Home | Comment & Analysis    Monday 19 October 2009

Dimensions of current political discourse over Malakal

By Dr. Peter Adwok Nyaba

October 18, 2009 — A joke made rounds in 1983 following the imposition, by Field Jaafar Nimeri Marshall, of the September Islamic Sharia Laws. Two Southern Sudanese traveling in opposition directions met in Kosti. “Where are you going?” asked the one traveling to the South. “I am going to Khartoum.” Replied the other one: “It is better that you returned to the South. In Khartoum you will have your hands cut off if your collected somebody’s possession on the ground; or you will be stoned to death if were found with a woman or lashed if you were caught drinking anything alcoholic.” “Why?” He shouted in disbelief, “is there no government in Khartoum?” The truth is; it was the government itself at work.

There is a poignant parallel to this story in what is going on today in parts of Southern Sudan. The attack on Warnyol, Duk Fadiet; the ethnic and sectional armed conflicts in Central Equatoria, Jonglei, Lakes and Warrap; the recent fighting between the SPLA forces in Bentiu; the Mundari – Bor Dinka conflict; and by the way it is just a matter of hours before the smouldering dispute over Malakal might finally erupt into Padang Dinka – Shilluk mayhem; you may name the rest I have forgotten. A common feature of these conflicts reflecting a dire state of widespread insecurity is the absence of prompt state intervention: no culprits have been arrested or charged confirming the suspicion that some highly placed people are involved while nearly all these security breaches have been blamed on the National Congress Party in a manner that disables the search for truth.

Why are our people fighting themselves? This multi-million dollar question in every mouth in Southern Sudan and even in the Diaspora begs answers which are not forthcoming. It is mind boggling that a people who have struggled to liberate themselves, and are only waiting to exercise the right of self-determination for which they have sacrificed millions of kith and kin, have turned against one another in a manner unprecedented and which seem to re-echo back the question: what for was all the sacrifice? In another way one may even be tempted to ask the innocent question above: is there no government in Southern Sudan? Or is it perhaps our government itself at work?

Of course it’s any government’s top responsibility and raison dè êtré to protect lives and property of its citizens. Short of shooting oneself in the foot the responsibility for the state of affairs in Southern Sudan lies squarely on the SPLM leadership and its entire membership. No one in this political institution will escape unscathed by the verdict history will hand down sooner than later. We take responsibility for commission or omission. However, those with power and authority take the most responsibility should there be hanging or the ICC.

I am writing this piece, recuperating from an ailment in a Hospital bed, at least to vent my frustration and anger with the deliberate inaction to curb the nightmare of uncertainty we as a people are going through but more with the fact that some of these could, and indeed would have been prevented. We seem not to remember the saying ‘a stitch in time save nine’. It can point to one thing that the crop of leaders we today have in the SPLM were only made for war not for governing leave alone the important tasks of state- as well as nation-building in Southern Sudan. It is this phenomenal failure of historical dimension that explodes in our faces daily in the form of ethnic conflicts, high-level corruption and abuse of power with impunity, and you can go on naming it.

My reference point in this context is the formation in July 1983 of the SPLM/A to spearhead the revolutionary armed struggle. Liberation undertaken by the SPLM/A was presumed to be a process of social and political conscientisation of our people to enable them transform the oppressive reality of political exclusion, economic marginalisation, exploitation and neglect as well as social discrimination based on ethnicity, religion, language and culture by which they have been submerged for centuries. This presupposes that liberation is an irreversible transforming process that under no circumstances political, social or economic would this oppressive reality be recreated. Thus both the oppressor and the oppressed would be transformed to create a new reality of peace, unity, equality, social justice, democracy and prosperity.

The truth however was different for in 1983 the war erupted against a background of contradictions in the defunct Southern Region. The May regime in its terminal years generated serious political contradictions which erupted as wars in its weakest link in the Southern Region. This explains the spontaneous manner people from the marginalised regions joined the SPLM/A in their tens of thousands. However, it must be honestly admitted that not all the combatants who swelled the ranks and file of the SPLM/A were inspired by liberation ideals or socialist ideology aired out over radio SPLA. Most of them did so in response to their immediate local disputes and conflicts and the idea was to get firearms to settle these disputes. Some of them were fugitives of the Sudanese justice system.

Thus for instance the people of Abyei, northern Bahr el Ghazal responded and joined the SPLM/A to acquire firearms to resolved the nagging problem with their neighbours the Messeriya and Rezeighat [Murahileen]; the Bor Dinka had traditional conflict with the Murle; the Lauch and Paweny Dinka of Khor Falus and Atar respectively had old scores to settle; while on the other hand they had not settled their dispute with the Shilluk over land. So all and sunder arrived in Bilpam with a hidden local agenda.

The SPLM/A, essentially a military movement, absorbed all these contradictions in what was termed ‘revolutionary armed struggle’ but failed to transform them into nation-building instruments. The revolutionary armed struggle incubated instead of resolving these contradictions. This may explain why some of them have ferociously resurfaced. And although new conflict lines have sprouted in the last four years they may be attributed to the competition for wealth and power among the political and military elite and the failure of the state to curb them. How can we explain the sudden and recent violent eruption between the Mundari and the Bari in the suburbs of Juba, the Southern Sudan capital and seat of its government?

I want to concern myself primarily with the genesis of the smouldering conflict in and about Malakal? A conflict is quietly evolving between the Shilluk and Padang Dinka which has the prospects and capacity to evolve into a major conflagration if our leaders chose to turn a deaf ear or blind eye to the glaring realities. This is primarily because it is a question of demarcation of borders of the two states of Upper Nile and Jonglei. This is the prerogative and sole responsibility of the Government and that is precisely what I mean when I said it will be the responsibility of the two state governments should the impending conflict between the Padang Dinka and the Shilluk erupt into violence.

When the Paramount chief of Atar Dinka made a fictitious claim to the area between the Sobat –Nile confluence and the Nile – Zeraf confluence in 1980 in the wake of Nimeri’s mischievous administrative decentralisation policy, a survey team commissioned by the Regional Government established that at no point did the boundary of Fangak (Jonglei Province) and Tonga (Upper Nile Province) districts touched the Nile or Sobat Rivers. In spite of this ruling a violent eruption ensued in 1981 in which lives were lost. It is one of the resolved security breaches.

As if this was not enough the Atar Dinka did not relinquish their claim and even continued to fester the SPLM Leadership with petitions claiming that the Shilluk resided only on the west bank of the Nile. This is a falsehood that bears no historical records (refer to Upper Nile Hand Book 1931) but it is now the source of deadly tension between the two communities which also has been joined by the other Padang Dinka groups of Ngok Lual Yak and the Dongjol in the context of a master plan in the style of Balfour (1917) to create a homeland for the Jews.

So the simple dispute between two SPLA giants over the name and where to place their mutual county H/Qs, which rekindled the old feuds between Luach and Paweny sections leading to loss of life in 2006 and 2007 has been transformed into a major inter-ethnic conflagration with serious political implications for the CPA implementation, state and nation building in Southern Sudan. The Luach political and military elite wanted the county H/Qs in Khor Falus and have gone ahead to build a military port in Changi/ Wic Nyilwal on the Sobat River to the chagrin of the people of Pajur, while the Paweny elite wanted the H/Qs in Atar Ardeib on Khor Atar. The compromise decision brokered by a Padang Dinka politician in the presence of the President of GOSS, to position the county H/Qs in Pijo at the confluence of the Nile and Sobat Rivers, exacerbates the tension with the Shilluk who see the hands of two Ministers in GOSS behind a sinister and treacherous scheme to displace them from their ancestral lands to pave the way for the establishment of a Padang Dinka State adjoining together from the west to the east: the Abyei, Pariang, Paweny, Luach, Ngok, Dongjol, Ager, Nyiel and Abailang clans of the Padang Dinka.

The idea of Padang Dinka State, as a means of building a sense of unity and solidarity among the Padang Dinka has been prompted by a feeling of powerlessness and alienation from the Dinka power centre (currently in Bahr el Ghazal under the leadership of Gen. Salva Kiir Mayardit) due to their dispersion over a wide territory separated by the Nuer and the Shilluk. To gain recognition and hence inclusion into this Dinka power house, the Padang Dinka political and military elite must demonstrate unity and strength. And this unity can only be stimulated by initiating a conflict with the neighbouring Shilluk over their ancestral land. The scheme to dislodge the Shilluk from their land on the east bank of the Nile from Nyijwado in the South to Detwok in the north is the underlying hidden agenda of the Padang Dinka political elite fronted by an influential Abyei Minister in GOSS. The idea is to unify all these Padang Dinka sections into one Padang Dinka State which extends from Abyei to Renk to compensate for the loss of their dream home in Southern Kordofan. The take over the Shilluk land therefore is the source of conflict which could turn out to be the very unmaking of Southern Sudan.

The project to dislodge the Shilluk from the east bank to the west bank with the Nile as the boundary could have been planned way back during the war of liberation but its implementation could only be undertaken once the peace agreement has been signed. In the Upper Nile Peace and Reconciliation Conference held in Panyagor in June 2003 there were Padang Dinka voices calling on the Shilluk to vacate the east bank. The influential Abyei Minister in Goss has been instigating the people of Pariang to relocate to Arach (Shilluk land) to avoid domination and eclipse by Western Nuer. But this indeed is to create easy stretch of uninterrupted Padang Dinka territory.

When in 2006 the then commander of SPLA Division One, ordered the felling of trees and bamboos in the gardens belonging to the Shilluk of Adhidhang, Pajur and Ogot on the Sobat banks little did the Shilluk people suspect that this was part of a wider scheme to dislodge them from their homes. The scheme became clearer only in January 2009. The attacks and killings in Anakdiar and Abanimo and the subsequent Shilluk revenge murder of Paramount Chief Thon wai of Dongjol were manifestation of, and a reaction elicited by this scheme of the Padang Dinka Political and Military elite. That the Padang Dinka harbours such plans against their Shilluk neighbours goes to prove the fact mentioned above that the revolutionary armed struggle only incubated the local contradictions. That it is also being spearheaded by people high in the SPLM hierarchy proves that war, particular guerrilla war, does unite those who fight it.

The Shilluk will definitely not take this Padang Dinka scheme lying on their stomachs. The defection of Dr. Lam Akol Ajawin (a Shilluk) and his establishment of SPLM Democratic Change are now being peddled falsely to be Shilluk-based simple to create the impression and portray the Shilluk people as being anti-GOSS and therefore hasten or accelerate a military occupation of their land and impose the Padang Dinka scheme.

The recent standoff over the change of name from Malakal to Makal County is an eye opener for many Shilluks. The questions that impose themselves here therefore are: Would the Shilluk accept or allow the Dinka to take their ancestral land without a fight? What would be the wider implication of a Shilluk-Dinka Padang war in Upper Nile? Linked to the widespread insecurity and ethnic conflicts in Southern Sudan would the Shilluk-Dinka Padang war not only prove what the NCP and many in the international community have been peddling that Southern Sudan is a failed state and that Southerners can’t govern themselves.

Makal is the county that surrounds Malakal Town which is the capital of Upper Nile State and therefore no one ethnic community except individuals with title deeds can rightfully claim to be theirs if that is necessary at all. In this context and to prevent the pointless claims and counter claims it is significant, indeed imperative to educate ourselves. It true many people who are positions of authority and leadership today had no opportunity to know history either from the books or from their community elders, the custodian of our history.

First, Malakal as a town and capital of Upper Nile Province derives its name from Makal, which is the Shilluk village north of it. Having been transferred from Taufikiya a few kilometres south Malakal was established in 1920(s), thus curbed out of Kodok District with its northern limit at the Airport and southern limit at Goni. Until 1966 when Kodok District ceded the area to Malakal Town Council, Dangershopi and Jonglei rice scheme were part of, and the land rates paid by the squatters who settled therein used to be collected by Kodok District authorities proving the obvious.
Secondly, the boundary between Kodok and Bailiet (formerly Abuong) Districts lies 27 KM east of Malakal at Banglai, and follows a small seasonal stream (wuol) that drains from the Sobat northwards pass Akoka and into the river Nile just opposite Kodok town. This means that all Dinka Ngok and Dongjol settlements lie east of Wuol and the Shilluk settlements of Koman are west of it.

Third, just after independence Abuong district was renamed Sobat Rural Council with its H/Qs in Bailiet. Until 1974, when Bailiet had permanent physical infrastructure the rural council was housed in and the district governed from Malakal. This perhaps forms the basis of the claim. But what linked Malakal Town to Bailiet and Akoka was the fact that the Dongjol (Akoka) and Ngok (Bailiet) would not constitute a electoral geographic constituency and for that reason were their populations were joined to constitute a geographic constituency. This did not Malakal a part of Bailiet or Sobat Rural Council; an election territorial constituency does not translate into an administrative entity.

Any ethnicised conflict whatsoever and wherever has wider political implications for state formation and nation-building; Southern Sudan will not emerge as a state at the expense of any ethnic community. The Padang Dinka political and military elite should not be ensnared to believe that because they now pull the political strings in Southern Sudan they can create a false reality that will force the Shilluk to leave their ancestral homes on the east bank. They can do that at the expense of wider political aspirations of the people of Southern Sudan. Their scheme is treacherous and must be given the scorn it deserves because it is diverting our attention and focus away from fundamental issues of CPA implementation and the exercise of the right of self-determination.

The future of the Southern Sudanese people does ly in inciting ethnic hatred but in peace and unity among themselves. This means the leaders must eschew parochialism and ethnic chauvinism as ladders to wealth and political power. Now that our people have been worked into conflict the escape route from this heightened politicisation of ethnicity or the ethnicisation of politics in Southern Sudan passes through social and economic policies for transforming the abject poverty in which our people are wallowing.

Southern Sudan has a huge potential for economic development by stimulating and tapping the potential surplus in agriculture, livestock, fisheries and forestry. It must be admitted that the leaders spent the four post CPA years squandering the resources and have failed to provide public goods e.g. security, education, health care, etc, and that is why they have resorted to inciting conflicts as a diversionary tactic.

It is only a few months to the end of the interim period and this time should not be spent in quarrels and meaningless diatribe. It should be used to prepare the people for the exercise of the right to self-determination. The people will not vote in unison if they are so much divided along ethnic and sectional lines. They will not even vote for the SPLM if its leaders and cadres are busy causing conflicts. If the SPLM fails to win the hearts and minds of all ethnic communities because of the behaviour and attitudes of a few ethnic chauvinists within its ranks than it should not be surprised if the people demonstrate to it in elections that all these years spent in the struggle and the two millions and a half who paid the ultimate price were in vain.

It is my opinion that the wider political implication of ethnic conflicts not only in Upper Nile State but also in other parts of Southern Sudan including turning blind eyes to the atrocities being committed by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Western Equatoria don’t augur well for the SPLM and its leadership.

The author is a senior SPLM member and the current Minister of Higher Education in the Sudan Government of National Unity. He is the author of the book "The Politics of Liberation in South Sudan: An Insider View".