Tribal identity: The biggest beast ever existed in South Sudan

The author recounts his story of fleeing war in South Sudan for a second time.

Hopes of peaceful development in South Sudan two years after independence have been shattered [Reuters]

On January 9, 2011, I walked off the polling station thinking the problem of South Sudan was solved. I was so proud and felt  a great sense of dignity for the first time! The threat from Omar Hassan Al-Bashir, the president of the former Sudan, was now seriously defied by a very large turnout and by the high prospect of almost all voting in favour of separation.

Former Southern militants formerly allied to the Khartoum regime were welcomed back and integrated within ranks of the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army (SPLA). These included the former Vice President Riek Machar who came back to the SPLA in 2002 when the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) and the National Congress Party (NCP), ruling party in Khartoum, engaged in peace talks.

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Other militias, such as Paulino Matip’s and Peter Gatdet Yak’s with other groups who fought alongside the government forces, would also later on be welcomed and integrated into the Southern Army (SPLA). This open-hand-embraced policy was meant to break a terrible cycle of intertribal conflict and defection during the years of the liberation struggle. All the atrocities committed were completely forgotten. Accountability was much ignored. All was done, I believe, in the interest of “peace and reconciliation” and of re-uniting Southerners regardless of past mischiefs.

An independent South Sudan would finally make up for all the atrocities committed, deliberate or not, within and/or among communities of South Sudan. Of course, knowing what I know now, I was being overly naive.

On December 16, 2013, South Sudan awoke to a very sad morning. The very army that was tasked with protecting the president, a very noble job, had just split along ethnic lines. They became Dinka and Nuer loyalists – not national army. A friend and a colleague in combat all of a sudden became an enemy. They turned guns against each other and created a very ugly scene in the national capital, Juba! Trust and friendship faded in matter of seconds.

For those of us who were outside Juba, we heard the news about a foiled “coup attempt”. Some of the master-minds were already apprehended, while the whereabouts of Dr Riek Machar and a few  others were unknown.  Anxiety among the civilian population couldn’t have been higher.

While this event triggered a national shock, provinces’ authorities started to demonstrate their autonomy. In Jonglei state, for example, the deputy governor, who was the acting governor at the time, convened his security committee. The committee consisted of himself, the acting governor, Hussein Mar Nyot (Nuer); SPLA Division Commander, Peter Gatdet Yak (Nuer); State Minister of Law Enforcement, Duop Lam (Nuer); and Police Commissioner, Ajang John (Dinka). The committee discussed, inter alia, how to secure streets of Bor, the state capital, in order to avoid a repetition of what was happening in Juba. The division commander instructed his men to patrol the city at night. For those of us who were later informed about this extra ordinary meeting and preparedness, there was little or no doubt that whatever was happening in Juba was Juba’s and will remain there for them to sort out. Unfortunately, the only Dinka security committee member had been fooled to buy into this false belief.

At around 3:00am in the morning, I got a call from a village resident and was asked what the “heavy sound of artillery in direction of town was for?”  had not heard any sound. Of course, a heavy sound of a running generator in the hotel was loud enough to obstruct any other noise outside the hotel. I looked out through my room’s window and saw that hotel guests were already gathered outside, having heard the news that the Division 8 Commander, Peter Gatdet Yak, had defected and taken over two outposts of Bor town. He had shot dead his Deputy, Ajak Yen (Dinka) and a few others. With Nuers being the majority in Jonglei State, and in its organised forces, they switched sides and Bor town became their easy target. They stormed and took it over the evening of the December 17, 2013.

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Bor being inhabited by a Dinka minority, and with the massacre of 1991 still fresh in many people’s minds, the population within and around Bor town immediately scattered. Some ran to the bush while others crossed over to the Western part of the River Nile. Ajang John, Commissioner of Police, narrowly escaped with multiple gun wounds. Few of his men who tried and showed resistance were killed.

From there, what started stupidly as a political wrangle among  the elites in Juba became clearly a fight along ethnic lines. I now see quite a few of my former Nuer friends (with exception of Mabior Garang De Mabior) and intellectuals elegantly dressed and negotiating on the team of Dr Riek Machar, the leader of South Sudanese rebels.

It was at this point that I realised, ethnic identity is the biggest beast that ever existed in South Sudan. Sadly, I am convinced that no amount of compromise will ever suppress this reality in our country. As I write this piece, while staying in a foreign country as a refugee for the second time, I feel a great sense of low self-esteem.

Panther Alier is one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan” who fled Sudan’s civil war in the 1980s. He returned to South Sudan in 2009, after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, to participate in rebuilding of his country.