BY: Dr. Justin Ambago Ramba
Of recent, some prominent South Sudanese elites who once served under the visionless leadership of President Salva Kiir Mayardit are busy trying to distance themselves and their roles as individuals or groups from being partners in the genesis and indeed the sustenance of the ongoing crisis in the world’s newest country.
Their ultimate wish is to escape being held responsible for their roles in a regime that took off right from the start as one that pays no attention to any democratic practices. It violated the human rights of its citizens at will, disregarded good governance, freedom of speech, freedom of association and the rule of law.
Now these same iconic figures of the ‘rotten-to-the-core’ SPLM/SPLA in their attempts to distance themselves at this period, would want to fixate all eyes on Kiir and Machar while taking eyes off them.
By putting all the blames on President Salva Kiir and his former deputy turn rival Riek Machar alone, these SPLM/SPLA hypocrites hope to re-invent their tarnished political careers and wish to remain relevant to the future of a country they very much through omission or commission played pivotal roles in its destruction.
However, they might have partially succeeded in convincing some international players who are used to quick fixes often not successful in handling an otherwise very complicated problem as is the case of South Sudan.
Those regional and international players who seem to have bought into this oversimplification of the crisis in South Sudan are more keen on their interests than to address the root causes of the crisis.
Of course, this narrative should not be allowed to overshadow the search for a good solution. Nobody should believe them, for a wrong diagnosis naturally leads to the wrong prescription of treatment.
South Sudan’s current problems extend well beyond the overstated narratives of just Salva Kiir and Riek Machar. Thus, it can be misleading to assume that the duo represents the only culprits and probably the sole sources of the multifaceted evils that have befallen this country.
Moreover, no one should believe that these complex problems can altogether disappear once they voluntarily or otherwise succeed to see the two rivals are out of the country’s political center stage.
To part ways with the misleading assumptions about the root causes of the South Sudan’s ongoing crisis will require a thorough understanding of the various factors involved and the historical relations between them. Top of the list of this elements is tribalism and the politicization of ethnicity.
Talking about tribalism and the politicization of ethnicity in Africa often tends to sound familiar all across the continent. However, while South Sudan’s problems are mirror-able with situations elsewhere in other parts of Africa, much of the similarities seems to end just there.
For even though it is true that this type of problems exists everywhere on the continent, other African countries have managed to find the best ways to contain them.
In South Sudan where the adverse impacts of tribal politics and politicization of ethnicity ubiquitously express themselves in the form of political instability and a general mistrust in the state, a way out is yet to emerge.
Also given its very violent and traumatic history, South Sudan is yet to see how best it can address this issue of multiple nationalisms which are all calling for maximum attention and self-expression.
Again, the political realities that gave birth to each African country’s unique political system allow no room for generalization across the board. South Sudan borders Uganda and Kenya, and despite the commonality dictated by this geographical proximity, yet their different colonial experiences can be seen to have shaped the politics in these other two East African countries in ways that are incomparable to the South Sudan’s expertise.
It is this uniqueness in the historical, colonial and political heritages that has led to the different forms in which issues of ethnicity in politics tend to manifest at the national stage. Unlike its other East African neighbors, South Sudan has historically given a central stage for the expression of both narrow ethnic and regional nationalisms.
It is all too common in South Sudan for people to refer to themselves as members of a geographical location or an ethnic group. For example, groups like the Dinka (both in Bahr El Ghazal and Upper Nile regions), and the Nuer (Upper Nile region), would often identify themselves ethically i.e. the Jieng and the Naath respectively.
The situation is not the same with indigenous populations of Equatoria, the country’s most southern region. People of Equatoria are more keen to identifying themselves as Equatorians, although they belong to nearly thirty different ethnicities.
Virtually all the mess South Sudan is in now is the brainchild of the Jieng (Dinka) Council of Elders. The JCE is a self-appointed group of influential Dinka politicians and close relatives and allies of President Salva Kiir who act as informal advisors to the president. It is not a group of traditional leaders.
The official ascend of tribal politics to the central stage in South Sudan, came on the back of the the Jieng Council of Elders (JCE). In the wake of the December 2013 Juba Massacre, where thousands of ethnic Nuers met their fates in the hands of the notorious ‘Mathiang Anyoor,’ a pro-regime Dinka tribal militiamen, tribal politics became an open practice.
Since then South Sudan has existed in people’s minds, locally, regionally and internationally a country of violently competing nationalities of Dinka, Nuer and to borrow the words of Professor Peter Adwok Nyaba, “and all the rest are lumped together as Equatorians.“
In an attempt to accurately describe the current situation, it would never be an overstatement to say that, South Sudan is precisely now a hostage to the rising tide of multi-ethnic and regional nationalisms all triggered by the regime’s recourse to Jieng (Dinka) nationalism.
The crisis in South Sudan is a direct consequence of the state-sponsored rise of the Dinka nationalism, which is also the central project of the Jieng Council of Elders agenda. Whether this in itself is a good thing or not, shall be judged based on the results.
However, the reality on the ground strongly suggests that this increase in Dinka nationalism is incompatible first with the basics of any peaceful coexistence between the Dinka and the rest of the other 64 South Sudanese ethnic groups.
Secondly, the country’s existing highly centralized system of governance can not allow for any single ethnic group whatever the justification, to use its ethnic, nationalistic tendencies to override the rights of the other ethnicities.
Unless a better alternative to this system prevails, those seeking to overtly display their ethnic nationalism are bearers of hegemonic and expansionist agenda, to say the least, and invite upon itself the wrath of the others in the form or resistance and confrontation.
The question as to whether, one day the volatile situation in South Sudan might explode into an outright genocide as repeatedly expressed by Dr. Majak D’Agoot, who once served a the former SPLM chief spy and then the deputy minister of defense and veteran affairs or not is everybody’s guess.
However, in principle, there now exists a nationwide polarization that pits the Dinka (Jieng) against the rest of South Sudan’s other 64 or so ethnic groups. Nonetheless, there are still other sources, predominantly outsiders who for reasons better known to them, still continue to portray the situation as Dinka (Jieng) versus Nuer (Naath) conflict.
On the whole, there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that the surge in Dinka (Jieng) nationalism lies behind the senseless war currently tearing the new country apart. It cannot also escape a keen observer that the widespread ethnic polarization among South Sudanese today emanates from the prominent position and closeness of this tribal council to the corridors of power and decision-making in the country.
In everyday life, this polarization has now become so now palpable that it is felt all across the towns in the country.
It is the same case inside the UNIMISS’s Protection of Civilian (PoC) sites or the refugee camps in the neighboring countries of Uganda, Kenya, DR Congo, Ethiopia, and the Sudan and neither has it spared the South Sudanese communities in the Diaspora.
Given the fact that, for all actions, there are bound to be reactions, we now see that what had started as an expression of Jieng nationalism, has in no time triggered survival instincts amongst the other ethnicities.
In many parts of Equatoria, the state-sponsored ‘Mathiang Anyoor’ Dinka tribal militiamen are regularly carrying out military raids on villages and settlements in a scorched earth policy. Regardless of how tiny, some ethnic groups are, their initial knee-jerk reactions have taken the forms of vigilante youth groups to counteract the Jieng’s aggressive campaigns and what they perceive as Jieng tribal hegemony and expansionism.
The way forward for South Sudan would be about the best management of the flare-up in ethnic and regional nationalism in response to the surging Jieng nationalism.
Much can be done to address this crucial issue which lies in the center of the country’s ongoing crisis without having to recourse to that Biblical scale ethnic cleansings. Every ethnic, linguistic or regional group in South Sudan have the right to express their real or perceived identity without encroaching on the rights of others. to live as well.
The sooner we acknowledge that South Sudan is already set on its way to a violent disintegration and seek to bring about a system of governance that can allow the various ethnicities to express themselves to their fullest without necessarily causing the demise of the others, the better.
Hence springs the necessity to reconsider an alternative to the existing unitary and centralized system of government. Without the least doubt, this also brings to the forefront the much-overdue discussion on Confederation.
The situation in South Sudan today can never be compared with other countries where confederalism is considered inappropriate. South Sudan is a highly tribalized and ethnically polarized country. Hence, a confederal system of governance will suit it perfectly well.
For confederalism is a system of governance in which the various groups, even those with unparalleled uncontrolled zeal for ethnic nationalism can still find the right space to satisfy their political egos and pride.
Why not give confederalism a serious thought instead of insisting on this recipe for disaster, call it ethnic cleansing or genocide or what, not that comes with the current heavily centralized unitary system.
Three confederal regions based on the former provinces of Equatoria, Bahr El Ghazal and Upper Nile with the internal federal administration is the only possible way out for South Sudan The bottom line is we can still coexist side by side peacefully and save all the innocent lives that are otherwise going to perish.
Author: Dr. Justin Ambago Ramba. A concerned South Sudanese and a voice for the millions of other voiceless compatriots. He is also an active member of the grassroots’ ‘Give Confederation a Chance’ movement.