuer that agreed on his leadership. Again, this assumption has made some to believe that he is untouchable.
The Nuer Politics into the Future
In this article, I have been critical of the Nuer in political terms. I have also criticized Riek Machar’s past and current leadership in the context of the Nuer. I have done this to change the debate of how we talk as the Nuer. In this last section, I will conclude by proposing some critical steps that the Nuer need as they head to the future. My conclusion will be based on what I have discussed above.
The first thing that the Nuer needs to recognize is that politics in its real form is indeed, a zero sum game. In the game theory, political alternatives are scarce and choices are difficult to make. This forms the theory of Political Dilemma and indeed, the Prisoners’ Dilemma. This leaves the society with a constrained space thus, the call for a strategic re-alignment in Nuer politics. Strategic re-alignment in a sense that the Nuer requires a complete U-turn from its contemporary political thought to a politics based on mutual interest, not mutual destruction as currently constituted.
To put this in perspective, no one should hate General Taban because he had stood for his right to fill a leadership vacuum. Nobody should question the political right of Hon. Changson Lew for saying that the Nuer can survive post-Machar era. Indeed, the Nuer shall and will. Because in five years, Machar turns 73, and biology teaches that age has an inverse relations with thinking capacity. The older one gets, the poorer he becomes in decision making. If the Doctor had been making poor mistakes at the age of 38, how would it look like when he turns 70? Tell me.
Historical data even without checking into the events that took place in 2013 counting confirms that the Nuer has been lacking a strategic leader. General Taban as a matter of urgency had to take up that space. In political science, in the events of uncertainty, a leader emerges. The Nuer far and wide must stop their political nonsense and primitive concept of quantifying political choices; the Nuer society is too big and diverse to be under a sole leader.
In politics, just like in economics, a sole player creates a monopoly. This has been the Nuer’s nightmare for several decades. Riek Machar’s monopoly of the Nuer’s politics since the 80s has led to the current face of the Nuer’s political space.
New entrants’ must be given a free space to test their theories of leadership. The biggest mistake the Nuer would ever commit will be to mess with these new players. Political players kill absolutely when they feel that their interests are compromised. It is in the general interest of every Nuer today than ever that the Nuer society needs a break. Such a break cannot be possible with the old belief that praises old faces at the cost of new ones. Change, and adapt or remain and perish. It is that simple. The formula is a cake walk but if you employ the Nuer politics, you will have complicated it.
The second thing almost ties to the first suggestion; strategic planning for coherent political development. It is without doubt that there is no social development for the Nuer without a united political force. Unity of purpose is possible when there are set strategic action plans in a society. Politics and development are not enemies but they are also not good friends. Building on this fundamental reality, the Nuer today must make sure they develop both the short, medium and long term strategic blueprints for their societal advancement. A lot of human destruction has happened in the last 30 years that has left the society in ruin.
To address this decades old devastation does call for goals setting. One way of doing this would to re-energize the idea of the Nuer Conference. After more than a decade, the Nuer has not set in one space to speak sense about the kind of future it should take and in which to invest. It would be during this conference that the Nuer from the west to the east would come up with concrete plans of action to redress the historical political and economic mistakes of its time.
Secondly as a matter of practice, the Nuer in the neighboring countries and outside Africa are doing a tremendous job, contributing millions of US dollars in form of remittances back home. This money should be properly utilized. For example, a coordinated Nuer developmental projects into building schools, and hospitals would make the greatest difference instead of sending those funds to buy weapons that kill more, conscript the Nuer boys into wars and the cycle of problem repeats itself.
The third and the last suggestion is that the Nuer as a contemporary society must encourage talent incubation and crave for fresh ideas to advance its purpose and aspirations in the 21st century. One area that the Nuer needs to invest in is the entrepreneurial space. There is poverty of data into this area. The Nuer has not been good example of innovation and business mindset for time immemorial. This however, does not make it an impossible venture. The Nuer needs to tap into this arena to create a transformation that even their founding fathers and mothers had not enjoyed.
This can be done through active participation in and promotion of emerging talents, influencing the Nuer kids when they make socially acceptable choices etc. For example, when a Nuer teenager chooses a business course, they should be given the support they deserve to do well in that field. Today’s world economy is anchored on the ideas of innovative and creative business development. The fact that this field is foreign to the Nuer makes it even more important. Just think for a minute what it would do for the Nuer if 20% of its population goes to the business sector in the next 10 years. It would be the greatest revolution of all times in the Nuer’s long history of existence.
As Einstein once put it, “In the middle of every difficulty lies opportunity.”
Matai M. Muon is a Social Researcher and a student of International Studies at the Institute of Diplomacy and International Studies, University of Nairobi. He is available at email@example.com.