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South Sudan: Making sense of December the 15th, start of war – Part 2

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By John A. Akec

January 5, 2013 - It is a daunting task trying to sum up in one article the myriad of political causes behind three weeks of catastrophic violence in South Sudan in which over a thousand lives have been lost, tens of thousands displaced, incalculable damage inflicted on the national economy, and human rights and security undermined by the parties involved in the conflict.

In the part 1 of the series, the author had highlighted how the conflict was started based on firsthand accounts of the military generals in the army division of the Presidential Guards in which the shootout began on the night of December 15th 2013 at around 10:17 pm before spreading to other army divisions and thereafter to state of Unity, Jonglei, and Upper Nile.

This is the second and the last part of the article series.

HISTORY IS NOT FOR NOTHING

Not a while ago, I noted that everywhere in the world, lessons of history are learned to build a safe pathway into the future, except in South Sudan where events take place and are soon forgotten. And that, in my view, is a big mistake. And as Professor Abraham Matoc Dhal of Rumbek University’s College of Economic Studies recently noted: "History is not for nothing."

Not only history, but in author’s view, anthropology matters also in understanding the root causes and parameters of ethnic conflicts.

Writing on Development Policy Forum, a policy discussion forum managed by Ebony Centre for Strategic Studies, a think-tank, Samson Wassara, a professor of political sciences at the University of Juba observed:

"The causes of the crisis are rooted in historical legacies of the long civil war that seemed to have ended by the signature of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in January 2005....origins [...] can be traced back to the event. But causes of the current crisis are associated with the past. "

Thus, in order to find our compass into the present quagmire, a glimpse into our distant and recent past will be an exercise worth doing, albeit imperfectly.

THE DINKA AND THE NUER: A SNAPSHOT OF ETHNOGRAPHY AND POWER DYNAMICS

Dinka is the largest single ethnic group in South Sudan. They exist in 7 out of 10 South Sudan states: Northern Bahr El Ghazal, Western Bahr El Ghazal, Warap, Lakes, Jongeli, Unity, Upper Nile state, in addition to Abyei. They total around 3.2 million strong according to South Sudan Population Census 2008 (excluding Abyei). The Dinka outnumber the Nuer by a factor of 2 to 1; namely, for every Nuer, there are two Dinka. The majority of Dinka are found in Northern Bahr El Ghazal, Warap, and Lakes staes. In Unity State, Dinka are minority occupying just 2 counties out of 9; while they have significant presence in Upper Nile where they occupy 4 counties out 13; and in Jonglei state, the Dinka occupy 4 counties out of 11.

The Nuer, on the other hand, is the second largest ethnic group in South Sudan. They are found in Unity, Upper Nile, and Jonglei states with a total population of about 1.6 million strong. In Unity state, they live in 7 counties out of 9 where they are the overwhelming majority. In Upper Nile state, the Nuer occupy 4 counties out of 13, and in Jonglei state, they have 5 counties out of 11.

Between them, the Dinka and Nuer make up 4.8 million or 57% of South Sudan population.

The two ethnic groups share common culture, have similar languages, and practice agro-pastoralist economy. The Nuer ethnographers include Edward Evans-Prichard (The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People, 1940), and Sharon E. Hutchinson (Nuer Dilemas: Coping with Money, War, and State, 1996), while Dinka were studied by Francis Mading Deng (The Dinka People of the Sudan, 1972), Geoffrey Lienhardt (Divinity and the Experience: The Religion of the Dinka, 1961) , and John Ryle (Warriors of the White Nile: the Dinka, 1982), among others. It is worth referring to these works to gain some background understanding of the Dinka and Nuer norms.

THE NUER

In one of his papers (The Nuer of Southern Sudan, 1940), the British anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard, who also described the Nuer as "wild offshoot of Dinka", observed:

"Every Nuer, the product of hard upbringing, deeply democratic and easily aroused to violence, considers himself as good as his neighbour; and families and joint families, whilest coordinating their activities with those of their fellow villagers, regulate their affairs as pleased."

The above accolade-imparting observation has a worrying side to it, though; namely, being "easily aroused to violence" and being "deeply democratic" do not make for good bed-fellows for advancing democratic values when Nuer interact with other groups in the state, for example. Pritchard also noted that while the Nuer do not follow leaders, they can listen to their spiritual/religious leaders such spearmen and rain-makers. Ngundeng is a good example of influential religious leaders.

THE DINKA

The same could have been said about the Dinka, except that Dinka, in my view, are relatively slow to provoke to violence, although many of them have aggressive tendencies when interacting with others. This is what many outsiders find intimidating to say the least. And once provoked, are not easy to stop. What is more, Dinka communities maintain communal leadership structures with clear lines of communication; and it is not just anybody in Dinka society is considered a leader.

Moreover, leaders in Dinka society are heeded and the Dinka believe that people, even within the same family, are "not as equal as sticks in a match box," or "have the same height as the herds of giraffes." It means some are considered wiser than others. Some people deserve more respect than others, because of their age, education, or social status, for example. This stratification of Dinka society has positive implications for the way peace is maintained, conflicts resolved, and on how the society is organised and led.

Traditionally, the Dinka and Nuer raided each others’ borders for cattle rustling especially during the dry season from December to May each year. More often than not, when Dinka raids Nuerland, it is likely to be retaliation for a Nuer offence. However, in recent years, and with spread of small arms, the raids have become increasingly deadly, and more of Nuer’s Dinka neighbours increasingly taking the initiative to rob Nuer’s cattle instead of confining themselves to counter Nuer raids. And what is disturbing about all this is that rarely had the disputes been settled or have anyone been brought to justice for cattle rustling offences that frequently involve lost of life including the killing of women, children, and the elderly in cold blood.

DINKA-NUER HOLLY ALLIANCES

The politicians and military personnel from the two groups have often collaborated fruitfully at certain times, and clashed destructively in other times. In Sudan history on anti-colonial movement, for example, both the Dinka and Nuer made significant contributions to resistance movement against the British colonial rule in Sudan. The White Brigade was founded and led by Ali Abdalatif, a Dinka by origin, who was the political leader of the first Sudanese anti-British movement, and Abdalfadheel El Maz, a Nuer by origin, historically noted for bravery and a military heroism, and as martyr of 1924 armed uprising against British rule in Sudan. This is not to say that only Dinka and Nuer were the only active ethnic groups in the anti-colonial movement.

Furthermore, in author’s time, collaboration between two former Sudan army officers Kurbino Kuanyin Bol, a Dinka, and William Nyuon Beny, a Nuer; led to staging of a mutiny in 1983 in Bor and Ayod respectively, and marked the beginning of the second wave of North-South conflict led by Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) that ended with signing of Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in January 2005, and the declaration of South Sudan independence in July 2011.

BLOODY POWER STRUGGLE

And while there has never been a complete divide along ethnic lines, power struggle between leaders from Dinka and Nuer ethnicities has also involved a component of ethnicity when mobilising support base, or as the unintended consequence or a by-product of such power struggle.

For example, power struggle and clashes of visions pitted John Garang (a Dinka), Kuribino Kuanyin (Dinka), and William Nyuon (Nuer) of SPLM on one hand, against Samuel Gai Tut (Nuer), and Akuot Atem (Dinka) of Anya Nya II on the other hand during the early stages of founding of SPLM (1984-1985), and led to one of the first bloody splits within the leadership ranks in South Sudan resistance movement. The dispute over power eventually took ethnic line in which thousands of lives were lost, mostly in suppressing Nuer-led mutiny against SPLA which also resulted in the victimization of innocent Nuer civilians; and through revenge killings carried out by Nuer militia against Dinka, irrespective of whether or not the Dinka victims are armed combatants or unarmed civilians.

The conflict in SPLA began with killing of Samuel Gai Tut in an ambush by a force loyal to John Garang in 1984 while Tut was on his way to a meeting to settle differences with Garang’s group. After the death of Samuel Gai Tut, William Abdalla Chuol, a younger Nuer officer, took over the faction (Anya Nya II) after executing Akuot Atem, a Dinka compatriot of Samuel Gai Tut. This was followed by a massacre that claimed nearly 2,000 Dinka SPLA recruits from Greater Bahr El Ghazal en route to Ethiopia through Upper Nile. Abdalla Chuol was later assassinated by SPLA forces after leading a fierce counter insurgency against SPLA with the support of Khartoum government after his forces became known as government "friendly forces." In pursuit of Nuer counter insurgents, SPLA committed many atrocities against Nuer civilian population which led to mass migration to North Sudan, and deepening the hatred between the two ethnic groups.

Furthermore, in 1991, Riek Machar broke away from SPLM and formed a faction known as SPLM-Nasir. Starting as a broad-based splinter group, Nasir Faction increasingly became an exclusive Nuer outfit, especially after Bor Masacre in 1991 in which 2,000 Dinka civilians were killed by Machar’s forces. In 1997, Machar-led South Sudan Independence Movement (SSIM), as Nasir faction was later renamed, signed Khartoum Peace Agreement (KPA) with Sudan government.

Machar forces, that were predominantly Nuer, mounted serious counter insurgency against SPLA and allowed the Sudan government to exploit the oil from South Sudan fields in Unity and Upper Nile, with catastrophic outcome for South Sudan liberation war. After the collapse of Khartoum Peace agreement, Riek Machar quit to sign an agreement with SPLM and was reintegrated with some of his forces in 2001. Paulino Matip and other generals stayed behind in Khartoum until 2005 when CPA was concluded before reaching a new agreement with SPLM.

Professor Wassara noted recently that the agreement was not good enough:
"The cosmetic reconciliation between the SPLM/A leading to the signing of the CPA did not heal the wounds of the 1991 rift."

Yet this question remains: What actually constitutes reconciliation in what is increasingly ethnic-based power struggle?

After the signing of CPA and setting up of the government of South Sudan, anti-government militia activity in Unity, Upper Nile, and Jonglei that lacked clearly defined goals had continued unabated and posed security challenges to the nation. The solution has been amnesty and integration of militia leaders and their armies into the rank of SPLA, only for many of them to re-defect months or year later. The government continued to apply the same cure to militia problem and with the same results!

And despite all above, it would appear no one has internalized the root causes behind the Nuer unrest so as to identify more sustainable resolution.

THE STRAW THAT BROKE THE CAMEL’S BACK: OBSTACLES TO MACHAR’S AMBITIONS

It would be a grievous mistake to say that the re-integration of Dr. Riek Machar into SPLM in 2001, and giving him the second highest stake in the government after the president had done nothing to keep power dynamics between the two groups in check, leading to a peaceful conduct of referendum and standing up to Sudan’s intransigence over the post-referendum issue.

It is worth mention that the Nuer were given great stakes in the government across the board the level of which is commensurate with their size in the population. And as vice president of the republic for 8 years, it is understandable that Dr. Machar of late has began to set his eyes on the top job and to explore the political landscape to identify any obstacle to his political ambitions. And he did find many.

First, Dr. Machar wanted the term of presidency reduced to two terms maximum in the South Sudan interim constitution, but that wish was not granted. Second, he wanted the vice president to be acting president should the position fall vacant until elections take place. Instead, the job goes to leader of national legislative assembly as in the constitution. Although he had wanted to be nominated as the leader of the house, he was not. Next Dr Machar strove to remove the clause in SPLM constitution that gives SPLM chairperson to nominate 5% members to NLC and at all other levels of the party. That was roundly voted down in the last NLC convention (128 against 8). Again Machar want the decisions to be made in NLC using secret ballot rather than the show of hand (hoping to give the shy members to make their genuine choice without fear of intimidation). That was also defeated by a majority vote. Machar expected for a more reconciliatory speech from the SPLM chairman at NLC convention, but he got none.

Small wonder, Machar and his group walked out of NLC convention Saturday afternoon, and never to return. And the rest is history.

ROAD NOT TAKEN

"Machar should have known better that using ethnic means as a strategy to get power will have many unintendend consequences", said a former SPLA combatant.
The most obvious thing that Dr. Machar could have done was to form his own party and contest the next election. Having come close to the front of the queue, the rules of the game were suddenly changed and Machar found himself thrown to the bottom of stairs; and then the stairs taken away. Instead of ballot, Machar went for bullet, with the intent to right those wrongs. Not a good choice.

THE IMPLICATION FOR FUTURE OF THE COUNTRY

At the moment, 55 to 60% of the army is Nuer, while they are 20% of population. And given the high defection rate among Nuer in recent conflict, the trust in members of Nuer in the armed forces has received a terrible bashing. One former SPLA general was quoted as saying: " the dilemma for South Sudan is either the constitution disallows the drafting of Nuer in the army, or give them their own country." This would sound extreme but minimizing risk of defection of Nuer in future would be a critical concern in the maintenance of national security.

It would require the passing of legislation to reorganize the army on the bases of the states representation and population size, including increasing the representation of Equatorians and other ethnic groups.

It is unlikely that Machar will win the war and compromise from warring parties would be necessary. International community can work to get the parties agree on transitional period to an internationally organised elections. Machar and group need a free space to promote their vision through peaceful democratic means.

The government also needs to reform the army to be more professional, representative of the whole population, and trustworthy. Compulsory military service should also be constituted for all below certain age to be agreed.

Security organs need strengthening and improve its technological capacity to detect crime and fight terrorism at the bud. Security holes created by non-registration of all mobile phone numbers needs to be addressed as a matter of national security.

And above all, the government needs to improve service delivery in areas of health, education, transportation, electricity, drinking water, and food security to the whole population. Those are the things that worth fighting for, and not on who should be the ruler.

Dr. John Akec is the Chairperson of Academics and Researchers Forum for Development (ARFD), an academic-led think-tank registered as an NGO in South Sudan. He edits a blog bearing his name at http://www.JohnAkecSouthSudan.blogspot.com. The views expressed in the articles are his own and do not express the position of ARFD



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  • 5 January 21:02, by Mr Point

    Up to December 15 Machar was following a political strategy only. However, the coup fabricated by violent and devious, possibly unstable, President is what forced him into rebellion.
    If he had been allowed political activity instead of being subject of assassination attempt, then things would have been much much different.

    repondre message

    • 6 January 05:43, by Sundayw

      Great and insightful article that form a good background to the conflict. It is clear that even in a political process, Riek was always going to be a loser. He knew his chances were small and that is why he tricked political allies of former SPLM chairman, Dr. Garang into supporting undemocratic attainment of power. Now, that he has revealed himself, none of SPLM Politburo would support him.

      repondre message

  • 6 January 05:40, by Grader

    Best article of the year! Keep it up Dr. Akec.
    Riek maybe in Bentiu and Bor but he ain’t winning!!!

    repondre message

  • 6 January 07:15, by Nyong Kir

    John Akec;
    This is the most lowly opinion an academic can write. This shows how tribal vice-chancellors reason. You appear to suggest that you Dinkas are angels compared to the Nuer. Tell that to some people who do not know you Dinkas as a culture, human beings and conducts. You yourself John Akec is the most uncouth and unreasonable person a human person could have come across. You are selfish

    repondre message

  • 6 January 12:07, by australian

    What do you mean, Mr Akec, when you say that the government needs to "improve" services"? IMPROVE?! They need to START PROVIDING services!

    repondre message

  • 7 January 06:51, by Marco Bul

    Nuer are looters.Look at what they did in Malakal,Bentiu and Bor.They know nothing about citizenship.They are bunches of eaters and arsons.They are curse to S Sudan.Wait for census.They will be the minority as Lam Akol predicted.Hahaha.Cows

    repondre message

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