Professor Mahmood Mamdani is a Ugandan academic, author and political commentator
February 13, 2014 [Kampala] — He is the Director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), the Herbert Lehman Professor of Government at the School of International and Public Affairs and the Professor of Anthropology, Political Science and African Studies at Columbia University.
Speaking at the Annual Retreat of the National Resistance Movement at Kyankwanzi, February 11, 2014, Prof Mamdani cited two great examples of self-determination in post-colonial Africa: Eritrea and South Sudan.
“Eritrean independence came after a struggle lasting nearly four decades, one that ended in military victory over the Mengistu regime, the Derg,” quotes Sarah Kagingo, the President’s Special Assistant for Communications.
“The larger context was also important: with the end of the Cold War, the US shed its fear of local independence turning into a Trojan Horse for a rival superpower,” noted Prof Mamdani.
Facing the side effects of a hasty independence
In South Sudan, the internal situation was marked by a military stalemate. The external factor turned out to be decisive.
Nothing else but the real fear that it could be the next on the American list post-9/11 targets after Afghanistan and Iraq explains why the Government of Sudan agreed to hold an independence referendum in the South when it had not lost the war.
The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed in 2005 turned out to be a shoddy affair, rushed by those in a hurry to birth an independent South.
The people of South Sudan are just beginning to pay the price for that haste.
The CPA was premised on a militarist assumption, that only those with the capacity to wage war have the right to determine the terms of the peace.
The talks thus rendered illegitimate the political opposition in both the North and the South at the stroke of a pen.
Doubling as both army and movement, the SPLA/M in the South emerged as the precocious double of the National Congress Party (NCP) in the North.
Following the referendum, South Sudan became autonomous in 2005 and independent in 2011.
The CPA reinforced the most negative of the legacies of the liberation war.
The sense that ‘liberators’ could do no wrong reinforced the aversion to internal reform, and laid the seeds of the present crisis.
More than any other state, South Sudan was a child of the War on Terror. That South Sudan commands Africa’s second most important known oil deposits has made this ride even smoother.
SPLA has long been used to basking in the halo conferred on those officially acknowledged as ‘victims’ of terror.
In an era driven by the assumption that a victim can do no wrong, it has been coddled and absolved of responsibility. This too was a factor preventing reform.
No difference between south and north regimes
Whereas the ruling party in the North was rightly and roundly criticised for electoral malpractice and fraud in the elections of April 2010, there was not even muted criticism when it came to similar practices by the SPLM in the South that same year.
When the referendum on self-determination returned a 99.8% yes vote in the South, the “international community” lauded the result – when they would have pooh poohed it anywhere else in the world.
The malpractices in the North led to a renewed insurgency in South Kordofan.
In the South, there was the insurgency that followed in the wake of George Athor losing the gubernatorial bid in Jonglei State because the SPLM endorsed another candidate, Kuol Manyang Juuk.
It provided a foretaste of how electoral politics operate when the ruling party doubles as the army.
When the SPLA/M seemed to split in nearly two halves in December 2013, each determined to devour the whole, the Western press was at a loss.
Used to routinely lauding the struggle of “the Christian and animist African South” against “the Muslim Arab North,” the mainstream press looked for an equally easy and formulaic explanation for the civil war in South Sudan.
That fallback explanation – ‘tribalism’ – evoked the conventional wisdom that Africans may be quick at learning the arts of war but seem genetically resistant to learning the arts of peace.
Tribal clashes or civil war?
From this point of view, the current conflict is between a Dinka-led government and a Nuer-led rebellion.
This same stock explanation claims that the conflict may degenerate into ‘genocidal’ warfare.
Conveniently, this posture masks the responsibility of both Western powers and the regional association known as IGAD in condoning the sorts of practices that have prepared the ground for the rebellion.
In particular, it masks the responsibility of two powers: the US and Uganda.
An independent South Sudan was a key objective for the US during the War on Terror.
Establishing the Ugandan state’s strategic importance in the regional War on Terror has been key to the government of retaining US support in spite of its adverse record at home.
The Ethnic Question South Sudan is a multi-ethnic society.
No ethnic group constitutes a majority but the Dinka and the Nuer make up 4.8 million or 57% of South Sudan population between them.
With an estimated 3.2 million Dinka and 1.6 million Nuer, the Dinka outnumber the Nuer by a factor of 2 to 1.
Dinka exist in 7 out of 10 South Sudan states, with the majority found in Northern Bahr El Ghazal, Warap, and Lakes states.
The Nuer live mainly in Unity, Upper Nile, and Jonglei states. The two ethnic groups share a common culture, have similar languages, and practice an agro-pastoralist economy.
Why, then, the conflict between them?
The idea that the Nuer, and to a lesser extent the Dinka, are naturally war-like was first advanced by British anthropologists, chief among them Edward Evans-Pritchard.
Colonial discourse depicted South Sudan as a land inhabited by an array of nomadic “tribal” groups.
Their relentless competition over water and pasture generated periodical cycles of violent attacks between them.
Evans-Pritchard described the Nuer as a “wild offshoot of Dinka.”
The problem with the Nuer, he wrote, was that “every Nuer, the product of hard upbringing, deeply democratic and easily aroused to violence, considers himself as good as his neighbour.”
Evans-Pritchard was describing a deeply democratic culture.
He was describing less the Nuer problem than the British colonial problem with the Nuer: the Nuer were a problem for him and for the British because they were averse to centralised authority.
But if the Nuer did not listen to government-appointed chiefs, they had their own leaders, among them spiritual/religious leaders such as spearmen and rain-makers.
Evans-Pritchard saw more promise in the Dinka. He found reassuring their belief that people, even within the same family, are “not as equal as sticks in a match box,” nor “have the same height as the herds of giraffes.”
The fact is that relations between Dinka and Nuer were not just marked by competition and rivalry.
Just as legendry is the historical common sense that every step forward in the history of the region has required by a coming together of Dinka and Nuer in a common cause.
Nuers and Dinkas have always united for a common cause
Historians date the beginning of the Sudanese national movement in 1920s with the formation of the anti-British White Brigade founded by two South Sudanese, Ali Abdalatif, a Dinka and Abdalfadheel El Maz, a Nuer. Both became known for their role in the 1924 armed uprising against British rule in Sudan.
A similar story is told of how collaboration between Kurbino Kuanyin Bol, a Dinka, and William Nyuon Beny, a Nuer, both former Sudan army officers, led to the 1983 mutiny in Bor and Ayod.
This mutiny led to the founding of SPLA and the onset of the second phase of the North-South struggle.
The British political problem was how to administer and rule mobile semi-pastoral communities with a tradition that combined independence with co-existence in a multi-ethnic region.
Their solution was to politicise ethnic identity in a series of steps: first, to define it sharply as an exclusive identity; second, to identify each ethnicity with a homeland; third, to distinguish between those ‘”indigenous” entitled to “customary” rights and those without such a right; fourth, to put each homeland under the administration of its appointed ethnic authority that would administer this regime of rights; fifth, to give that authority the powers to administer land and adjudicate internal conflicts; and, finally, to render the absolute power of the authority unaccountable by backing it up with the power of the colonial state but justifying this absolute and unaccountable power as “customary.”
Pouring new wine in old bottle.
Ironically, when an autonomous South Sudan began to organise its local government after 2005, it built on the British colonial model rather than attempting to reform it.
The politicisation of ethnicity inevitably led to a fragmentation of South Sudan along ethnic lines.
In one local authority after another, those claiming to be ‘indigenous’ to the land fought those who they said lacked a ‘customary’ right to natural resources and who in turn demanded their own ethnic homeland.
Only a few years after independence, more and more South Sudanese became Bafuruki in their own country.
Take an example from Jonglei, which has a surface area of 123,000 square kilometres and is both the largest and the most densely populated of the 10 states in South Sudan.
The region is home to six ethnic groups: the Nuer, Dinka, Anyuak, Murle, Kachipo and Jieh.
These mobile communities have an equally soft and mobile notion of borders.
An administrative system resting on a hard notion of a border administered by the majority ethnic group pressing its ‘customary’ right to resources in its ‘homeland’ is bound to turn cooperation between ethnic groups into conflict over previously shared resources.
This context has led to the militarisation of local defence units initially set up to protect cattle and property
As a result of this structure of local government, inter-ethnic conflict in contemporary South Sudan is both a top down and a bottom-up affair.
The important point is that internal conflicts, whether in the country or in the ruling SPLA/M, have not just been a contest between rival ethnic groups.
From the Bor rebellion that led to the establishment of SPLA in 1983 to independence in 2011, and now, every internal power struggle inside the SPLM has had personal, political and ideological dimensions.
Military confrontations are an older affair
Two issues have figured prominently in the mobilisation by ambitious leaders: parity of community (ethnic) representation in the new power, and different views on the direction in which that power would move.
Along this road, there have been several bloody splits.
The split in December 2013 was the third.
The first bloody split unfolded in the very early stages of the founding of SPLM (1984-85).
The key issue was the direction of the struggle: one side called for an independent South Sudan (a continuation of Anyanya as Anyanya II), the other called for a ‘New Sudan.’
Each side drew support from across ethnic boundaries: the call for a ‘New Sudan’ was supported by John Garang (a Dinka), Kuribino Kuanyin (Dinka), and William Nyuon (Nuer) whereas the demand for an independent South was led by Samuel Gai Tut (Nuer), and Akuot Atem (Dinka).