Saturday,16 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1158, (25 - 31 July 2013)
Saturday,16 December, 2017
Issue 1158, (25 - 31 July 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Juba’s seething tribalism

Two years after independence, tribal divisions and tensions threaten to break South Sudan apart at the seams, writes Salah Khalil

Al-Ahram Weekly

On 9 July, Juba, the capital of South Sudan, was decked out to celebrate the second anniversary of the country’s independence. But behind the festivities rose the spectre of national malaise, borne out of internal insurgence, power struggles and border hostilities with the north.

South Sudan may have fought the longest running civil war in Africa, but it doesn’t seem to have learned the lessons. To this day, the country is unable to control violence within its borders, the mistrust among rival tribes, or corruption within its government.

Recent violence in the Jonglei State forced nearly 50,000 people out of their homes and into neighbouring countries.

Meanwhile, the political-military elite controlling the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), which is in charge of the country, is showing signs of serious fracture.

Prudent voices both inside and outside the SPLM warn that the state’s institutions are about to collapse unless something is done to curb corruption, shore up tribal divisions, and give the nation a sense of hope.

South Sudan may have gained its independence, but it is yet to break free from the totalitarianism that undermines its methods of government. Since independence, the authoritarian government did little to fix the economy, bring about reconciliation, or help the poor. But it managed to concentrate power and wealth in the hands of the few.

There is no accountability to mention, human rights abuses are prevalent, and the country’s leaders are now in near confrontation.

Amid the disheartening news of tribal rivalries, bloody conflicts, and civil war, the news that President Salva Kiir lifted immunity from two of his senior aides who are accused of corruption (Minister of Cabinet Affairs Deng Alor and Finance Minister Kosti Manibe) may have given rise to hope that reform was in the way. But the opposite was true.

Critics of the president called the decision vindictive, claiming that Kiir was not interested in fighting corruption, but in tarnishing the names of his political rivals.

Militia leader David Yau Yau, who belongs to the Murle Tribe that is now at war with the Nuer Tribe, is joining the chorus of critics of the government’s performance.

Attempts at mediation by religious and tribal leaders have failed to persuade Yau Yau to abandon violence and accept the pardon the president offered him.

Fighting between the Nuers and the Murles in Pibor in Jonglei continues to escalate the country’s humanitarian crisis.

The crisis is likely to get worse, especially after Sudan’s decision to stop allowing South Sudan to export oil through its land. Juba depends on oil exports for 98 per cent of its budget revenues.

Divisions within the upper echelons of South Sudan’s political elite are no longer a secret.

The United Democratic Salvation Front (UDSF) is calling on the SPLM to hand over power to the people and allow them to select a new government.

The Communist Party has called for the formation of a government of national salvation.

Speaking to the London-based Guardian newspaper last week, South Sudanese Vice President Riek Machar said that Kiir’s eight years in powers were a failure and that he should step down. He added that a president that stays too long in power can get “dictatorial”.

Machar himself is a strong candidate for the presidency. Some fear that the rivalry between Machar and Kiir may instigate a tribal war between their tribes: the Nuers and the Dinkas.

Since the independence of South Sudan, Kiir faced three attempted coups. A few months ago, he took measures to curtail the powers of Machar, his second in command.

Kiir also halted a much-needed reconciliation process that Machar was conducting. And he postponed the convocation of a reconciliation conference until a new committee is formed to lead the reconciliation.

Kiir didn’t offer any explanation for taking such radical measures at a time when the country teeters on the verge of tribal and ethnic wars.

The decision can therefore be understood as part of the ongoing power struggle between Kiir and Machar, who are both expected to run for president in 2015.

Kiir is from the Dinka, the largest tribe in South Sudan. Machar is from the Nuer, the second largest tribe. The Dinkas and the Nuers are known to have faced each other in battle in the past.

Kiir also removed some of his top brass, a move that created widespread resentment within the ranks of the SPLM.

Pagan Amum, secretary-general of the SPLM, has just voiced concern over the future of South Sudan, saying that his party has failed to meet its promises to the nation. He added that economic troubles, lack of security, and widespread corruption are wrecking the foundation of the new nation.

Kiir has reacted with defiance, effectively challenging both Machar and Amum to a duel. Amum belongs to another of the largest tribes in the country: the Shiluk.

There is speculation that Kiir may dismiss both Machar and Amum soon, so as to prevent them using their offices to mobilise against him.

The clock is ticking for South Sudan. Either the country manages to achieve a viable reconciliation, or descent into war and chaos would appear inevitable.

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