Wednesday,22 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1178, (2 - 8 January 2014)
Wednesday,22 August, 2018
Issue 1178, (2 - 8 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

The slide to tribal strife

The resurfacing of tribal divisions is the last thing the new nation of South Sudan needs, or its northern neighbour. But will Salva Kiir stem the descent in time, asks Salah Khalil

Al-Ahram Weekly

In its third week, the fighting among South Sudan’s rival factions doesn’t show a sign of abating. What was initially declared a botched coup d’état is proving to be a more durable kind of conflict, one summoning deeper grievances and latent hostilities that a mere ceasefire — like the one being mediated by African leaders — may not be able to address.

Grinding battles, pitting the White Army of the Nuer tribe against the Dinka-dominated Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), were sparked in various parts of Africa’s newest country, following the confrontation that left many dead in Juba on 15 December.

As details of the initial fighting begin to come out, it is now believed that South Sudan’s descent towards civil war began with a clash between Nuer and Dinka servicemen in the Republican Guard.

According to available reports, the Nuers tried to seize a command unit that provides security and protection for the presidential palace and the president’s residence.

The commander of the Republican Guard was killed in the subsequent fighting. In all, the turbulence in Juba left 1,000 dead and 120,000 others homeless in Juba, Jonglei, Malakal and Benitu.

President Salva Kiir reacted to the challenge by arresting key political and military opponents. Following mediation by African leaders, he released eight out of 11 politicians accused of involvement in the coup. The detained politicians are SPLM (Sudan People’s Liberation Movement) General Secretary Pagan Amum, former Prime Minister Deng Alor, and former Finance Minister Kosti Manibe.

The crisis began when the Tiger Forces, which is a special unit of the Republican Guard, arrested senior Republican Guard officers, leading to infighting within South Sudan’s elite military corps.

On the surface, the conflict appears to be a power struggle between President Salva Kiir and former vice president Riek Machar. But the personal animosity is only the tip of the iceberg in what can be described as a long time rivalry between South Sudan’s biggest two tribes, the Dinka and the Nuer, a rivalry that claimed thousands of lives in the past.

Since South Sudan’s independence in 2011, the leaders of the new country failed not only to make peace with their northern neighbours, but also to sort out their internal differences.

At the heart of the current conflict is the quest for a fair distribution of wealth and power, as well as present corruption in the government and the autocratic ways of President Kiir.

In July 2013, Kiir brought the conflict to a head when he reshuffled the cabinet, excluding his main rivals from power.

Even inside the ruling SPLM, many disagreed with the manner in which Kiir was running the country. His paternalistic politics and lack of consultation grated against the sensibilities of former allies, who complained that the government doesn’t seem to have a clear programme or identifiable objectives.

In South Sudan, where diversity is not just a cultural phenomenon but also an ethnic hard fact that can cut both ways, either bringing immense richness to the new country or ripping it apart along tribal lines, the leadership has proved woefully incapable of reconciling various economic and political interests.

The signs of schism appeared in February 2013, when Machar, in clear defiance of Kiir, announced his intention to run against the latter in the SPLM elections in 2015.

At the time, sources close to Kiir were hinting that he might reshuffle the government’s top echelons, replacing a powerful elite with a more malleable one of his tribal allies.

When Kiir relieved Machar from the vice presidency, it didn’t take long for the conflict to take shape. Even before dismissing Machar, Kiir began purging the SPLM of powerful Nuer officials.

To consolidate his power, Kiir made changes in the Republican Guards, placing loyalists at the head of the Tiger Forces, which protects him and his defence minister.

The decision to dismiss senior leaders of the SPLM proved to be costly, as it was generally perceived as an attempt by Dinka officials to exclude other ethnic groups from power.

Instead of forging a broader alliance and reforming his own government, Kiir turned uneasy allies into outright enemies. By taking on SPLM veterans such as Riek Machar, Pagan Amum and Deng Alor, the president paved the ground for the bloody conflict that is now ripping his country apart.

A mediation team put together by African leaders has been in touch with both sides of the conflict. But aside from calls for a cessation of hostilities, the quest for a political settlement could prove long and hard.

As African mediators strive to bring the adversaries to the negotiating table in Addis Ababa over the next few days, the Nuers are making demands.

Among other things, Nuer officials demand a share of the oil revenue produced in the Unity State, which produces 95 per cent of the oil of the country.

They also say that they must be informed of any decision concerning the export of oil in their state. For these demands to be met, a new style of government, one that contrasts with how Kiir ran the government so far, is necessary.

If the Nuer succeeds in imposing their terms, this may serve as a precedent for the entire continent, where ethnic grievances fuelled decades of bloodshed among rival tribal groups.

Next to the Dinka, the Nuer is the largest tribe in South Sudan, and some of its members have served in top SPLM posts. Machar, the country’s most influential Nuer official, has the charisma, education and experience to back his bid for leadership not only of the SPLM but also of the entire country.

But how far can the Nuer go without overplaying its hand?

With tensions running high in South Sudan’s 10 states, the current political game may prove too risky for all those involved.

Machar’s connections are extensive. The army commander of the Unity State has sided with Machar, and the latter has appointed him governor of that state.

As clashes spread from one state to the next, Salva Kiir has to think fast. So far, his inability to admit his errors has caused an unprecedented schism in a country that suffers from an acute lack of basic amenities, inefficient administration, widespread corruption, and endemic poverty.

What South Sudan needs is time to rebuild itself, not further turmoil and devastation on the scale now seen across the new nation.

For a solution to be found, major concessions must be offered by political and military leaders across the board. And other tribes, not just the Dinka and the Nuer, must be brought to the table.

Some hope that Kiir would make a last ditch effort to heal the country through genuine change and national reconciliation leading to a pluralistic government. Involving tribal chiefs, and not only seasoned SPLM politicians, in the talks may also prove useful.

South Sudanese political analyst Arthur Gabriel says there is reason for optimism.

Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, Gabriel said that mediation by African leaders could move things in the right direction. Salva Kiir’s acceptance of the truce proposed by the Kenyan president and the Ethiopian prime minister is a good sign, he added.

If the ceasefire is closely monitored, there is hope that peace would be restored long enough to strike a political deal.

Gabriel pointed out that Nuer’s White Army was preparing to advance towards Bor, the capital of the Jonglei state. But with only 25,000 poorly trained men under arms, the White Army is no match for the larger and better-equipped SPLA.

If the Nuers attack Bor, they may face heavy looses, Gabriel stated.

In an attempt to spare the country further turmoil, Lam Akol, Sudan’s former foreign minister and leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-Democratic Change (SPLM-DC), recently met Salva Kiir.

Following the meeting, Akol said that there is a need for serious action by all parties concerned, including politicians and tribal leaders, to restore security and stability.

If it continues, the strife in South Sudan is likely to send thousands of refugees into Sudan across the poorly policed borders between the two countries. This is likely to complicate security problems in Sudan, create a humanitarian nightmare, and perhaps fuel the domestic conflict in various parts of Sudan.

Sudan may also suffer from the loss of $2 billion in annual trade with South Sudan.

Both Khartoum and Juba, still unable to sort out their shares of the oil revenue of the Abyei region, are likely to suffer from the recent bout of fighting in Sough Sudan.

In the past two days, Juba witnessed intense diplomatic efforts by international officials and non-SPLM southern leaders, with a view to restoring tranquillity in the country.

Egyptian Deputy Foreign Minister Hamdi Loza was among various officials who tried to mediate the current crisis. American, British and Norwegian officials have also contacted the Juba government with offers for mediation and humanitarian assistance.


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