Colonial Legacy, Ethnic Tension and Unfettered Violence: South Sudan on the Brink

The world’s newest nation, South Sudan, looks set to become embroiled in a bloody civil war as forces loyal to the former vice president Riek Machar seek to overthrow Salva Kiir’s government. With Kiir a member of the majority Dinka ethnic group and Machar of the Nuer people, the growing conflict has already taken on ethnic overtones that threaten to increase the barbarity of the bloodshed.

The jubilant independence celebrations are already a distant memory
The jubilant independence celebrations are already a distant memory

Much of the misery in Sudan, and there has been plenty over the past few decades, relates to its colonial history. At times conquered and settled by Arabs, Ottomans and the British, the lands of the Sudanese have a tumultuous past. Forcibly amalgamating a variety of ethnic and tribal groups into a nominally unified polity, the colonial forebears set the stage for future conflict.

The arrival of the British in the 19th century brought further complication to Sudan. Introducing Christianity to a largely Muslim populace, the British missionary force had partial success, creating an extra dimension of tension within the already-divided land. The animistic and Christian beliefs that predominated in South Sudan was in stark contrast to the northern part of the country, whose historical closeness to Egypt ensured Islam persisted. The consequent civil wars of a unified Sudan in the 20th century were a direct result of this legacy and helped finally lead to South Sudan being granted independence in 2011.

British colonists played divide-and-rule with the various Sudanese ethnic groups
British colonists played divide-and-rule with the various Sudanese ethnic groups

Yet within the southern country are ethnic divisions, with each traditional tribal group preserving different colonial memories. Whilst some welcomed the arrival of the Ottomans and the British, others bitterly opposed their coming and resisted colonisation. Resentment at these differing responses to subjection by foreign powers, married to older enmities over tribal belief and territory, help fuel divisions today.

The bloody violence these historical tensions encumber is best illustrated by the 1991 massacre of several thousand members of the Dinka community in Bor, a town currently held by Machar’s Nuer rebels. That Machar himself has since admitted being responsible for the ordering the massacre illuminates the difficulties inherent in the previous South Sudanese government. Trying to create a political structure that is inclusive of the country’s ethnic groups, without evoking memories of inter-tribal violence, is a mean task.

Machar admitted to ordering the 1991 Dinka Bor Massacre. It is the best known of many such massacres carried out along ethnic lines in the country
Machar admitted to ordering the 1991 Dinka Bor Massacre. It is the best known of many such massacres carried out along ethnic lines in the country

That South Sudan now sits on the precipice of genocidal war is a result of the territorial boundaries put in place by colonists of the 19th century and a consequence of the inability to suppress the painful memories of ethnic and tribal enmity to create a unified, singular South Sudanese national identity. Given Africa’s colonial past, this is no isolated event. At this present moment, however, it stands as its most prescient.

‘Not Ideal for Football’ but not bad for Settlement: Manaus for England

The excuses have already started. England manager Roy Hodgson has declared the venue for his side’s first World Cup match next year, Manaus, as ‘not an ideal place to play football’ given its tropical climate. Although Italy, England’s opponents in that game, can hardly be described as being better suited to such a climate, the reasoning for failure is being prepared nonetheless.

Hodgson would not be the first England coach to blame the weather for poor performances
Hodgson would not be the first England coach to blame the weather for poor performances

Located at the confluence of the Amazon and the Rio Negro, Manaus is in the heart of the rainforest. That said, with a population of over 2 million, it can hardly be described as a rural backwater and indeed it is a location that has been coveted for centuries.

Even prior to the arrival of European settlers, the land around present-day Manaus was home to large societies of Amerindians, collectively known as the Omaguas. These societies were, despite popular misconceptions, complex and well-organised:

many villages were large and semi-permanent; complex societies existed with regional integration; cultivation was usually intensive or semi-intensive; fertile soils were created; and the natural environment was changed to varying extent by human activity. (Denevan, 2012)

Paying obeisance to a designated political authority, normally a chieftain, the Amazonians were more than a little sophisticated.

Omaguas' villages surprised the Europeans in their scale
Omaguas’ villages surprised the Europeans in their scale

On their arrival in the Amazon region in the 16th century, the European conquerors were surprised by the population density, expecting little more than small, nomadic forest tribes to confront them.

By the 17th century, the Amazon-Rio Negro crossroads was keenly sought after. Spanish, Portuguese, French and Dutch settlers, all with outposts on the Atlantic seaboard, recognised the strategic importance of what would become Manaus. It was already at the intersection of a series of indigenous trade routes that stretched to other New World colonies in Peru, New Granada, Venezuela, and on to the Indies. Furthermore, it stood at the gateway to the vast unexplored interior of South America, a land rumoured to be awash with golden cities and other rich resources.

Having established a fort at the head of the Rio Negro, the Portuguese sought to further establish their presence in the Amazon by sending missionaries into the interior. In this, they were matched by the Spaniards and an Iberian competition for spiritual conquest began.

Samuel Fritz Map (1707). The Spanish Jesuit  missionary was the first to accurately map the Amazon and in the process initiate further conflict with Portugal
Samuel Fritz Map (1707). The Spanish Jesuit missionary was the first to accurately map the Amazon and in the process initiate further conflict with Portugal

Between 1700 and 1714, the two Iberian nations fought several skirmishes for control of the Amazon, with the Portuguese winning control of the Negro headland. After that point, a succession of mission stations and trading posts were established which would mutate into the city of Manaus which has become an important economic hub for the region in the 21st century.

The Manaus area appealed to indigenous and European settlers alike both for its strategic and economic advantages and, additionally, because its climate is sedate in comparison to other large tracts of rainforest.

Its importance has been recognised for centuries and it is wholly reasonable that Manaus should be entitled to hold matches at next year’s World Cup. Appreciative of its history or not, the England players and their supporters must simply get on with it.

Sources

W.M. Denevan, Rewriting the Late Pre-European History of Amazonia (2012)

C.L. Dias, Jesuit Maps and Political Discourse: The Amazon River of Father Samuel Fritz

Turkmen Elections Offer Hopes of Change: political development initiated

The Turkmen people were not meant to be tamed, beholden to anyone or anything other than the land. Nomads of determination and skill, the Turkmen of history were notoriously difficult to conquer. Seljuks, Mongols and Uzbeks failed to subject them into an acquiescent bondage.

The open mountain plains of Turkmenistan have a long history of nomadism, trade and war
The open mountain plains of Turkmenistan have a long history of nomadism, trade and war

As soldiers, horsemen and traders, the Turkmen formed an influential constituent part of successive dynasties and Khanates. Brought into service they may have been, but the Turkmen retained an autonomy of character which only Russia would end.

In the 19th century the conquests began; striking out from the Caspian Sea, the Tsarist forces achieved what no civilization had achieved before. The nomadic Turkmen were tamed. 1881: the Battle of Geok Tepe confirms Russian victory.

Russian forces lay siege to Geok Tepe during the 'Great Game'
Russian forces lay siege to Geok Tepe during the ‘Great Game’

Since this point, the Turkmen people have been subject to the whims and demands of a select group of people. First, it was the bureaucrats of the Tsarist imperialists; then it was the stooges of the Soviet Union, the eloquently titled General Secretaries of the Communist Party of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic.

The last of these scions of Moscow was Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov. Eccentric, deranged, impulsive, Niyazov became the first President of an independent Turkmenistan. Surely the years of subjection and repression were over? Not so; bloodthirsty meglomaniac that he was, Niyazov drove the Turkmen people further into the ground. Renaming months after his family, commissioning hideously overpriced artworks of his bloated figure, he ruled for personal pleasure.

His successor, the laboriously named Gurbanguly Mälikgulyýewiç Berdimuhamedow, dispensed with the cult of personality and vulgar cultural works but his authoritarian control of the Turkmen was undimmed. In 2012 he was re-elected with 97% of the vote.

On Sunday, multi-party parliamentary elections were held for the first time. Yes, the contesting parties were all government sanctioned; yes, it may be a ruse to detract attention from Turkmenistan’s undemocratic state; yes, it may be an attempt to attract foreign investment.

A rubber stamp for the government it may be but turnout for the Turkmen elections were high; people yearn for political participation
A rubber stamp for the government it may be but turnout for the Turkmen elections were high; people yearn for political participation

To simply dismiss this development, however, would be naive. Political development is a slow process. Democratic change does not simply occur overnight, despite the desperate hopes and beliefs of the Western world. Look at Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt and Libya; overthrowing authoritarianism and replacing it with democracy is too destabilising.

Initiating political change, however limited, is the key starting point. Think of the Great Reform Act of 1832 in the United Kingdom. Changes to the electoral system and the franchise were limited, supposed to appease the agitators without giving anything away, yet they set in motion a lengthy political process that ended with universal suffrage. People get encouraged by change, it makes them hungry for more.

For the Turkmen people, it has been a long time coming. Indentured nomads, they yearn for freedom. Do not be surprised to see the streets of Ashgabat bedecked with the demands of a people destined to seize this sliver of hope.