South Sudan- what you don’t see tells the real story
Posted Saturday, January 25 2014 at 13:11
- While the conflict has now morphed into an ethnic conflict, its origins can be traced in a fight for the economic benefits of the country, and an ideological contestation within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Army.
- When the power and resources of statehood came they found a political movement that was devoid of strong leadership and a military that, while united on the outside, remained loyal to its various commanders.
- The people of South Sudan spent three decades dying to have their own country. It will take a lot more time for them to build a country they are willing to die for.
A T-72 battle tank stands outside the Sudan People’s Liberation Army general headquarters in Bilpam, just outside the capital, Juba. It is not clear whether this was the tank that allegedly fired on Riek Machar’s home after fighting broke out on December 16.
The situation in Juba is slowly returning to normal. The dusk-to-dawn curfew has been peeled back two hours to 8pm. Shops, offices and market stalls are open and the crowds are slowly beginning to form once again at the arrivals counter at Juba International Airport.
Yet the mood remains tense. Heavily armed soldiers patrol the streets of Juba, their fingers nervously dancing around their triggers. Machine-gun mounted pick-ups line up outside the Presidential Palace.
However, it is what you don’t see in Juba that tells the real story of the conflict between factions loyal to President Salva Kiir and those loyal to former deputy president Machar.
“There is no Nuer on the streets of Juba,” a cab driver says quietly. “Those that weren’t killed had to flee to save their lives.” The cab driver, who belongs to one of South Sudan’s smaller tribes (the country has more than two dozen tribes), was an observer of the mayhem; saved by his tribe but punished by his nationality.
It is not clear how many Nuer have been killed for the simple crime of sharing a tribe and ancestry with Dr Machar. It is similarly not clear how many Dinka have died in places like Bor in the reprisal killings that followed.
Army spokesman Col Philip Aguer said 450 people, two thirds of them civilians, were killed in Juba on the first day of the fighting. Estimates by the UN and aid agencies say the figure across the country is significantly more than a thousand.
The conflict, which was sparked by fighting in the presidential guard, was quickly framed as an ethnic contest between the Dinka and the Nuer. That fit nicely and conveniently into the good-guy, bad-guy narrative preferred by international media serving global audiences with little time and short attention spans.
While the conflict has now morphed into an ethnic conflict, its origins can be traced in a fight for the economic benefits of the country, and an ideological contestation within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Army.
Since its founding in 1983, the SPLA/M had been caught in a binary ideological bind; between agitating for the Independence of the South and agitating for a united, secular Sudan.
Its founder, John Garang, belonged to the unionists, as they came to be referred to. Many senior officials, including General Salva Kiir, were separatists keen on an independent country in the South.
“SPLM was revolutionary in its emergence as a Southern movement that called for a secular, united Sudan,” says Mabior Garang, son of the country’s founding father, who has become a critic of the Kiir administration.
Most of the people of the South preferred to form a separate state and Col Garang and the unionists were always swimming against the tide of public opinion.
To accommodate the rival ideological camps (and try to appeal to the nationalists in Khartoum) the question of Independence was ambiguously clothed in the grey robes of “self-determination” and kept unresolved.