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.
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.
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.
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.