Death, Disease and Ethnic Conflict in South Sudan: no change 35 years on

Thirty-five years ago, a peace conference on South Sudan determined that Dinka tribesmen should be compensated with £450,000 by marauding Arabs of the Rizeigat tribe who had killed at least 90 of their kinfolk. The Dinkas, ‘who accepted the relatively small sum of 50 cows equivalent per person killed, were praised by the conference chairman for their helpful attitude’. So reports a British communication on the subject from the time.

Such compromise is sadly lacking from current peace talks in Addis Ababa which are seeking to end clashes between the South Sudanese Army, loyal to President Salva Kiir, and rebel troops supporting ousted Vice-President Riek Machar.

South Sudan has seen a rapid intensification of militant activity
South Sudan has seen a rapid intensification of militant activity

The UN has estimated that at least 1,000 people have been killed as a result of the conflict, far exceeding the 1979 toll. Yet, despite the divergence in numbers, there are similarities in the conflicts which attest to the enduring instability in the world’s newest nation.

Clashes during 1979 occurred in the provinces of Bahr El Gazal, South Darfur and Southern Kordofan. These areas have been imbued with violence in the intervening decades, when the international community was consistently guilty of ignoring the issue.

The violence of thirty-five years ago was tied to traditional competition over grazing lands between the Animist/Christian Dinka and the Arab/Islamic Rizeigat. That it had spilled over into bloody clashes was partly the result of what was happening in neighbouring Uganda.

Earlier in the year, tyrannical ruler Idim Amin had fled Uganda into exile, leaving behind a fragmented and desperate state with a surplus of weapons. Ugandan soldiers proceeded to sell guns to the Rizeigat tribesmen in South Sudan, other Amin supporters crossing the border to engage directly in the conflict. Bringing with them sophisticated weaponry, one British informant suggested it could precipitate ‘another bloody round of north versus south i.e. Muslim Arabs against Christian negroes’. Such had always been the major concern in a united Sudan.

Idi Amin's downfall led some of his loyalists to flee into South Sudan, worsening the traditional ethnic conflict
Idi Amin’s downfall led some of his loyalists to flee into South Sudan, worsening the traditional ethnic conflict

There are two things to note here. Firstly, the ethnic characteristics of the conflict. In a country with borders imposed by colonialism, ethnic groups traditionally hostile to one another have unwillingly been brought into each other’s remit. Today’s conflict is increasingly taking on an ethnic undertone, with the Dinka supporting President Kiir and Riek Machar predominantly backed by fellow members of his Nuer ethnic group.

Secondly, the influence of Uganda. Often accused of involving itself in neighbouring states’ affairs for its own gain (see Rwanda and DR Congo for instance), the Ugandans have been influential in allowing Kiir’s forces to retake several strategically-important towns. In a state with insecure borders, outside influence is a persisting concern. Whereas the Ugandan intervention may ultimately helpy to stabilise the security of South Sudan today, it has not always proved to have had such an affect.

The British report on the 1979 conflict also makes reference to the destitution of the South Sudanese people. An outbreak of Green Monkey disease (with an 85% mortality rate) had compounded the troubles of a citizenship struggling against starvation, a shortage of fuel, and a lack of support from their northern political rulers during a time when South Sudan was not independent. With some 352,000 people internally displaced today, the civilian crisis is one of the persisting woes of the country.

Refugees linger on the brink of starvation - their attempts to flee puts extra burden on neighbouring African states
Refugees linger on the brink of starvation – their attempts to flee puts extra burden on neighbouring African states

Unlike in 1979, peace negotiations are unlikely to be concluded with a reference to the price of cattle, however precious that commodity may be in South Sudanese society. Like the Central African Republic and DR Congo it threatens to become a lawless state, where competing militias from different ethnic backgrounds fight an increasingly bloody campaign of accumulation and annihilation.

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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