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 It was a product of a specific mode of thinking – European colonial discourse – mainly defined by outdated anthropological tenants.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.
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 email@example.com