Thinking outside the ethnic box in S Sudan

Interpreting conflict as merely ethnic is not only superficial but also dangerous if it drives policy and peace deals.

South Sudan’s deepening conflict looks to be a tragic replay of an old, familiar story: rival African tribes killing one another in the latest round of an age-old conflict, this time made more deadly by the presence of modern automatic assault rifles and heavy weapons.

It’s a narrative that confirms all that people thought they knew about Africa – that ancient, intractable tribalism once again brings a country to its knees.

It’s an analysis that seems to explain everything without actually telling us anything. It allows us to nod sagely, and dismiss the violence as something embedded deep in the blood of the communities now killing one another. At the same time, it excuses us from understanding what really is driving the violence. Interpreting the conflict as “tribal”, is after all, an inherently racist understanding that implies there is something primal and undeveloped about African states in general, and that South Sudan in particular is somehow being dragged down in a bloody, historical inevitability.

In fact, it is an interpretation that is superficial at best, but when it drives policy and peace deals, it becomes downright dangerous.

In South Sudan’s case, this particular episode had its roots in the civil war that split the greater Sudan, and created South Sudan in the first place. The causes of the war seemed pretty obvious: the black Christian south rebelled against ethno/religious domination from the Arab Muslim north. It was a narrative that played particularly well in the United States, where the south received political and financial support from two of the biggest lobbies – African Americans and the evangelical Christian churches.

It also led to the only obvious solution – separate the warring ethnic groups. Problem solved.

But the conflict was never really about ethnicity or religion. It is true that Arab Muslims dominate the north, and black Christians the south, but during the war thousands of southerners sought refuge in Khartoum. And Khartoum sought allies among the southern groups – including the current “rebel” leader Riek Machar.

At its heart, the civil war was about politics. It was a rebellion by the periphery against the control of power and resources by a Khartoum-based elite.

The late John Garang understood that. He led the Sudan People’s Liberation Army – the dominant rebel force in the south – until he died in a helicopter crash soon after signing the comprehensive peace agreement with Khartoum. But he never believed in dividing Sudan. He always argued that the south could achieve its aims through a political revolution, and that its interests were better served by remaining a part of the greater Sudan.

Using ethnic patronage

When he died, that vision went with him. And so did any chance of real political reform, either in Khartoum or in Juba.

Because the focus of the peace negotiators was on an ethnic solution, nobody tackled the far tougher but more fundamental problem of the underlying political crisis. (And because Khartoum’s corrosive, selfish politics never changed, it triggered the Darfur crisis, and rebellions in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile provinces).

Not only did the politics remain unchanged in Khartoum it also remained the same in the newly independent Juba. Instead of solving the problems that triggered the war in the first place, the negotiators simply chopped them into two.

There is of course an ethnic element to the crisis – the slaughter of one tribe by its rivals is plain enough to see. But for anyone who cares to look closely enough, there are enough exceptions to befuddle the notion that blood alone is enough to explain the killing. Rival warlords have never let ethnicity stop them from making deals when it suited them.

The fault lies not in the DNA of the South Sudanese tribes. It lies with the political leaders who use ethnic patronage to build their power bases or who incite their ethnic kin to carve out a geographic or political niche.

In Juba, as in Khartoum, the institutions of state have centralised power around the presidency. And the political leaders who all came to power as military commanders, have continued to run politics as they did their armies – in a top-down manner, delivering orders and micro-managing control, and ruthlessly punishing dissent.

Of course that is the polar opposite of the way a democracy is supposed to work. Democracies are messy things, that demand negotiation, compromise and patience.
South Sudan’s oil wealth hasn’t helped, turning the business of government into more of an unseemly scramble for the money than any attempt to create a healthy functioning democracy.

So ultimately, any solution that fails to change the fundamental way politics is done in South Sudan is no solution at all. If we wind up with a “power sharing” deal that papers over the structural cracks without tackling the political culture, the country will settle back into an uneasy calm but it will, inevitably, explode once again. It may take years or even decades, but it is almost guaranteed.

Follow Peter Greste on Twitter: @petergreste