Analyses Contributor's Mabior Garang de Mabior

The Root Cause of the December 2013 Crisis in South Sudan: The ‘Sectarian Culturalism’ Factor – A Response to Hon. Arop Madut Arop’s Article “How Political Wrangling in the Ruling SPLM Party Wrecked South Sudan Apart In 2013”

By Mabior Garang De Mabior,

Nairobi, Kenya

South Sudanese president hold press conference as he announces "coup attempt"  by his former deputy Riek Machar (Photo: Credit Hakim George/Reuters
South Sudanese president hold press conference as he announces “coup attempt” by his former deputy Riek Machar (Photo: Credit Hakim George/Reuters

April 12th, 2018(Nyamilepedia) —- It is a known fact that the December 2013 conflict in South Sudan arose out of tensions within and among the SPLM/SPLA leadership. However, there are many factors which contributed to and eventually lit the fuse leading to the outbreak of war. The prominent party leaders who challenged the status quo were from a diversity of South Sudanese communities but the Nuer community in Juba would be singled out and would bear the brunt of the punitive measures that followed. The targeting of Nuer civilians in Juba is well documented in the final report of the African Union Commission of Inquiry on South Sudan (The Obasanjo Report). Targeting of Nuer civilians was a tactic by the regime to arouse tribal sentiments, marshal Dinka ranks and divert the attention from the political failures of the movement. The SPLM/SPLA called this “Sectarian Culturalism” during the liberation war and identified it as one of the leading problems in the old Sudan. It is unfortunate that it continues to remain a leading factor in the causes of war in the Republic of South Sudan.

The concept of ‘Sectarian Culturalism’ as defined by the SPLM/SPLA was the use of cultural differences to enhance selfish rise to political power by using one’s tribe/region, or the use of one tribe against another in furtherance of selfish political ambitions, patronage and hegemony.

The abandonment and departure from the SPLM/SPLA’s vision, objectives and program meant that the movement forgot the struggle against sectarian culturalism. The leadership failed to recognize the emergence of new contradictions in our society which needed the struggle against sectarian culturalism. The late Chairman in a lecture to officers of the SPLM/SPLA Shield Five (1988) explained, ” … if you take it from one point of view and say it will be Arab culture, or Dinka culture, or Nuer culture, or Shilluk, or Nuba, or Fur and you stick to that, this is ‘sectarian culturalism’. You cannot create a new nation out of imposition of one culture …” The ‘sectarian culturalism’ factor has been the impetus to the other factors leading to the conflict and the ‘Riek Machar’ Factor is really a euphemism for tribalism which in the context of politics the SPLM/SPLA has labelled ‘sectarian culturalism’.

Historical Background

The peoples and the territories that today constitute the Republic of South Sudan have existed from antiquity and into pre-history and this is verified by historical and archaeological records which are available. There have been great cultures and civilizations that have come and gone. It has been a history of migrations, integrations and of disintegrations. We have witnessed in our time the disintegration of the old Sudan and the establishment of the new geographical and political entity now referred to as the Republic of South Sudan.

The geography of South Sudan and its location in the midst of empires from the western Sudanic Kingdom, to the Kingdoms of Kush, Aksum, and Kongo to the South means that the peoples of South Sudan have been a tribalized people possibly for their entire history as opposed to the necessarily detribalized nature of the people of the kingdoms. This has been a centre-periphery relationship from ancient times to the present and has defined the power relationships of free and slave for the people who have inhabited this territory. And it is important to understand psycho-historical experience of the people of South Sudan during the Turko-Egyptian and the Anglo-Egyptian periods in order to understand the contemporary power relationships and the contradictions which have led to war in the country.

The Turko-Egyptian Empire ruled what is now the Republic of South Sudan for seventy years until they lost their empire to the Allies in World War I. During this time South Sudanese societies experienced one of the greatest devastations to the shared social values-values they had developed and continue to share in common from antiquity. This devastation was caused by the slave trade introduced by the Turko-Egyptian Empire in the form of the Zeriba system (mobile slavers camps and compounds)-which was how the slave trade was organized in the territory which would become the Republic of South Sudan. The majority of the major towns of the Republic of South Sudan are in fact former Zeriba administration centres. The organization of slavery then was a system of tribute to the Turko Egyptian Empire.

The various African nationalities who lived in the territory we today call the Republic of South Sudan fought bravely against the Turko-Egyptian slavers, from the Collo Kingdom (Shilluk), to the Fertit, while other communities collaborated with them. The Turko-Egyptian Empire ruled from Egypt and “identified and elevated friendly collaborators, and these new men increased their status by securing a central position in trade relations as middlemen between the traders and their own people”, as described by Douglas Johnson in, “South Sudan: A New History for a New Nation”. These men were often freed slaves returning from Egypt and other areas of the Ottoman Empire, they are the families of the chiefs today and their descendants have inherited the modern Republic. Many of these families embraced Islam and Arab culture, even the ones who remained traditional or converted to Christianity maintain Arab middle or last names, customs and mannerisms.

The history of resistance against the Turko-Egyptian Empire has defined power relationships between our people in recent times and it is important to understand this period in order to make sense of the state of affairs in our country. The people of South Sudan who share common values from their historical experience going back to the Sudanic Kingdoms of antiquity, have seen these values eroded by the negative experiences of slavery and the slave trade. Professor Chinweizu in a 2006 article says, ” … the so-called Slave trade was not a trade but race war … a system for trafficking to the Americas the captives of the wars“; the same could be said for the experience of the people of South Sudan regarding the seventy years of the Turko-Egyptian travesty of an administration.

The people of South Sudan for the first time are being asked to come together and form a state, which like the old kingdoms, requires detribalization in allegiance to a more complex idea of nation. When a state is created and the ruling elites makes no conscious effort at detribalization and become conscious of themselves as a ruling class despite their cultural diversity, then political tribalism emerges and the danger of one tribe merging with the state structures to the detriment of the other nationalities becomes real.

The ‘Sectarian Culturalism’ Factor

The concept “sectarian culturalism”, was an idea developed by the SPLM/SPLA in its philosophy, vision, principles and objectives. The contention of the movement was that tribalism per se was not a problem, after all the people of South Sudan had used this mode of organization for thousands if not millions of years and had the system not worked our people would not have survived to modern times. The SPLM/SPLA coined the term ‘sectarian culturalism’ in order to explain a new phenomenon which had emerged and continues to debilitate our societies and which our shared values as the various communities of South Sudan would not allow. Sectarian culturalism is not our natural predisposition and precipitates fragmentation of our people.

The SPLM/SPLA betrayal of its philosophy, vision, principles and objectives means that the struggle against sectarian culturalism was abandoned and the movement would henceforth be influenced by the most cunning of a plethora of interest groups.

If we applied the lessons of the liberation struggle to the situation in South Sudan we would be able to learn a great deal how to extricate ourselves from the predicament we find ourselves in as a movement and as a people. In the case of the old Sudan, the movement identified Arabism as a socio-political system of chauvinism as distinct from Arab culture and values. The SPLA/SPLM was fighting the system of Arabism and not Arab people. With the reality of an independent South Sudan and the emergence of new contradictions, the questions asked then by the movement in the old Sudan are relevant to our realities today. These questions were asked by the late Chairman in his closing speech to the SPLM/SPLA Chukudum Convention (1994), and he said of them:

“The correct answers to these cardinal questions is of great decisive and strategic importance to our struggle as a people and as a movement, because it is from that answer that we can define correctly and clearly our enemy. And nothing is so crucial for the success and victory of any liberation struggle than the correct and objective definition of the enemy, for it is on the basis of such definition that a liberation movement like ours formulate correct strategies and tactics of the struggle to attain the lofty aims and ideals, and distinguish allies/friends from foes, as well as correctly formulate objectives to be achieved.”

In light of the new realities of an independent South Sudan, the author/s believe that the same questions regarding the current state of affairs in our country are relevant and can be paraphrased as follows; Which social group of the South Sudanese society has been in power ruling, subjugating, oppressing and exploiting our people? Whose interests is the South Sudanese state protecting since independence?

The Jieng Council of Elders

According to the Chairperson of the Jieng Council of Elders (JCE), Hon. Ambrose Riiny Thiik, in a 2015 SBS Dinka Radio Interview, “… the Jiɛ̈ŋ Council of elders was formed in mid-2013. It was started after Riek Machar announced his candidacy for President …” This was at a time the SPLM/SPLA leadership had lost its way and the members of the movement and the people of South Sudan felt betrayed by the movement, making it known in the grassroots survey of July and August 2012. In the midst of this loss of popularity, Dr. Riek Machar had captured the imagination of the people making certain interest groups edgy.

The SPLM/SPLA under President Salva Kiir had succumbed to sectarian culturalism, and under pressure of the JCE, started to promote the idea that the historical struggle of the people of South Sudan was the legacy of the Dinka and that they thus had the right to rule the country to the exclusion of others. The JCE as stated by its Chairman, was formed to prevent Dr. Riek who is not a Dinka, from becoming president. It is ultimately the reason the Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (ARCISS) collapsed and why peace remains elusive. The findings of an investigation carried out by the UNSC and published in the “Letter dated 22 January 2016 from the Panel of Experts on South Sudan established pursuant to Security Council resolution 2206 (2015) addressed to the President of the Security Council” found that:

“The leadership of SPLA, SPLA Military Intelligence, the National Security Service and other security organs is increasingly dominated by members of the Dinka tribe. Over the course of the war, the members of a self-identified tribal group, the Jieng (Dinka) Council of Elders, have become influential, unofficial advisers to Kiir. Concurrently, the Government has forged alliances to exploit differences within other tribal groups, notably the Nuer (see sect. III). Many Equatorians feel more and more betrayed by a Government that they see as working only on behalf of the interests of the Dinka community.”

The JCE ideology and the members who share this ideology, have been in South Sudanese politics for some time and the proponents of the ideology have held such views since their youth, precipitating such unfortunate episodes in our history as Kokora. The echoes of this ideology can be heard in Bona Malwal’s concept of “Dinka Integrity”-a call for the unity of the Dinka linguistic group who constitute a great diversity of nationalities and have never been known to have an overall encompassing social or political oneness. This divisive ideology was there even during the second war of liberation (1983-2005) and except for the almost lone resistance by the late Chairman, the group’s ideology could have prevailed sooner. It could even be argued that a lot of the problems which plagued and continue to plague the movement arise out of this ideology.

The JCE then is the maturation of the sectarian ideas first hatched during the politics of South Sudan in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. This was a time when elites from Equatoria Region, emerging out of the first war of liberation found to their surprise that ‘uneducated’ Dinka (and Nuer), with education attained from Christian Mission Schools during the war, were ready to participate and even compete in politics. This sudden jump in numbers of educated Dinka (and Nuer) felt fraudulent to the Equatorian intellectuals returning from East Africa. The history of the fears of veteran Equatorian Leaders of “Dinka Domination” and the calls for “Dinka Integrity” by emerging Dinka Politicians is studied by Douglas Johnson in his book “The Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil Wars: Peace or Truce”. The author/s are only concerned here with how the SPLM/SPLA, a grassroots popular movement ended up in the hands of a non-representative tribal committee-the now infamous JCE.

It would be unfair to continue this discourse without mentioning that the JCE is not a legal entity, it is not representative, neither is it a body recognized by the various Dinka nationalities in their cattle camps and villages. The Dinka civil population never elected these people and their actions don’t in any way reflect their values nor do they serve the interests of ordinary Dinka folk. Indeed, suffice it to say that the JCE has illegally usurped the role and muted the voices of the real traditional Dinka leaders and institutions. In fact the Dinka civil population often suffers the wrath of the rest of the 63 nationalities, while not reaping any benefit from the so-called privilege they are perceived to enjoy. The Dinka speaking peoples of South Sudan are not distinct from the other communities in the country and they share common cultural values.

These elites who are reaping the benefits of the JCE system of domination are a detribalized group from the diverse nationalities of South Sudan.

The Dark Side of the SPLM/SPLA

The sectarian culturalism factor that the SPLM/SPLA was claiming to fight in the country was inevitably present in the movement and perhaps due to the war effort and other reasons, not enough was done to combat this during the bush war. Today, hatred for Dr. Riek Machar-“The Riek Machar Factor” is essentially a euphemism for “The Sectarian Culturalism Factor”. The truth is that the idea of South Sudanese-ness has not been engendered in the ruling elites and we continue to suffer from the same identity crisis we purported to have had the solution for, for the old Sudan.

The holier-than-thou view that the SPLM/SPLA was a perfect revolution and the movement waged a just war is an idea promoted mainly by the same people who promote the idea that the historical struggle of our people is the legacy of the Dinka. This is not to say that the marginalized people of South Sudanese didn’t have a cause, however ignoring the dark side of the history of the SPLM/SPLA will only deprive us of the opportunity to make revolutionary corrections. There is no such thing as a just war, all wars are destructive. To argue that the SPLM/SPLA fought a just war, is to ignore the destruction caused by the war of liberation on thousands of families destroyed by the rise to power of the SPLM/SPLA when the movement split at its inception.

The reason for the various splits in the movement has been in trying to resolve among many issues the ‘identity question’. The leadership of the SPLM/SPLA under the late Dr. John Garang would not have emerged except for the violent action by the young leaders engaged in that power struggle. The politics of South Sudan and by extension old Sudan at that time, as it is today, was a business of old men and except for the violent power struggle which ensued, the late John Garang and the leadership of the movement would not have emerged. The history of this rise to power of the SPLM/SPLA has sowed the seeds of enmity which still plague us to this day.

The people of South Sudan have been affected by violence, ruled by foreign powers for centuries and have been divided and re-divided by subsequent colonizing powers for centuries. The various nationalities who today inhabit the area of the Republic of South Sudan have never had a chance to heal from this brutal history of wars of colonisation and slavery. The independence of South Sudan provided the best opportunity for this but the opportunity was squandered when President Salva Kiir (April 14, 2013) issued a presidential decree dissolving the National Reconciliation Committee and the whole process which was being supervised and coordinated by Dr. Machar. This is when as mentioned previously the JCE was formed with one sole objective; Machar, and by extension the Nuer, had to be stopped.

The Roadside Elites vs. the Deep Rural

The sectarian culturalism idea first started to evolve along the backroads of the Turco-Egyptian and later the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan after the Ottoman Empire was defeated in the Great War. The Turco-Egyptian period saw seventy years of the slave trade, which was as mentioned earlier was a war to most of our people and not trade. The people of South Sudan faced what Professor Chinweizu calls, “the devil’s Choice”, a community which was not willing because of their values to engage in capturing and selling a neighbouring community may themselves face the same from their neighbour. The Turkish occupiers where not short of guns and provided them to anyone who would bring the most slaves and livestock as a tribute.

The British who won the empires of the Axis powers, being abolitionists at the time were not interested in the slave trade, so they closed down the Zeriba centres, meeting resistance from the Zeriba collaborators. They, however having been the administrators under Turkish rule, continued the road building projects in order to continue to extract taxes and other resources in other forms. The devastation of the Turko-Egyptian slave trade in Southern Sudan destroyed the rural pre-colonial, social, political and economic order of many communities and pitted many communities who may have previously united for mutual survival against one another.

The Anglo-Egyptian Administration settled many of the slaves freed from the Zeribas and the various refugee communities devastated by the slave trade along the roads and established new tribes through their colonial policy of Africanization and of native administration. The power relationships between the slave of the Zeriba and the slave masters was rearranged, but it did not disappear. Those communities that happened to be located near the roads and those communities invented by the colonial administration would develop distinct identities from that of the civil populations in the deep rural. In “South Sudan: A New History for a New Nation”, Douglas Johnson explains, ” …many indigenous authorities lost their sovereignty as they were subordinated to the Zeriba, or were replaced by new men whose power lay in their willing collaboration with the Zeriba leaders and their ability to use that collaboration in commanding labor”.

The vision of the new Sudan was a revolutionary program which would have seen the end of the new system introduced by the colonial administrations which usurped the power of the local authorities. The unfortunate demise of the first Chairman and Commander in Chief of the SPLM/SPLA was a windfall for the roadside power elite, who proceeded to reverse the system established by the late John Garang in his short tenure as President of the GoSS. The late John Garang had started establishing the government from the grassroots base, it was a caretaker government at the state level and governors had been appointed not according to ethnic origin.

The new leadership abandoned this program in favour of continuing the tribal mode of organization which is not sustainable for state building. It resulted in political competition among the power elite and they have and continue to use sectarian culturalism to the detriment of the innocent and now disenfranchised civil population. The power elite who have destroyed the country are, as mentioned earlier, a detribalized group of diverse South Sudanese and this phenomenon is not peculiar to the Dinka people.

The JCE only feature so prominently in our politics because of their close friendship with the President which allows them to use the power of the presidency to define the nation according to their imagination; it is this power elite who are the enemies of the people of South Sudan.


In conclusion, we would like to reiterate the failure of the SPLM/SPLA to continue and even reenergize the struggle against sectarian culturalism. This failure has led to the false start of the (first) Republic of South Sudan. The Republic of South Sudan, it could be argued, has not even had an opportunity to become a state. The country lacks the solid foundation of what constitutes a state; the Judiciary is in shambles, the Legislature is a rubber stamp parliament, the President rules by decree, there are no reserves in the central bank, and there is no national army among many other parameters. The Republic of South Sudan could have learned from the experience of other African counties; however, we have instead fallen in the same traps and repeated the same old mistakes in trying to reinvent the wheel.

The late John Garang warned us:

“…at the independence, almost every African state found itself composed of different peoples, communities and diverse cultures. Given this reality, it was not surprising that the social and political forces and the elites who inherited the state power from the colonialists, made the question of ‘national formation’ their top priority. The colonially inherited states must be modelled into viable nation-states or else unprincipled local elites and their bandits masquerading as nationalists would pillage and render the people of the new states destitute in collaboration with foreign interests who should not be expected to bear responsibility.”

The failure of the leadership and the JCE to differentiate between a protracted struggle as juxtaposed to a protracted war has led to the abandonment of the struggle, its ideals and the disintegration of the historic movement – the SPLM/SPLA. The genesis of the SPLM/SPLA (IO) is directly related to this failure and the leadership of the SPLM/SPLA (IO) has taken up the historical responsibility to continue to wage the struggle to deliver the promises of the liberation struggle and establish the Second Republic of South Sudan. The SPLM/SPLA (IO) is against protracted war and will only fight in self-defence. However, we shall continue the protracted struggle to end sectarian culturalism and liberate our people to its logical conclusion. Even after the end of this war, the struggle must continue.

The author, Mabior Garang de Mabior, is the born son of  the SPLM/A founder, Dr. John Garang de Mabioor, the former Minister for Water and Irrigation in South Sudan’s Transitional Government and is currently the SPLM-IO secretary for information. You can reach him via his email: ancient_ofdayz@yaboo.com

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