The high hopes for peace and prosperity that rang in the birth of the world’s youngest country in July 2011 have been dashed by armed clashes between government soldiers, rebel militias and tribal loyalists. Since the latest conflict erupted last December, thousands of civilians have been raped or killed and hundreds of thousands have fled their homes.
To understand the divisions that superseded the unified front in tribal-Christian-dominated South Sudan, which wrested its independence from Arab-Muslim-dominated north Sudan, Anglican Journal spoke with David Collins, Canada’s first ambassador to the neonate nation.
“What’s happening now is a microcosm of what’s happened in Africa for many, many years, both before the colonial period and in post-colonial times,” says Collins, now a consultant based in Victoria. “What you have today is rather an artificial division of a country into geo-physical nations that we understand but that bear very little relevance to traditional tribal groupings and orientations, especially among nomadic and pastoral groups.”
In South Sudan, the predominant tribal group is the Dinka, at about 36 per cent of the country’s roughly 11 million population, followed by the Nuer at about 15 per cent. The two tribes regularly battled each other in the 1990s during the country’s second civil war, but came together to push for independence from Sudan, which had voiced plans to make the entire country an Islamic state ruled by Sharia law.
When greater Sudan became independent of Britain in 1956, inhabitants of the more verdant, oil-rich tribal-Christian-Animist south were guaranteed full political participation. “That didn’t work out over several governments in Khartoum and this led to major periods of conflict,” says Collins.
Emerging in the mid-1950s, conflicts were renewed in the early 1970s in the country’s first civil war and, again, from 1983 to 2005 in the second civil war (at 22 years, the world’s longest). The Comprehensive Peace Agreement of January 2005 ended the fighting between Khartoum and the south, and granted the latter six years of semi-autonomy, after which a referendum would decide if the region wanted independence. South Sudan overwhelmingly chose this in a January 2011 vote and in July officially seceded from Sudan.
“There’s a subset to the plot, however, since the oil-producing region along South Sudan’s north border with Sudan is an economic engine for both countries,” says Collins. Sudan collects transit fees for oil shipped north through its pipelines. Relations with Khartoum are edgy, and the still-contested border has yet to be finalized. South Sudan has the quintessential ingredients for civil war: a colonial past, corrupt, spoils-seeking elites, rulers unschooled in governing a modern state, religious and ethnic divisions, a history of military violence, as well as poverty, unemployment and food insecurity.
Recently, it’s also seen a deadly rivalry between its two top politicians, President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, and the vice-president he sacked, Riek Machar, a Nuer. Both are Christians and veteran rebel leaders in the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A-rebels who fought various Khartoum administrations in the second civil war). Kiir dismissed Machar after the latter announced his intention to run for president in 2015 and later accused him of instigating a coup.
The resulting backlash spilled over into civil unrest, with different militias supporting their respective erstwhile commanders. Throw in longstanding inter-tribal skirmishes among nomadic people over cattle, grazing land and water, and you have a recipe for displacement and death. Fighting broke out on Dec. 15 when the Kiir-Machar vendetta sparked clashes between ethnic factions in the presidential guard. Dinka soldiers began killing Nuer civilians door-to-door in the capital city of Juba. Violence soon spread across the country, triggering ethnically targeted killings between the president’s Dinka loyalists and Machar’s Nuer supporters. Kiir’s official SPLA is pitted against Machar’s rebels, who call themselves the “Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army-in Opposition.”
At the time of the Jan. 24 ceasefire negotiated in Ethiopia by Africa’s Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), unofficial estimates put the death toll at more than 10,000, with about three-quarters of a million displaced. Against this backdrop, nation building remains difficult.
The nascent country is cash-poor, education-poor, transportation-poor and lacking in the political institutions and economic infrastructure necessary for a successful state. “Juba has a university, but it’s essentially like a frontier town in the Wild West,” says Collins. And with the IGAD ceasefire remaining fragile, it appears the road from liberation to stability and good governance will be a long one.