Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1180, (16-22 January 2014)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1180, (16-22 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

A tale of two towns

Gamal Nkrumah notes that in South Sudan the past invariably resurfaces with a vengeance

Al-Ahram Weekly

A number of elementary facts condition the nature of daily life in South Sudan. First, the country is one of the poorest and least developed in the world. Ironically, South Sudan was listed by the British magazine The Economist as the fastest growing economy in the world with a GDP growth rate of 35 per cent. Proof that from the bottom the only way is up.

South Sudan President Salva Kiir is on the offensive. His troops are currently deployed in various parts of the country. Kiir’s troops are closing in on Bentiu, capital of the oil-rich Unity State. Fighting has also erupted in and around Bor, capital of Jongolei State, another oil producing state bordering Ethiopia where peace talks are being held under the auspices of the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an East African economic grouping.

China, South Sudan’s most important trading partner, has dispatched its foreign minister, Wang Yi, to hold talks with the protagonists in South Sudan.

Another crucial trading partner is Sudan, and Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir paid a visit to Juba to meet with his South Sudan counterpart. “There should be peace and security in South Sudan,” Al-Bashir was quoted as saying upon landing in Juba.

“We come so that we can bring peace to South Sudan, to our brothers and sisters in South Sudan. Our relationship is very important,” he added. Bashir hopes to build on his budding friendship with Kiir.

Sudan fears that its oil supplies will be disrupted because of the violence in South Sudan. The country, plagued by political instability and war, and with long borders with Sudan has a serious impact on its northern neighbour. Khartoum relies on revenue from oil transported by pipelines across South Sudan.

Kiir has accused his former deputy, Reik Machar, of plotting a coup, and several ministers were incarcerated by Kiir for allegedly being part of the plot to remove Kiir from office.

A frantic hunt for fugitives is currently underway, even as fighting intensified in the eastern states of South Sudan. The physical and psychological trauma of the population of the nascent state is exacerbated.

The full might of the forces of Kiir have yet to come into view. Machar’s men are also on the go intercepting and repelling Kiir’s troops. As Al-Ahram Weekly went to press, violence was escalating in yet another South Sudan strategic town, Malakal, the capital of Upper Nile state, home of an oil bonanza and the Shilluk people, South Sudan’s third most numerous ethnic group. Both Bor and Bentiu are in the hands of supporters of Machar.

The decision to target the two cities was an expression of ongoing ethnic tensions, or rather exploitation by self-serving South Sudan politicians of the ethnic card. For these potentates and their followers the process of engaging in tribal warfare involves a dramatic and often emotional razzmatazz.

Bor, like Bentiu, has a deeply rooted economic and ethnic importance. Both cities and their environs are ethnically mixed with both Nuer and Dinka populations. Machar’s military exploits appear to have chimed in with notions already fermenting in like-minded South Sudanese politicians’ minds.

It was against this background that the anti-Kiir sentiments were nurtured. Many of Machar’s supporters are ethnic Dinka, even though he himself is a Nuer.

Ethiopia specifically and IGAD more generally have played a critical role in easing tensions in South Sudan. Security is strict and journalists are denied access to the venue of the peace talks, the plush Sheraton Hotel in Addis Ababa.

Dangerous liaisons? Indeed, the path to a deal on the South Sudanese crisis is expected to be protracted and perilous. Ethiopia has a stake in what happens in South Sudan. Kenya and Uganda, too, have an interest in political developments in South Sudan. The ethnic composition of the three aforementioned nations is inextricably intertwined with that of South Sudan.

No one imagines that the peace talks will be easy. No one knows how long the talks will take to bear fruit.

Yet to a great extent what is happening in South Sudan is a reminder of the country’s deeper strength as the third largest oil producer and exporter in Africa south of the Sahara, with tremendous water reserves not yet fully exploited, as it is the crux of the White Nile.

Agricultural potential is as yet still untapped. Nations such as China and the IGAD grouping realise the potential of South Sudan. Nonetheless, there are reasons to be wary.

South Sudan’s neighbours and benefactors would like to clean up the South Sudanese government dominated by the ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) which since independence two years ago has shown little appetite for reform. Kiir might become a little bolder precisely because neighbouring countries are sympathetic to his cause and, quite frankly and for a variety of reasons, the prospects of Machar in power look less enchanting to South Sudan’s neighbours. That much has been made clear in pronouncements by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and his Kenyan counterpart Uhuru Kenyatta.

Still smarting from his humiliating alienation from East African leaders, with the notable exception of Ethiopia, which appears to be more neutral, Machar proved more than capable of meeting the challenge. He raised and equipped a gigantic ragtag army with the massive assistance of disgruntled South Sudanese politicians. And, contrary to received wisdom, not all are ethnic Nuer. Indeed, many are Dinka war veterans.

Yet, outnumbered and unable adequately to coordinate military operations in the western reaches of South Sudan, Machar’s offensive might collapse leaving the country divided. Machar has from the beginning of his military campaign targeted the oil-rich east and north of South Sudan, regions that curiously enough have an ethnic Nuer majority, or at least a preponderance of non-Dinka peoples.

Given Machar’s near legendary reputation as a charismatic leader, he is likely to make the most of his military escapades. Machar rejected the flippant part of being lieutenant to Kiir for the role of commander of his own formidable force.

Sadly since the advent of an independent South Sudan, the nascent country has seen little sign of a united and determined drive for democratic transformation. The two years since independence have been dominated by the elemental division between competing politicians, characterised by the aggression of warlords, much to the detriment of the long-suffering people of South Sudan.

The humanitarian situation is deplorable, and even as the Weekly goes to press news of some 300 civilians drowning in the Nile desperately attempting to flee the fighting in Malakal has surfaced. The seemingly innocuous tributaries of the Nile, a watercourse that supplies the entire region, have become conveyers not of life but of blood.

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