South Su­dan is not Africa

Coun­try’s on­go­ing strug­gles are unique

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - Gwynne Dyer is an in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist whose ar­ti­cles are pub­lished in 45 coun­tries.

This is not an ar­ti­cle on South Su­dan, which is just as well be­cause the con­flicts there are al­most frac­tal in their com­plex­ity. The mini­war last week­end be­tween the forces of Pres­i­dent Salva Kiir and Vice-Pres­i­dent Riek Machar, which killed more than 270 peo­ple and saw tanks, ar­tillery and he­li­copter gun­ships used in the cap­i­tal, Juba, is part of a pat­tern that em­braces the whole coun­try.

The four days of heavy fight­ing be­gan on Fri­day, July 8, with a dis­agree­ment be­tween the two men’s large forces of body­guards out­side State House where they were meet­ing, and rapidly es­ca­lated to an all-out clash be­tween all of Kiir’s and Machar’s troops in the cap­i­tal. No­body was sur­prised, be­cause the peace deal last Au­gust, which ended a two-year civil war that killed tens of thou­sands across the coun­try, was never se­cure.

Af­ter a shaky cease­fire was agreed, Pres­i­dent Kiir said: “Mak­ing South Su­dan glo­ri­ous will only hap­pen if we see our­selves as South Su­danese first rather than tribal or po­lit­i­cal group­ings,” which is the sort of thing that lead­ers are obliged to say af­ter a point­less clash like this. It’s true, too, but in South Su­dan it is very hard to do.

The real rea­son for its poverty, how­ever, is war: The coun­try that is now South Su­dan has been at war for 42 of the past 60 years. Bri­tish colo­nial­ists in­cluded it in what we now call Su­dan for ad­min­is­tra­tive con­ve­nience, but the dom­i­nant pop­u­la­tion in the much big­ger north­ern part was Mus­lim and Ara­bic-speak­ing, while the south was mostly Chris­tian and cul­tur­ally, eth­ni­cally and lin­guis­ti­cally African.

The fight­ing be­gan a year be­fore Su­dan’s in­de­pen­dence in 1956, with the south­ern­ers re­sist­ing the Su­danese govern­ment’s at­tempts to Is­lamize and Ara­bize their part of the new coun­try. That civil war lasted un­til 1971, and the sec­ond (1983-2005) was even longer. By the time South Su­dan fi­nally won its in­de­pen­dence in 2011, it had long been a fully mil­i­ta­rized so­ci­ety.

It didn’t take long af­ter in­de­pen­dence be­fore the two big­gest eth­nic groups, the Dinka (led by Pres­i­dent Salva Kiir) and the Nuer (led by Vice-Pres­i­dent Riek Machar) were at each other’s throats. Those are just two of South Su­dan’s sixty eth­nic groups, each with its own lan­guage, cul­ture and ter­ri­tory — and even within the two big eth­nic groups, dif­fer­ent sub­groups some­times find them­selves on op­po­site sides of the fight­ing.

One-fifth of South Su­dan’s 12 mil­lion peo­ple are cur­rently refugees within their coun­try — the lucky ones in United Na­tions camps, but many hid­ing in swamps and bad­lands from lo­cal eth­nic mili­tias. Kiir and Machar are both bru­tal, un­trust­wor­thy men, and nei­ther is fully in con­trol of his own gen­er­als. And the out­side or­ga­ni­za­tions that have poured for­eign aid and peace­keep­ing troops into the coun­try are los­ing pa­tience.

The cur­rent cease­fire may not last: seven oth­ers were bro­ken dur­ing the course of the re­cent civil war. South Su­dan is un­likely to achieve a last­ing peace set­tle­ment any time soon. But South Su­dan is not rep­re­sen­ta­tive of sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa. Out of 48 coun­tries south of the Sa­hara, only So­ma­lia, Bu­rundi, and South Su­dan are cur­rently suf­fer­ing from large-scale in­ter­nal vi­o­lence.

A dozen oth­ers have ex­pe­ri­enced sim­i­lar up­heavals at some point in the past fif­teen years: sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa is unique in the ex­trav­a­gant di­ver­sity of its pop­u­la­tion, with two hun­dred eth­nic groups of more than half a mil­lion peo­ple and only three with over 15 mil­lion peo­ple. But mostly they man­age to co­ex­ist fairly peace­fully, and over time broader na­tional iden­ti­ties are be­ing built over the post­colo­nial wreck­age.

The im­age of a con­ti­nent rav­aged by war is an op­ti­cal il­lu­sion per­pet­u­ated by the in­ter­na­tional me­dia’s fix­a­tion with vi­o­lence. For ex­am­ple, dur­ing most of 2014-15 the head­line news com­ing out of Europe, as far as the rest of the world was con­cerned, was the war in Ukraine — although all of the con­ti­nent’s other fifty coun­tries were at peace.

South Su­dan is des­per­ately un­for­tu­nate in its his­tory and its lead­ers, but it is no more typ­i­cal of Africa than Ukraine is of Europe.

GWYNNE DYER

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.