Sudan: Transcending tribe

The south must rise above tribe if it is to become a nation.

By May Ying Welsh

"Between tribes there can only be war. And through war, the memory of war, and the potentiality of war, the relations between tribes are defined and expressed." - - E.E. Evans-Pritchard, British anthropologist of the Sudan

In the summer of 2010, the southern Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) torched and looted one of the oldest living kingdoms in Africa.

Scores of villages in the Shilluk kingdom of southern Sudan were burned to the ground. The army raped hundreds of women, children, men, elders and members of the royal family and tortured and killed a still unknown number of civilians. Over 10,000 people were displaced in the midst of the rainy season, sent fleeing into the forest, often naked, without bedding, shelter or food, and many children died from hunger and cold.

Even the king, who the Shilluk believe is semi-divine, was forced to flee Fashoda, the tribe's sacred capital on the Nile.

The reason for this anarchy was the SPLA's attempt to disarm the tribe and stop a local Shilluk rebellion.
For the last year, southern Sudan has been coping with four largely tribal-based rebellions, coordinated by a renegade SPLA general named George Athor, who is unhappy with corruption in the allocation of power and wealth in the region.

It is no surprise that dissidence would be expressed tribally and violently in a war-torn land where the only political constituencies are tribal.

What is surprising is that the state's reaction to the turmoil was also violent and tribal.

"When the military campaign started Shilluk soldiers were re-located to another state," says rebel commander Robert Gwang sitting in his forest hideout under a tree. "They brought soldiers mostly from the Dinka and Nuer tribes to carry out the job."

"We heard their boots marching toward our village," says Julia, a now homeless Shilluk woman who was gang-raped by the army and then fled as they burned her home and village down.

"They didn't spare anyone - even an old woman, even a blind woman, even girls who are so small you have to carry them, they raped them, and some of them died," she says staring at the ground.

"When our Dinka neighbours heard the guns they crossed the river and started working with the army, looting and burning. Some were women. They took our cattle and goats - our beds, cooking pots, even our underwear. Whatever grain they could carry they stole, and what remained in the stores they burned down.

"Some of the men and women who were raped tried to walk to the hospital. But when we got there we found it looted and destroyed and all the medicine stolen."

A pattern of behaviour


" />


Unfortunately, what happened in the Shilluk kingdom is not an isolated incident but a pattern of behaviour that occurs wherever the SPLA is dealing with armed revolt.

On southern Sudan's southeastern border with Ethiopia, another rebellion is smouldering among the Murle tribe, and civilians have been caught in the conflict. 
"They torture people to make them give information about weapons or rebels," says a fearful Murle tribesman over ful and Coca-Colas in the southern capital Juba.

"The SPLA put plastic bags on people's heads. They light them on fire and drip the burning plastic on a child's body to make his parents hand over their weapon. They tear out fingernails. If they think rebels spent the night in a village they burn it and rape the women. In the villages of Laor and Tanyang people were burned alive in their huts."

In the past year, the rape of men and the elderly has increasingly been used as a tactic to fight the insurgencies, even though it is shocking and offensive to Nilotic peoples like the Dinka and Nuer.

The UN reports many of these violations internally, but their power to stop them is limited. The frustrated director of one Juba-based international aid agency calls them "human rights abuses off the Richter scale".

The SPLA crushes these rebellions so ferociously because they believe lurking behind each one is an old foe that does not want them to be free - the hated enemy that is their reason for being.

Proxy war


When SPLA General Matur Chuot Dhuol walks into a room, it is a powerful force of nature.

Tall, handsome and intimidating, at 6am the man in charge of military operations in the Shilluk kingdom gracefully enters the empty dining hall of Malakal's main hotel. 


"All these rebels are backed by Khartoum," he says softly in Arabic pouring his coffee into a delicate china cup. Perhaps aware of his massiveness, his movements are charmingly tentative and careful.

"Why do you think Robert Gwang and the others are doing this? Khartoum is using them to destabilise our region, to destroy our referendum, to tell the world we can't be a country. We know they are behind everything from our intelligence."
The SPLA has not so far offered concrete evidence that northern Sudan channels weapons to southern rebels. And blaming everything on the north is a convenient unifying exercise for a fractured people reeling from war and terrible security challenges.

"I compleeeeeetely deny it," says rebel general George Athor adamantly over a satellite phone from the bush. Athor has just signed a ceasefire with the army.

"This is the weapon the SPLA always uses to fight its brother southerners. Anyone who rebels against them is always someone who has been bought and is betraying the cause of the south. I have never gotten anything from Khartoum since I started this rebellion. Khartoum is not involved in any rebellion in the south. If they were the whole international community would be shouting and come in and stop them. They are tied down by the peace agreement, the Darfur crisis and the International Criminal Court. They cannot afford to do anything."

Legacies of division

To unravel the south's security dynamic, one must look at the civil war alliances and long-standing enmities that form the backdrop of mistrust between the SPLA and many of southern Sudan's smaller tribes.

The SPLA has always been dominated by the south's majority Dinka tribe and to some extent the Nuer - tall, good-looking people with jet-black skin, a rich cattle-herding culture and a celebrated reputation as warriors. They rose against the north in the second civil war to demand rights for the southern region.

As modern weapons flooded the south, some tribes became relatively well-armed, while others, still reliant on traditional weapons, felt vulnerable and threatened.

Khartoum wasted no time in exploiting those divisions.

As early as 1963, during Sudan's first civil war, northern Sudan began arming the Murle tribe, traditional enemies of both Dinka and Nuer, to fight the southern rebellion. As the south descended into decades of war with the north, tribes scrambled to one side or the other of the conflict to get guns to protect themselves. Some like the Murle sided with Khartoum. Others like the Shilluk sided with the SPLA.

Sometimes, whole tribal territories became affiliated with one side or the other, and the vicious north-south war became a defining factor in relations between tribes, infusing old hostilities with a new, political dimension.

In 2005, when peace finally came to Sudan, tribal militias that fought with Khartoum faced a choice: Be absorbed into the southern SPLA, or head north and join the armed forces there. 

Most chose to join their former SPLA enemies as a matter of survival and necessity, and keeping them in the fold has proven a delicate balancing act.

Others, like fighters from the Murle tribe, chose to join the northern army. Today, there are scores of Murle army officers in Khartoum, and they say the tribe is being punished for that.

"There is no development in our area and we feel surrounded," says an old, leather-faced Murle general sitting on a park bench in Khartoum. He speaks haltingly, clearly in a state of distress.

"All goods and all medicine come to our people only via the Dinka tribe's city of Bor, where they just take it away and use it themselves so nothing reaches us. The Dinka and SPLM [Sudan People's Liberation Movement] hate us because during the civil war we were with the north. Not out of love for Khartoum, no," he says touching his chest, "but because we had to protect ourselves. Now they seize our weapons and take women from their homes by force and all we can do is watch."

Mass killing


These Shilluk sheikhs bear the marks of ritual scarification - used to indicate which tribe somebody is from 

In the summer of 1991, the mother of all tribal-political conflicts occurred in southern Sudan when the Nuer and Shilluk tribes left the SPLA over a fall-out with the Dinka, and began covertly taking weapons from Khartoum to fight their former comrades.


Within months the SPLA's tribal split led to an infamous war crime.

Thousands of Nuer tribesmen descended upon the Dinka homeland of Bor and slaughtered more than 2,000 Dinka men, women and children, then stole tens of thousands of their cattle.

Today, politically provoked tribal mass killings still occur in southern Sudan but receive limited attention.

In March 2009, thousands of Nuer and Dinka simultaneously descended on Murle villages to steal their cattle and killed, according to the Murle, more than 700 members of the tribe.

Although the incident was in retaliation for a previous Murle cattle raid on the Nuer, the political isolation of the Murle in southern Sudan is what made an attack of that unusual scale possible.

In 2010, the US intelligence community issued a bone-chilling warning about southern Sudan.

"Over the next five years, a number of countries in Africa and Asia are at significant risk for a new outbreak of mass killing," it read. "Among these countries, a new mass killing or genocide is most likely to occur in southern Sudan."

Today, as most southerners look forward to their future as a new country, some people, like the Murle, are living in fear of it.

Isolated from infrastructure, services, trade and communications, and hated for their historic ties to Khartoum, the Murle tribe rely for everything on a rutted, insecure road that runs through the territory of their tribal enemies and only works during the dry season. Their sole medical facilities are two bare-bones clinics run by the aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres that sick people and pregnant women walk days to reach. Now both are shuttered by fighting between the SPLA and Murle rebels and the few foreigners that ventured to the area chartered a small plane and left.

"They want to exterminate us," says the Murle general in Khartoum. His shoulders are slumped and he looks exhausted, unsure it is worth bothering to explain.

"Our land is full of oil, gold, uranium, fertile land, forests, and wild animals, and they don't want our people to have it. When Murle people can't take their cattle to market in Juba without being killed on the road, and when Murle people have to go to Bor to find a clinic and they are attacked and murdered inside the hospital, what do you think the future will be? This is the future."

A better day

"All tribes are not equal in the SPLM/A," says Athor whose rebellion has attracted a rainbow of tribes and seriously disrupted the south.

"I'm a Dinka and I am saying that. The army must include everyone, not just one side, and it must know who it is protecting and who is its enemy. Right now the army is protecting the powerful, while citizens and the weakest people are its enemies. That is not how it should be."

"Tribalism is a very serious problem," says Shilluk author Peter Adwok Nyaba, "but it doesn't happen because one tribe doesn't like another. It happens because political and military elites use tribes, rallying and inciting their ethnic communities against each other to build a power base."

Adwok says if southern Sudan gains independence, creating a real democracy is the only hope to rid the country of tribalism.

"We have to develop a national political agenda that is inclusive or all," he says talking quickly and excitedly, "and the solution cannot be driven by the SPLM alone. They will have to share power. If they don't there will be a big disaster. We have to develop a political class that is not just linked to ethnic and tribal concerns. We have to undertake development and distribute resources fairly so no region feels discriminated against and no tribe feels deprived."

This is an optimistic moment for southern Sudan, a once-in-a-lifetime chance to create a new beginning.

For decades they have been a collection of squabbling, easily divided tribes mired in wars and proxy wars.

Now those fighting tribes must finally close ranks and unite around a higher purpose that embraces all, or they are doomed to fulfill the CIA's grim prophecy.

This article was edited on August 16, 2011.