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What it takes to save South Sudan from itself

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By Amir Idris

January 11, 2014 - Nelson Mandela once said, “In prison I learnt to think through my brain, not my blood.” His statement conveys two messages. It recognizes the importance of resolving political conflict through dialogue, and reconciliation, and discourages the use of violence driven by ethnicity and race to address historical and political injustices. Although South Africa and South Sudan differ in terms of history and politics, South Sudan can save itself from its demise as a viable state by embracing reconciliation and avoiding political choices shaped by conflicting ethnic identities. The task of rebuilding an inclusive nation and state in South Sudan is not only a political project but also an intellectual endeavor calling for honest and imaginative reflection on the past and the present.

A simplistic colonial thinking

The recent deadly political violence in South Sudan is a manifestation of how the postcolonial state was framed and constructed. It was a product of a specific mode of thinking – European colonial discourse – mainly defined by outdated anthropological tenants. It claimed that South Sudan is a region inhabited by array of “tribal” groups sharing nothing in common except a periodical cycle of violent attacks precipitated by competition over water and pasture. In the sense that their behaviors and responses to societal events can be explained by their blood ties. It negates the role of the individual as a conscious human being. In turn, thinking among these “tribal” groups becomes the function of blood not the brain. It does not elevate.

Much of the colonial writing on the social and political cultures of South Sudan have focused on two groups: the Dinka and the Nuer. Very few have focused on other ethnic groups. Politics, therefore, came to be seen and defined through the lenses of these two groups. The voices and the aspirations of other groups were either marginalized or completely ignored. Hence, it is inaccurate to interpret the recent political crisis as an ethnic conflict between President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, and his former Vice President, Riek Machar, a Nuer. For it assumes that the political stability can be restored if the two ethnic groups agree to share political power. It also renders the role and the participation of other ethnic and political groups as irrelevant in the current peace talks sponsored by the Inter - Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD). In reality, South Sudan is home to many, not two, ethnic groups. And, the current political crisis requires an inclusive approach which questions the relevancy of the colonial social and cultural map and considers the complexities of today’s society.

Rethinking independence

Political independence entails a search for alternatives to the discourse of the colonial era. It is not a matter of a new flag and a national anthem, but a set of new political institutions. Most importantly, it also entails the development of an intellectual project that cultivates new possibilities for identities, and citizenship. This project should be crafted into three premises: First, the ongoing conflict is neither ethnic nor cultural; it’s a political one. Second, these conflicting ethnic identities such as the Nuer and the Dinka are not static. They could become peaceful identities if the state was redefined and restructured in a way that makes the managing of and coexistence between overlapping identities possible in postcolonial South Sudan. Third, the national crisis of political violence requires a political solution, and it’s for the people of South Sudan to reinvent themselves by redefining their conflicting political identities in order to democratize the state and de-ethnicize the society.

For the people of South Sudan, the separation of South Sudan should be seen as an opportunity for charting their own destiny and building the new state on the basis of inclusive principles of citizenship and governance. The many decades of the liberation struggles, however, should not be framed mainly as a fight against the North; rather it should be interpreted more importantly as a struggle for forging a new polity that speaks the language of inclusive citizenship and equal distribution of power and wealth for all. The main challenge for the South Sudan, therefore, is how to build a new state and nation without reproducing the ills of the old Sudan.

South Sudan has yet to devise an alternative political vision and policies that address the burden of its violent history. The state has yet to address some of the fundamental challenges that determine its viability. Those challenges include the problem of inter-ethnic conflicts, lack of democratic political practices, the absence of law and order, and the weakness of national belonging, among others. The future success of people of South Sudan lies in the inclusion of all various ethnic and political constituents and their ability to reconcile their conflicting ethnic and political interests.

Justice for inclusive future

The recent atrocities committed against targeted ethnic groups in South Sudan unveil the buried memories grounded in the past and invoked in the present. The dead of South Sudan’s violent past remain present in the politics of the living. Of course, documenting and disseminating records of atrocities is vital in South Sudan. It advances broader social virtues of justice and accountability. A handful of academics, intellectuals, and politicians are currently racing to prepare a catalog of incriminating evidence of ethnic targeted killings committed by the government and the rebel groups. But they are doing so, not to defend the virtue of justice and undue the culture of impunity in South Sudan. Instead, they are doing so in the name of their ethnicities with the purpose of incriminating the another ethnic group. Indeed, justice driven by blood relations produces bitterness instead of reconciliation and healing. Recent history has taught us that pursuing criminal justice to seek revenge for past crimes in the aftermath of civil war or communal violence will not advance the goal of building an inclusive peaceful community. One of the lessons of the South African model in truth and reconciliation is that both sides of the history of violence were addressed; Afrikaner and black South Africans. Thus, both whites and blacks could be seen as victims and perpetrators, potentially paving the way for both to be treated as survivors. The cultivation of a common future for South Sudan, therefore, can be constructed only on the future, not the past.

Professor and Chair of Department of African and African American Studies at Fordham University, New York City. He can be reached at idris@fordham.edu



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  • 12 January 14:55, by Paul Chadrack

    This question should go direct to our greedy bhar el gazel people. Due to their stupid greediness our country is now in mess.

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    • 13 January 06:43, by Tutbol

      What does this war has to do with greedy Bhar el gazzele. Riek Machar has staged a coup against an elected government & went on to wage on his war on the wrong people in the states of Jonglei UPPer Nile & Unity. Riek Machar failed to take his political ambition to where the seat of lies, Warap state. Those clowns in the international community like the writer of this article should take their...

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      • 13 January 06:49, by Tutbol

        best take their bullshits else where. It pains us dearly to hear an Arab sounding name lecturing S Sudanese on how they should intellectually do their own things when they, the Arabs are the dunces of all people in the Sudan. They kept S Sudanese uninformed for ages, but they often think they are better than S Sudanese...

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        • 13 January 07:00, by Tutbol

          this Arab dunce as always failed to mention that there is a civil war in his supposedly intellectualized & Arab evilized N Sudan regions of Darfur, Southern Khordupan, Southern Blue Nile & Eastern Sudan. Much as i for one love to hear lecture any foreigner; Hearing a lecture from any so-called Sudanese Arab makes my blood boils in hatred...

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          • 13 January 07:03, by Tutbol

            The so-called Arabs in the Sudan should better off keeping their mouth shut from issues that relate to S Sudanese. The hatred runs deep & they should know better.

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            • 13 January 12:55, by Adodi Jotuwa

              Amir Idris,
              Take your scrap to the dustbin. You have no idea about what you’re writing about. You don’t know where SPLM/A has come from and where it’s heading. Although you are not contrasting South Sudan with South Africa in terms of forgiveness and reconciliation, Dr. Defector Riek Macahr has worse track record in both South Sudan and Sudan. The issue, common sense is not common to Riek.

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              • 13 January 13:01, by Adodi Jotuwa

                Dr Defector Riek Machar broke away in 1991 and can never be compared with Neslson Mandela who stayed the course until released from prison in 1994? Do you think Dr. Defector would have done the same? Why did he go to Khartoum and return to SPLM/A in 2002. Who else has broken away from ANC, joined apartheid government, and then rejoined ANC only to be President? Mention one person.

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                • 13 January 13:01, by Adodi Jotuwa

                  SPLM/A started forgiving power-hungry faction leaders right from the bush up to the peace time in 2005, continued through the interim period and up to post independent South Sudan. SPLM has been and is still struggling to resolve what are so-called outstanding issues that resulted into signing another agreement called Cooperation Agreement (CA) in September 2012 with Khartoum.

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                  • 13 January 13:03, by Adodi Jotuwa

                    When you observe how SPLM leadership is subjected to engagement in many fronts, you should appreciate how it’s coping up with not only building but maintaining unity among South Sudanese people, resolving political issues with Khartoum and at the same time struggling to resolve ethnic or communal-based violence in Jonglei State in particular and the country at large.

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                    • 13 January 13:03, by Adodi Jotuwa

                      Did this kind of development happened in South Africa after 1994 where the VP is obsessed with replacing Mandela at any cost? Why do you dwell on forgiveness already done but somebody born power-hungry, relies instinctively on doomed prophetic promises without leadership qualities and keeps preaching democracy based on tribal politics that Nelson Mandela…

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                      • 13 January 13:04, by Adodi Jotuwa

                        ...had never demonstrated, whether in his 27 years in prison or after 1999? But Dr. Defector Riek Machar took advantage of being forgiven by the late Dr. John Garang in 2002 and his appointment as a VP in 2005 is seen as a recipe for the next President of South Sudan where he had shed more blood in 1991 during his defection to Khartoum and later rejoined SPLM/A with impunity.

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                        • 13 January 13:05, by Adodi Jotuwa

                          The late Nelson Mandela can never be compared with Dr. Defector Riek Machar who was given the position of Vice President on a golden plate. Mandela has been consistent, honest, and perseverant. He never wavered in the liberation of all South Africans not only the majority, Zulu people and the colored. Don’t teach wrong African history to students in Fordham University, NY. Ok?

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                          • 13 January 23:58, by australian

                            "He never wavered...blah blah..."
                            Not sure the Afrikaners would agree with you there.

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  • 13 January 12:11, by australian

    Any article beginning with a quote by Nelson Mandela is bound to be not worth reading.
    So patronising and pretentious!
    By the way, Mr Idris, I think you mean "tenets", not "tenants". And can the word "discourse" be dropped - forever?

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  • 15 January 13:34, by Jalaby

    Amir Idris,
    You’re absolutely right, the south is nothing but arrays of tribes share nothing in common except fighting each others over water and pasture!
    British colonization people tried their best and did what ever they could to separate the south from north and imposed what was known as "Closed Districts Ordinances of 1920s"

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    • 15 January 13:42, by Jalaby

      and that literally means separating the south from north or we can see a "premature" separation for the south, they expelled out Arab from the south, they forced southerners to change their names from Arab/Muslim names to western names like:John, James, Johnson, Jayson, etc, they prohibited the Arabic language and strictly imposed only English language,

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      • 15 January 13:47, by Jalaby

        they developed the south the same way as eastern African countries style like:Kenya, Uganda, etc but after all guess what? British Administration discovered that the south does not have the basic required elements to establish state and they were so confused about what to do with them and they had 3 opinions for the south:
        1. Make it as an independent state by itself

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        • 15 January 13:53, by Jalaby

          2.Divide the south between Sudan and Kenya and Uganda
          3.Attach the south to north and keep Sudan as one state
          Options 1 & 2 didn’t work out with them because the south doesn’t have the required elements to be state and there is nothing in common that really connect them to Kenya and Uganda but they have many things connect them to north starting with the same language

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          • 15 January 14:00, by Jalaby

            common trading, the interference between the south & north, etc!
            the policy of Closed Districts Ordinances failed to separate the south but unfortunately injected southerners the hatred for north people without any real justifications, person like Tutbol is good example of the direct affects of this policy, he hates north people for nothing but I can assure you

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            • 15 January 14:01, by Jalaby

              he hates Nuer much much more than he hates Arab north!!

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  • 15 January 14:16, by Jalaby

    Mr Tutbol
    Did you really read this topic carefully? if you read it,did you really understand it?
    I bet you didn’t read and even if you read it there is no way you can understand it with such narrow and close minded and poor English that you’ve?
    Why you didn’t object your master John Garang when he was fighting for one Sudan?shut up hypocrite

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