19 December 2013

South Sudan: The Dangers of Tribalism in South Sudan


The violence in South Sudan this week suggests there could be worse times to come for the country. It will exacerbate the deep-rooted inter- and intra-tribal tensions that have defined the political landscape in South Sudan since it gained independence in 2011. It could also create a refugee dilemma for the country's neighbours.

The dynamics of the leadership struggle between President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, and former vice president Riek Macher, a Nuer, colours politics throughout the country, illustrating the prevalence of political tribalism at the highest office.

Following Kiir's dismissal of Machar and the entire cabinet in July, neither this week's attempted coup nor its heavy suppression will have come as a surprise to many in South Sudan.

The perception of Dinka domination pervading the Sudan People Liberation Movement (SPLM) and the Sudan People Liberation Army (SPLA) by other ethnic groups is not new. But it has become increasingly marked in a country with a fragile economy, limited opportunities for employment and deep-rooted patrimonialism throughout all tiers of government.

While there is a long-standing rivalry for power between the Dinka and Nuer, South Sudan's two largest tribal groups, others, such as the Equatorians, perceive both groups as monopolizing power.

Addressing this perceived inequity within the government will be integral to move beyond political tribalism towards an inclusive system of government that guarantees minority representation.

Without this change, discontent and frustrations within the disenfranchised rural communities that make up the majority of the population are liable to rise to the surface, as this week's events demonstrate.

While government policies since independence have been careful to use the language of inclusivity, the reality is very different. Jonglei, the largest of South Sudan's ten states and home to Machar, has seen severe fighting between the Dinka, Nuer and Murle, for example.

In December 2011 tribal attacks and counterattacks between Nuer and Murle caused at least 1,000 deaths.

These tensions have been further aggravated by the failure of the central government to provide even basic levels of local governance, made worse by systemic corruption and patrimonialism.

The extent of corruption, and the government's lack of control over it, was demonstrated in 2012 when President Kiir issued a somewhat plaintive call to his government officials to return stolen cash.

Government reforms and legislation have stripped traditional authorities of their former functions and roles within local society, without reintegrating them into new roles within the government apparatus or providing viable alternatives.

This has resulted in inconsistent and disparate systems of local governance throughout South Sudan, contributing to existing perceptions of inequity. This is often assumed to be based on tribal factors, regardless of whether this is in fact the case.

With tensions appearing to be unabated in the capital, Juba, and with the dry season approaching, which will facilitate a more mobile population, there is significant potential for security to deteriorate further.

And it may not recover for a long time.

Disgruntled and marginalized, the tribal populations that have felt excluded from the political process, or in the case of the Nuer, undermined in that process, may use the current political turbulence to bring matters to a head and challenge the authority of South Sudan's leading figures.

A lasting conflict in South Sudan would likely lead to further displacement of people, which would place an increased strain on host communities in neighbouring countries. Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda already have a long history of accepting refugees from the Sudanese civil war.

With the current flows of displaced populations from conflicts in Somalia, the Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of the Congo however, an additional influx of South Sudanese refugees would have the potential to overburden and destabilize the region further.

Hannah Bryce is Manager, International Security at Chatham House.

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