BY: Tongun Lo Loyuong, SOUTH SUDANESE, MAY/24/2013, SSN;
Current attempts and efforts being made by various South Sudanese political, religious and civil society actors at overcoming tribalism in South Sudan are encouraging and commendable. But much is left to be desired if the Republic is to be liberated from the mental slavery of tribalism, for the sake of peace and restoration of ethnic harmony in mutual co-existence. In order to structurally and effectively overcome tribalism in South Sudanese politics, it is important to situate the discourse within a broader socio-economic and historical context.
The efforts and collective South Sudanese resolve to be free from the shackles of tribalism must in this way be guided and informed by a theoretical framework within which tribalism must be conceptualized. Alternatively phrased, South Sudanese collective will and desire to overcome tribal instrumentalism can be enhanced by deliberate appreciation of the historical origins of tribalism in its present divisive manifestation in South Sudan, and the African continent.
On this score, key players who traditionally used divisive tribal politics as a ploy to incite tribal hatred in order to exploit local resources must also be seriously accounted for. The imperative question to be answered in this context, with a view to aid the efforts aimed at discouraging tribalism in the land is: what role can be attributed to regional and international actors pertaining to tribal politics in South Sudan? And what are the lessons learned for South Sudanese to avoid the trap of tribalism? What follows is a series of pieces to address these questions.
There are several well-established theoretical frameworks and schools of thought that implicitly address these questions and explain the perceived fanatic inclination to antagonistic tribalism and its implications in Africa, including in South Sudan. Two of these outlooks are pertinent and will guide the deliberations in this sequence of pieces.
The first salient explanation favored by many a conflict expert and social scientists, outlines hostile tribalism in the African continent as deeply embedded in some ontologically designed state of anarchic affairs. The second school argues that tribalism as played today was a colonial construct employed to consolidate power. This is examined in part two of this discussion.
As regards to the first school, the persistent influence of this view in global politics can be credibly ascribed to the dominant political theory coined by the 17th century political philosopher, Thomas Hobbs. In his classic volume, “The Leviathan,” Hobbes perceives the human condition as anarchic and brutish by nature, where logic of war of all against all perpetually prevails and defines people’s interactions (Hobbs, 1968).
This view seems to have later metamorphosed into what is today commonly known as “realpolitik” or “political realism,” which predominantly guides geopolitics and international relations between states, and influences the global system, including the politics of global bodies, such as the United Nations Charter and other influential regional political organs. In political realism understanding of the global system, states are perceived to have no friends except interests, and are therefore, driven by “raison d’être,” literally translated as reason for existence.
This notion is also commonly known as “national interest,” however defined, but often equally referred to as “national security.” The interest-driven foreign policy maxim of interest but friendship is seen to underpin current foreign policies of the powerful nations in the world from Great Britain to the United States of America, and has been perfected by the Russians and the Chinese.
Current tragic realities unfolding in Syria, where thousands of innocent lives have perished, and bodies of fallen enemies in the battlefield are mutilated and human hearts reaped out and eaten by fellow human beings with continued impunity, underscores the importance of this political typology, and the current global state of bankruptcy in moral universalism.
It is amply evident in this context that the global system is flawed, and rotten to the core. The prevailing international oblivion in the face of continued innocent death and abject civilian suffering in places like Jonglei State in South Sudan is left for bemusement to go figure. In short, the point being and as the example of Syrian crisis demonstrates, South Sudan should not wait to meet similar fate in full force in order to come to its senses.
For it should not be mistaken that God forbid, if all out ethnic violence becomes an eventuality in the land, South Sudan will be on its own. Oh would that this country had statesmen who can foresee the perils of tribal politics that will inevitably put South Sudan on the road to Damascus. Is it not enough that more than two million precious South Sudanese lives perished during the protracted liberation struggles, with numerous others continue to be wasted even as we speak, for South Sudan to come to its senses and desist from tribal politics?
Is the blood of the martyrs not sufficient enough for us to learn that we must urgently steer away from divisive ethnic particularism and identity politics to mitigate inter-communal violence and avert an impending humanitarian disaster across ethnic lines in South Sudan? History must speak.
Granted the primordialists’ projection of African hostile tribalism as pre-determined and perpetually fixed (a view widely imagined by outsiders about African tribalism), suggest that the “law of the jungle,” is the norm rather than the exception in this part of the world, South Sudan included. Put simply, ethnic violent conflicts in Africa are perceived to be emanating from some kind of a primitive fountain of an “ancient ethnic hatred.”
In an article entitled “Race, Tribe, and Power in the Heart of Africa,” one Bill Berkeley concluded that “many Americans still imagine that Africa’s seemingly chronic carnage flows from some mysterious, exotic savagery. Much of American media coverage of Africa conveys an impression of ‘age-old hatreds” (Berkeley, Spring 2001). Berkeley’s conclusion was later vindicated by a high profile American diplomat, the former US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, who in a speech delivered to a group of students in Khartoum in 2005, described the conflict in Darfur, for example as a “tribal war” aggravated by other factors. He recommended that foreign actors turn the other way from such a “tribal war of Sudanese” (Keen, 2008).
And lo and behold, ten years later endless massacres continue to be committed in Darfur and elsewhere in Sudan and the region with blanketed global impunity and shush. The resolution of the Abyei status remains the stuff of fantasy and daydreaming, as Ngok paramount chiefs are gunned down for game!
The notion in the West of projecting African conflicts as ancient barbarism is accurately captured by one African American fellow. Having witnessed first-hand the horrors of the Rwandan genocide, and how people of all age and genders were indiscriminately decapitated with machetes and brutally killed by pangas as a result of tribalism, concluded that this must be some kind of a primitive omen. “Evolved human beings in the 20th Century don’t do things like that,” he is quoted as affirming (Berkeley, 2001).
Thus, the conclusion drawn from African tribalism by outsiders as metastasized in indiscriminate violent savagery and blood-letting portrays Africans as backward and sub-humans. Little wonder, therefore that international impunity related to atrocities committed in most parts of this geographic region and elsewhere prevails. The well documented case of Liberia’s brutal civil war, has received an explicit label by outsiders as a “new-age of primitivism” embedded in “superstitions” (Berkeley, 2001).
Others conclude that African tribal violence is a breed resulting from an intercourse between poverty and lack of Western enlightenment — where violence becomes the only means to gratify a false sense of dignity. They argue that “only when people attain a certain economic, educational and cultural standards is this trait tranquilized” (Berkeley, 2001).
In brief, the declinists are persuaded by their own lie that African intractable violent ethnic conflicts spring from deep-seated ancient ethnic hatred. In the event that intervention becomes necessary to safeguard some overseas national interest, the most that can be done to managing such intractable primitive conflicts is by territorial separation of the belligerent ethnic groups.
As Anthony Oberschall aptly held, the ancient hatred model is “pessimistic about ethnic conflict management and about establishing lasting peace. Only separation will ensure lasting ethnic peace. Mixing or remixing (after ethnic cleansing) the ethnic groups in the same territory invites renewed violent conflict” (Oberschall, 2007). But separation or self-determination remains utterly discouraged by most powerful global political actors. In that sense South Sudan must count itself fortunate to attain separation, a separation its leaders seem to take for granted.
However, while it cannot be contested that the African continent has known little but ruthless violence and wars often across ethnic divides, yet the whole ancient ethnic hatred discourse is but a myth. It is a leeway to provide global impunity in the face of heinous war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansings and genocides, at the expense of moral humanitarian intervention, if only that.
But if it is insisted that no intervention is needed to pre-empt atrocities across ethnic lines in the continent on the grounds that these are manifestations of ancient ethnic hatred meant to continue to perpetuity, it is worth mentioning that just over half a century ago, ugly, and brutal atrocities also took place in the West and East alike.
“Hitler killed 6 million Jews. Stalin killed 20 million Soviets. Japanese imperial troops machined-gunned, bayoneted, raped and beheaded some 300,000 Chinese civilians in just six weeks in the Rape of Nanking” (Berkeley, Spring 2001). In the African Congo, the most egregious mass murder in the African continent estimated to have claimed the lives of between 5 million to 10 million people, was committed by the special forces of the imperial King Leopold in 1885-1912 (Berkeley, Spring 2001). As many homeless Congolese currently roaming the streets of Juba will testify, Congo has plunged even deeper into violent carnage with no seeming end to their plight in sight.
Cumulatively, it is estimated that more than “seventy million human beings had been uprooted, enslaved, or killed in twentieth century alone.” Appalling yet, 169 million people, war casualties excluded, have been slaughtered by governments in the twentieth century according to political scientist R. J. Rummel, who coined the term “democide” to describe these mass atrocities. These figures have warranted the modern human history to be branded “a slaughter-bench” (Roth, 2001).
Now is it desirable to conclude that these primitive-like atrocities emanated from a deep-seated ancient ethnic hatred in the case of Europe and the West or even the East? And when infanticide, beheading and subordination of some members of the society the practice of which has regained momentum in the post-September 11th, 21st century, are distinctive cultural features of some societies, is it desirable to conclude that these primitive-like savagery stem from ancient ethnic hatred?
The answer is emphatic no. These atrocities were committed as a result of power politics in some perceived anarchic world, and authored by actors, who have lost their moral campus, and vision for the common good of humanity. In such a world, innocent human life becomes a theatre upon which power struggle is played.
Similarly, the claim that ethnic violence occurs in Africa because of poverty, illiteracy and lack of cultural moral standards on sanctity of life is null and void, if it is to provide an excuse to turn the other way when massacres are being committed. As Berkeley smartly points out, most of the so-called African “primitive” heinous atrocities were authored by leaders, who attained the highest level of Western education and enlightenment in the form of doctoral degrees from Europe and the United States (Berkeley, Spring 2001).
If this is the case, it is clear then that Western education does not necessarily lead to the acquisition of moral and cultural values or civility for that reason, for there are many uncivilized people even in the West. Indeed as South Sudanese conventional wisdom has it, the culpability of the tragic massacres that befell both the Dinka and the Nuer communities in early 1990s, were presided over by Western enlightened doctors.
It was the “war of educated,” as one primitive and uneducated Nuer tribal chief came to wisely realize. “They used to tell us that the reason why Nuer and Dinka fight each other was because we are ignorant. We don’t know anything because we are not educated. But now look at all this killing! This war between Nuer and Dinka is much worse than anything we experienced in the past. And it is the war of educated [elite] — It is not our war at all” (Jok and Hutchinson, 1999).
From this emphatic statement by a Nuer elder, it is clear that at best the purported primordially designed ethnic hatred is a myth, and an alien construct devised to justify inaction in the face of innocent massacres. Moreover, tribalism in its current divisive and antagonistic face has been constructed to drive a wedge between relatively peaceful ethnic groups for exploitation of resources and ascension or retention of political, economic and geographic power.
The instrumentalism of tribalism to serve egotistic parochial gain or interest, which continues to be practised in South Sudan to the present day, will be discussed in some detail in part two of this exercise as part of the second school of thought of understanding tribalism in Africa.
In concluding this first part, the implication for South Sudan from the preceding discussion is that we must structurally wage an organized campaign to sensitize our people against tribalism and tribal politics in this country. Current prophetic voices against tribalism and tribal regionalization of South Sudanese issues are few and far in between. But policy recommendations are in order by the end these articles.
However, as the ample empirical evidence cited above indicates, when the carnage of tribal violence unravels in South Sudan as a result of our current myopic inclination to tribal politics for power pursuits, we would have self-annihilated ourselves, before the international community makes up its mind whether it is in its best interest to intervene or not.
The selective interventions by the international community in Libya, but not in Syria are glaring examples of interest driven interventions and the global thorn in the flesh. After knowing what we know, is it really necessary for us in South Sudan to go down that road? Or can we learn a lesson or two from the historical precedents detailed above?
Contrary to how some of our brothers would like us to believe in some notion of relying on divine intervention to heal tribalism in South Sudan, I am of the view that this is another declinist approach.
If God were to personally intervene, God would have intervened in previous human atrocities already, from Soviet Union to Nazi Germany and from Congo to Liberia through Rwanda! Doing the right thing is our divine intervention, and the ball is still in our court to do that by refraining from tribalism.