South Sudan’s Tangled Crisis

The last time the world’s eyes were on South Sudan, it was a time of jubilation. In July 2011, its secession from Sudan after decades of civil war was feted as a triumph of international advocacy. It seemed a long overdue deliverance for the people of the South, who had borne the brunt of successive Sudanese military assaults. South Sudan has always been viewed through the prism of its victimhood at the hands of its former northern neighbor.

Now, two and a half years later, South Sudan is in the news again. It has become clear that the country is not a bucolic land ruled by the freedom fighters. It has its own internal fissures, ethnic tensions and residual wounds of war. But the outside world must not misunderstand the roots of the current outbreak of violence in a rush to come to grips with this new internal conflict.

Although there are plenty of reports indicating that the current crisis has unfolded along tribal lines, this is an extremely simplistic and dangerous way to frame events. The real source of South Sudan’s violence is political, not ethnic — and Western policy makers must grasp this reality before it’s too late. The international media has been all too ready to frame the violence that erupted after Dec. 15 entirely in terms of ethnic violence and state collapse — a familiar narrative for conflicts in African countries that glosses over the political roots of the conflict.

The Guardian splashed its front page with “South Sudan: The State That Fell Apart in a Week,” and the paper’s reporting reflected a media narrative that has shifted from the South’s victimhood at the hands of the North to one of bipolar tribal conflict between the two dominant tribes in the country, the Dinka, the president’s tribe, and the Nuer, his challenger’s. On Christmas Eve, London’s Sunday Times focused on “Gangs Deal Out Death by Language Test,” detailing how gangs chose who to kill based on what language they spoke, and therefore what tribe they were from.

It is “a narrative that confirms all that people thought they knew about Africa — that ancient, intractable tribalism once again brings a country to its knees,” writes Peter Greste, Al Jazeera’s East Africa correspondent. “It’s an analysis that seems to explain everything without actually telling us anything.”

Reducing conflict to tribalism is particularly hazardous when applied to South Sudan. It is a country where foreign stakeholders have significant influence, and any push toward a tribally defined solution to the conflict — like a Bosnia-style ethnic power sharing deal — would be disastrous, for it would entrench and validate ethnic fissures, rather than give political power sharing a chance to smooth them over.

This is not the first time that simplistic Western narratives about war in Sudan have prevented viable political solutions. The Darfur conflict was sold by activists and the media as genocide perpetrated by an ethnically domineering Arab majority — a crude and ultimately harmful view that isolated and entrenched the government in the North while eliminating the possibility of international mediation.

Advocacy by celebrities like Mia Farrow, George Clooney and Don Cheadle aided the secession cause in South Sudan. Only one possible scenario was ever presented: South Sudan would vote in a referendum and secede immediately after a yes vote. There was no grace period, no foster parenting by the United Nations and no time for political parties and infrastructure to mature.

Over the past two weeks there have been eyewitness reports of horrific murders based on racial profiling in several towns, including Juba and Bor. But this alarming ethnic violence is just one strand of a bundle of grievances, and it is by no means without precedent. In countries where nation building remains embryonic and a national identity still fragile, tribe and ethnicity gain more importance. When the chips are down, one’s loyalty tends to default to one’s group. A genocidal meltdown could occur in South Sudan, but it isn’t inevitable.

After all, the conflict was not precipitated by ethnic grievances, nor is it being fanned by explicit tribal rhetoric on behalf of political leaders. The ethnic element is a symptom, rather than a source, of the problem. As Andreas Hirblinger and Sara de Simone explained in a recent article, no protagonist has “openly played the ‘ethnic card.”’ Indeed, the outbreak of violence is closely linked to the political standoff between President Salva Kiir and other leading members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, including former members of the government, who accused Mr. Kiir of “dictatorial tendencies.” It is essentially a rebellion against the concentration of power.

This matters because South Sudan is a country that was midwifed by powerful and committed lobbies in the United States and Europe; its birth was not only a triumph for the South Sudanese, but of Western advocacy. A mere nine days after the first hostilities started, the United Nations Security Council voted on a resolution to send 5,500 additional peacekeepers to South Sudan, boosting its force to 12,500. On Saturday, international and regional pressure also brought Mr. Kiir and his main rival, former Vice President Riek Machar, to the negotiating table in Addis Ababa.

South Sudan is a country where Western perceptions hold sway, and Western aid and power can engineer political deals. A misreading of the crisis could result in resolutions that effectively hand out pieces of the cake tribe by tribe, aggravating and endorsing ethnic fissures, rather than helping to eradicate them.

Nesrine Malik is a Sudanese journalist.

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