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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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.