The Specter of Tribalism: A political Quagmire in South Sudan

BY: John Juac, CANADA, APR/20/2015, SSN;

With vast forests, plains and hills, South Sudan has an estimated population of some eight million. This population, though very small for all that land, is composed of many different cultures and languages, a few of whom have ever known peace and unity among themselves.

Having never existed as a sovereign state and its citizens being a minority group in old Sudan, collective action among South Sudanese has been historically shaped in response to the aggressive nation-building pursued by successive Khartoum regimes that sought to Arabize and Islamize African people of the region.

Today, in the absence of a clear-cut enemy, it is a major challenge for southern nationalists to devise a common identity that unites the putative nation beyond competing loyalties to tribe, clan and region.

Riffle through opinion pieces from South Sudanese online media, one discovers that the single issue dominating the public debate on national identity is the fear of tribalism and regionalism.

Here is what a debater said: “When formal independence came in July 2011, everybody had an optimistic view a national consciousness would rise above tribal and regional interests, and now the new country continues to face these same old problems which place roadblock in the way of national consolidation.”

It is true that the nascent country is to a large degree ethnically fragmented, with each group seeking to maximize its own objectives- a process that has significantly weakened the ability of the nationalist government to work toward national integration.

The spread of political activity has also stimulated the development of a more local tribal consciousness which impairs potential national unity. There are a number of African countries where disparate tribal groups have managed to coexist, but not in the newly independent South Sudan.

More than sixty tribes who compose a South Sudanese nation still in making have serious difficulties in settling down in peace with each other, and these difficulties are clearly evident in current Nuer-Dinka strife.

Nuer and Dinka, the country’s major but traditional rival groups, are again at each other’s throats; they are trying to oust each other off the land and paradise. The waves of allegations of exclusion from the new state power and relative resource deprivation have served to high-lighten the cultural identity and solidarity of subordinate groups, leading Nuer politicians backed up by some from the national minorities to rise in bloody armed rebellion.

The bloody armed rebellion, which erupted in December 2013 amid allegations of a coup against first President Salva Kiir, has left more than 10,000 people dead and displaced more than a million.

While internally displaced persons are stranded at various UN compounds countrywide, those who had crossed into neighbouring countries live at refugee camps under the most appalling conditions. And it is unlikely that these refugees will return to their homes soon.

Successive attempts by regional mediators to end the bloodshed in South Sudan-backed up by pressure from the international community-have failed to produce any lasting impact.

Thus, many have lost hope of stability and unity, and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement dominated government in Juba is quite unable to bring the country under its control.

Huge portions of three states of Upper Nile, Unity and Jonglei and their populations are falling away from any effective administration as the armed rebellion rages on, and all this occurs with an extraordinary and even frenzied violence which the history of South Sudanese politics of armed struggle alone is unable to explain.

Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, heroic leaders involved in this audacious power game, simply have forgotten about how much South Sudanese had suffered the piratical excesses of Sudan’s Arab Islamic state for forty years before independence.

There were many years of colonial pacification, military promenades and heavy hand of an authoritarian colonial system.

There was barely a region in South Sudan which escaped repressions of Arab Islamic state’s colonial army as well, and when the fresh upheavals erupted in the early 1980s, death and destruction became the rule of daily life.

Kept in office by a combination of local intrigue, opportunism and external pressure, Salva Kiir and his central ministers are for the most part petty-bourgeois adventurers with no vision of a national cause.

They are in any case quickly mastered by external pressures, and the so-called National Legislative Assembly is mainly composed of ambitious political adventurers who do not have much in common with the people whom they claim to represent; they are reactionaries as many critics said.

They live thanks to the help of foreign capitalists and do not worry about their brothers and sisters who die of diseases and poverty in rural regions.

Salva Kiir’s regime gives its orders in the name of people but in fact these orders are given only in the name of those who govern, and this means that the regime protects only the lives and ill-gotten gains of those who govern.

Because of their indifferences to the suffering of their fellow-citizens, Salva Kiir and Riek Machar had refused during recent peace negotiations to end the more than 15 month long war.

Now the hostilities have started up in the Upper Nile region because they have been building up their weapons and capacity to fight.

Countless reports have also high-lightened the continued recruitments of unemployed youths able to bear arms into armies that could be counted in millions, and the introduction of deadly firearms and explosives of hitherto un-dreamt of efficacy has revolutionized South Sudan’s traditional warfare.

According to some insiders, the majority of population object to the war; they feel it is not their war. They want peace and leaders who are able to make peace, but such leaders like Salva Kiir and Riek Machar do not care about making peace.

They only care about gaining or clinging to power through acts of violence, and it is likely that the regional peace makers trying to persuade them stop fighting each other may storm out of their peace mission in future.

These are ugly scenes in the embattled country where political power is viewed as an end in itself, divorced from questions of ethics, morality or religion, and political leaders resort to killing their fellow-citizens.

Since power is the sole end of their political actions, all necessary means for achieving these goals are legitimate, including violence, murder, dishonesty and bad faith.

They pay lip service to questions of nationality and nationalism that are of great political importance to the new country because the ability to define the contours of the nation and thereby the conditions of citizenship are key instruments for political entrepreneurs to gain power.

One interesting thing in South Sudan is that the head of state and his minister of war are ignorant of the facts about power politics.

They think they can put down the rebels with less costs, though they are locked in a complex triangular battle against the rural insurgents on the one hand and underground urban dissidents on the other.

Putting down the rebels with less cost is one thing and stopping people rebel is the other, but one does not think you can stop people rebel unless you address the issues that make people rebel in the first place.

On the other hand, defeated in the narrow arena of Juba politics, Riek Machar and Taban Deng Gai have taken up their stand in the forests of Upper Nile region, where they have set up a brief government of their own.

Although Riek Machar and Taban Deng Gai might possess a vision of a national cause and the will to fight for it, they lack the influence and organization to maintain their leadership in wide regions of the country flung into confusion and disturbance.

The ethnic Nuer rebels have been ruthless enough during the first months of armed conflict when they tried to put down their enemy troops without giving a thought to the morals of the case. Backward looking, a warfare of this kind is confined to South Sudan alone.

Analysts have suggested that Riek Machar and Taban Deng Gai should move from the ethnic Nuer armed struggle of limited aims toward national armed struggle, but the ethnic Nuer nationalists would never buy that suggestion.

They are consistently pressing for limited political concessions to the point where they are able to take over the post-independence state and emerge at the head of the government.

Can such development be possible in South Sudan?

The effective political opponent is no longer Arab Muslims, but the ethnic Dinka majority whose power rests now on the tribalist regime of Salva Kiir, so the choice now for ethnic Nuer nationalists is the same as that facing African Muslim rebels in Sudan; this choice is to fight or submit.

But here, too, the choice of fighting imposes a second choice, just as the case of African Muslim rebel movements in Sudan.

To have any success, fighting will have to draw on the active participation of the majority of South Sudanese people, for it is the majority which must provide the rebel fighters and the means with which those rebel fighters could succeed. This means that ethnic Nuer nationalists, if they are to have any success, must develop a practice and theory of anti-Juba regime liberation. Such as will emerge from the interests of majority. They must fight not for control of the existing state structure as this is in harmony with the interests of the minority group, the SPLM ruling clique. They must fight for reconstitution of an entirely different type of southern state. They must, in short, turn their backs on ethnic Nuer insurrectionary action and embark on a national revolutionary struggle for social change. The whole drama of ethnic Nuer nationalism in South Sudan is encapsulated in its attempt to achieve this necessary development of practice and theory, and this is to prove extremely difficult at this time.

It seems that there was no serious attempt to think through the actual problems of the situation that would emerge.
Militants of ethnic Nuer rebel movement are mobilized and trained in cattle camps to fight the hated government, but this is done without a political preparation. Nuer ethnic nationalists, having realized that the first independence has gone badly, they call for a second independence, a messianic kingdom, where all wrongs would be righted, where official exactions would be ended, and where prosperity would reign supreme. Despite a revolutionary rhetoric, often used to conceal practice of traditional power politics to safeguard the interests of the movement, ethnic Nuer rebels are divided by ethnic quarrels and by differences of leadership and strategy. Vaguely liked by a corresponding opposition to the central government, these ethnic Nuer rebel fighters are holding out in several areas in Nuerland under different leaders with loosing co-ordination between them. Such loosing co-ordination is only a shared intention to overthrow what has remained of the central government’s authority. But can ethnic Nuer rebels seize state power and retain it, if only for short time, or all talk of this nothing else than cutting the skin of a bear that has not been killed? That is a question which has recently become an urgent one for the ethnic Nuer rebel leaders.

Although they are united in opposition to the existing regime, the ethnic Nuer rebels and some exiled opposition group are divided as to the tactics of bring an end to the despotic regime of Salva Kiir. The exiled group asserted that violent route to power would not bring any benefit to the young country; therefore, the group wanted to work through the legal and constitutional channels with the aim of winning the vote of the people and thereby achieving institutional change through democratic process:

“We have proclaimed the winning of democracy as one of the first and most important tasks of our designed theory and practical program and we are taking up this front; we do not think that a society can be transformed by destroying the institutions that govern it; we also believe that when the current despotic tyrant finds himself compelled to introduce a multiparty democracy as the only means of avoiding a nationwide uprising, people would freely elect their representatives to sit in the first constituent assembly; then they would have used their voting power in a way which serve as a model to the mass of the people; with the successful utilization of voting power, an entirely new mode of people’s struggle would come into force.”

The peaceful but broad democratic movement, the group leader argued, offers still further opportunities for the people to fight the very state institutions. They would take part in all elections to individual diets and so it would happen that the ruling elite and its party organization come to be much afraid of the results of elections than those of the armed rebellion. In addition, the conditions of the struggle has essentially changed, the group leader maintained. Rebellion in the old style, which up to 1983 gave everywhere the final decision in South Sudan is to considerable extent obsolete. So let us have no illusions about this: a real victory of an insurrection over the regular army in a bush fighting, a victory as between two armies, is one of the rarest exception.

But Riek Machar and other ethnic Nuer rebel leaders also count on it just as rarely. For them it is solely a question of making SPLA soldiers yield to moral influences, which in a fight between the armies of the two warring countries, do not come into play at all. If Riek Machar and fellow ethnic Nuer rebel fighters succeed in this, then the government troops fail to act, or the commanding officers loss their heads, and the rebel movement wins. If they do not succeed in this, then, even where the regular army is in the minority, the superiority of better equipment and better training, unified leadership, of the planned employment of the military forces and of discipline makes itself feel.

The most that Riek Machar and his movement can achieve in actual tactical practice is the construction and defence of the single liberated zoon. Mutual support; the disposition and employment of reserves; in short, the cooperation and harmonious working of individual detachment, indispensable even for the defence of one quarter of the town, not to speak of the whole of
a large town, are at best defective and mostly not attainable at all. The concentration of the government forces at the decisive point is, of course, impossible. Hence the passive defence is the prevailing form of fight: the attack will rise here and there, but only by way of exception to occasional advances and flank assaults. As a rule, however, it will be limited to occupation of the positions abandoned by the retreating government troops. Furthermore, the military forces have, on their side, the disposed of artillery and fully equipped crops of skilled personnel, resources of war which Machar and ethnic Nuer rebel fighters entirely lack.

No wonder, then, that even guerrilla struggles conducted with the greatest heroism may end up with defeat of the rebel movement. The time of insurrection carried through by small conscious groups at the head of unconscious peasants is past. Where it is a question of a complete transformation of social organization, well trained fighters and politically educated leaders of different backgrounds must be in it, and they must grasp what they are going in for with body and soul. The history of the last fifty years in African revolutionaries or insurrections should have taught the leaders of ethnic Nuer rebel movement.

But in order that the people may understand what is to be done, long persistent work is required, and it is just this work which
ethnic Nuer nationalists are not pursuing. If they pursue this with success, it may drive their enemy to despair. A mountain of literatures on insurrections show that it has also been more recognized that the old tactics of guerrilla warfare must be revised. Everywhere the unprepared onslaught has gone into background and everywhere the urban opposition politicians are utilizing the electoral politics to win all posts accessible to them. In South Sudan, where for less than three years of independence the ground has been undermined by rebellion after rebellion, where there is no a single political group which has not done its share of conspiracies, insurrections, and other revolutionary action.

As a result, Juba regime is by no means sure of the national army. The conditions for an insurrectionary coup are far more favorable in South Sudan than in Uganda and Kenya. But the exiled opposition group has realized more that no lasting victory is possible for them, unless they first win great mass of the people, in this case, the majority peasants. Slow propanda work and parliamentary activity must be recognized here, too, immediate tasks of opposition group. Success are not lacking; a whole series of the national, state and even municipal elections might be won and they might overthrow Salva Kiir and his ruling SPLM nationalist party in a free and fair election. The opposition leaders back home should agree with the exile group that the chance of achieving parliamentary majority in parliament can no long be withheld.

Of course, Riek Machar and fellow ethnic Nuer armed groups do not have to renounce their right to revolutionary action.
Their right to revolution is, after all, the only real historical right, the only right on which all modern states without exception rest. The right to revolution is so incontestably in general consciousness that even a military general derives the right to a coup d’état, solely from this popular right. But whatever may happen in South Sudan, the opposition leaders would have a special situation and special task. They would count on million voters to send them to ballot box, together with young men and women. They would be thriving far better on legal methods than on illegal methods and revolt. The leaders of the SPLM nationalist party would perish under the legal conditions created by democratic process. Whereas the opposition leaders, under this legality,
get firm muscles and rosy cheeks and look like eternal life. And if they are so crazy as to let themselves be driven into bush fighting in order to please Riek Machar and Taban Deng Gai and their ethnic Nuer rebel movement, then nothing else is finally left for them to break through this legality so fatal to them.

John Juac Deng


  1. John Juac Deng,

    I think you wrote this nonsense article just to show how you know how to write.

  2. False Millionaire says:

    Mr John,
    Your breath taking great work deserves appreciation.But I should venture to underline that,our society’s characteristics of being multi tribal,multi ethnic,multi religious and multi cultural are the sources of our strength but never the causes of frictions and conflicts among us.The grave cause of our problems is lack of true leaders in the leadership.Some times we are tempted to dare not to admit realities.But in reality Dr John Garang had led the SPLM/A through extreme difficulties from the beginning down to the CPA and finally the independence.It’s natural to lose a leader after he should have laid a foundation.One would have expected a continuation and improvement of what he might have seemed to attempt to achieve by his successor that has happened to be in the person of Salva Kiir Mayardit.But what an evil surprise and what a disappointment?The entire SPLM/A leadership among whom is Kiir,Riak and pagan are responsible to have failed our country and the society.

    It’s a grave mistake to ever count on Riak Machar to take power,for a better RSS,by the help of the white army malitia in much the same way as it’s a fatal error to ever believe in any future for RSS under Kiir who is now totally out of his mind as he seems to be guided by invisible forces under the name of the jieng council of elders.This unfortunate reality brings one to tears.Has the tribal council of jieng elders taken the place of the parlaiment and the national representatives?One would have never imagined to see this taking place under Garang.

    There will be many years of suffering ahead but they will come to an end.That is as by nature,everything good or evil on earth comes to an end.You speak of none violent opposition forces and I join you to say that they are the only forces of hope.I intend to say dear Mr John that human beings are as the same as the cattle and they can be peaceful,productive and help lead the society and country to peace and prosperity.But that’s only true if they are led by leadership under good leaders.

    I hope you are a journalist who travel beyond Canada and RSS.I am inspired to appreciate two most unexpected miracles in Africa.There is Uganda under Yourei Mouseveni and Rwanda under Paul Kigami.But ignoring the dictatorial characteristics of the two examples,there is something human in them.Ugandan childern go to schools.Ugandan farmers produce,eat to their full fill,take their products to the markets,sell them,get the money and use the money for their needs including school fees for their childern.In fact ugandan infra structure has brilliantly and is brilliantly improving with the main towns either already linked or getting linked in tamarked roads with Kampala.The ugandans will likely complete their national road net work construction by crisscrossing tamarked roads linking the rest of the main towns to each other like Arua to Nimulé-Ugandan side,Golo to Lera and lera to Tororo for example.This is just the same thing Paul Kigami is doing in Rwanda.The two countries have no oil like us.It’s only out of the good will to develop their countries and societies that the two dictators are managing.Needless to mention the grave social,economic and political circumstances in which their countries were in before taking power.I hope this helps to point out how our leaders have failed as they have preferred to steal the oil’s money as a most sacred priority.Under such context,there will never be a peaceful prosperous RSS under the leaders that can not commit themselves to develop it with the society in much the same way as Mouseveni and Kigami are doing to their countries and societies.

    • info@southsudannation says:

      False millionaire,
      Whilst Museveni and Kagame have visibly developed their respective countries as you appropriately appreciated above, in our South Sudan, we are being ruled by a clique of an incompetent president and a hopeless party SPLM/A, both have no vision for the country except stealing and killing.
      Museveni and Kagame had to militarily overthrow dictators who were doing great damages in their respective countries. Both leaders came from minority tribes but were able to garner the support of the others in order to succeed in overthrowing those regimes. In Uganda, the majority Baganda tribe solidly stood with Museveni’s movement. Museveni even started fighting in Luwero, a Baganda area!
      Unfortunately in South Sudan, the majority Dinka tribe took complete control of the country from the start and is mismanaging and stealing with absolute impunity despite large sections of the Dinka tribes are also being impoverished and severely impacted by Kiir’s autocratic regime.
      The onus of bringing any tangible changes and the development like in Uganda and Rwanda rest with the Dinka themselves, it’s time they join the others to get rid of Kiir’s regime along with the others.
      Otherwise, as John Juac rightly wrote in his article, our enemy now is ‘the ethnic Dinka majority,’ who have given Kiir the impetus to continue misruling and under-develop the whole South Sudan.
      Again as John Juac wrote, it’s time for the ‘active participation of the majority of South Sudanese,’ that includes the Dinka to join the Nuer, Collo and Equatorians to overthrow the Kiir SPLM regime.
      Finally, know that America and the West strongly supported Museveni and Kagame when they both came to power by military revolution or coup. Let me abundantly assure you that whosoever overthrows the Kiir regime will have absolute and immediate support of the West. They don’t like Kiir any longer!!!!!
      Peace will then come, and peace be with you for now. I greatly like the article.

  3. AGUMUT says:

    Machar lost his memories and Kiir intended to look like a Fox or a Wolf. I know he is from Awan Chan or Fox Chan.

  4. alex says:


    You can decieve people who are not living in S. Sudan. All our money were looted by Riak in the last eight years.
    He was paying his melisia with our money. In Juba Riak’s home was surrunded by hundred of people just sitting but eating and drinking tea and bear. Where did riek get the money to feed all those thousand of people including their families. They do work even refuse to dig just sitting there for what purpose it only Riek who know the answer. All the contracts he sign faild to take up after he paid them money. I have not know anywhere in the world that , if you have given somebody a contract you have to give him money first before he start the work. Taban deng took all the 2% from the oil meant for the Unity State. He has invested that money in Dubai while his own people are suffering. Could you account for that money. See S. Sudan after Riek rebeld depite the war you can manage to see some few buildings raising up, some roads started to be repaired, some hospitals begin to function. Infact the eight years of Riek leadership where a complate years of waste, curruption and tribalism. See now the present cabinet reflects the country’s image.
    South Sudan now could rival some of the east African countries should Riek not destroyed it. The last stone was when he heard investors were coming to invest he staged a coup. This man does not want a stable S. Sudan. He even went a took a loan without approaval from the people can this man really develop S. Sudan. He is using our resources as his own properties. He istructed his rebels to burn down hospitals and University in Malakal. The problem is Dinka it is Riek rebels and their media propagandish people like you who does not tell the truth. You have done more harm to this country and I believe your dream for people in this country to support your movement is waste of time.
    Your claim the West will support anyone who will overthrow Kiir shows how Riak white girl friend and his son’s polish Europeans have brain washed you to the level you are wanting to sale our country. You want us to suffer like the way Taban Gai Deng did to you people in Bentue. We will not accept that senerial. Your group not even the whole Nuer should shulder the war until you reliase that peace is important then you will come and sign peace like what you did in 1983 and 1991. Your group works with Arabs to destiblise our country we will not let you to do that. We can stettle all our problem through peace and Riak should accept to name the 75 people who are said to be currupt since he is claiming to have not stolen. If he refuse then that is the proof that he is the king of the curruption. He should tell us about the Dura saga because last time in Juba he was denying that the money sorgam was not stolen. The people just want to spoil others people’s names. He was even againist Kiir removing the former finance minister Kostinabe because of financal curruption which was evident. He should explain why he was againist the removal while the whole thing was a scandle.

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