From the outside, the conflict in South Sudan appears very much a local issue but the fighting itself has petered out into a kind of war of attrition, affecting three of the country’s 10 states. The rest of the country is absolutely peaceful. From the inside, however, at least from the vantage position of the government in Juba, one sees the hands of powerful outside forces hiding behind the scenes and stoking the fires, thereby making it not a local issue at all. Our editor, Baffour Ankomah, just back from South Sudan’s capital, Juba, reports.
Around the world an image has been created of a South Sudan of never-ending wars. This is true to an extent. From as far back as 1947, the South had made its intentions known that it did not want to join the North in a unitary state after independence as the colonial overlords, Britain and Egypt, were adamantly pushing the two hitherto differently-administered territories into.
Because of the rejection of the Anglo-Egyptian unitary policy by the South, war broke out in August 1955, four months before Sudanese independence in January 1956, and it continued thereafter for 17 years.
Thus in a period spanning 50 years between 1955 and 2005, only 11 of those years were peaceful in the South (from 1972 to 1983, when a peace agreement was observed). A good 39 of those 50 years were veritable years of war, debilitating wars in fact, that claimed an estimated one million lives.
South Sudan is at a crossroads – perhaps what is required is genuinely sincere and disinterested outsiders to point them in the right direction
For South Sudan, which finally broke away from the enforced union with the North in 2011, this means the vast majority of its youthful population have known nothing but war throughout their lives. They were born into war and grew up in war. In effect, war has become a way, or their way, of life!
As a newspaper proprietor in Juba brutally put it: “The long years of war mean that the only skill acquired by our people is the skill of war. And I shudder to think that these young men of war are now sitting under trees with nothing to do. The devil finds work for idle hands, and our idle hands are hands of war.
“It is a frightening situation which needs a quick resolution by the government, by way of job creation – and multitudes of them. Else who knows who will offer war jobs to these young men who have only one skill, the skill of war.”
From this standpoint, the situation is scary. But let no one believe for even a moment that war is in the DNA of these tall Dinkas or Nuers who form the largest and second largest ethnic groups in South Sudan. No, their DNA does not predispose them to war. It is the environment in which they grew and live. And sometimes this is exacerbated by outside pressures.
For sure, their liberation struggle took too long to bear fruit. It was by far the longest liberation war fought on the continent of Africa, incidentally to gain freedom from fellow Africans – not the usual Africans vs European colonisers/settlers dichotomy, but freedom from the Arabised Republic of Sudan, run by Africans who ideologically think and see themselves as Arabs.
The old hatreds
During the 39 years of war, the ruling elite of the North, seeking their own self-interest, employed divide-and-rule tactics to break the spirit of the South by recruiting some ethnic groups there into militias to fight against the liberation fighters of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), who were fighting for Southern independence. The divide-and-rule tactics led to frequent fighting among, and even between, the ethnic groups of the South, which contributed negatively to the progress of the liberation war.