Breaking the cycle of violence in Sudan
Despite the stability promised by South Sudan's independence, deep tribal conflicts make peace in the region a distant prospect.
Guardian. Comment is Free. Saturday 3 September 2011. Original article here.
In July, movie stars and foreign dignitaries assembled in Juba to mark South Sudan's emergence as Africa's newest state after decades of civil war. Almost two months later, the conflict shows no signs of stopping, as north and south alternate between waging a low-key proxy war and conducting economic warfare. Hopes are running high among South Sudanese that their new government will be able to transform the country, but loyalty is to tribe before nation, and post-independence life has seen the intensification of a number of tribal conflicts.
On 18 August, at least 600 died in Uror county, Jonglei state, as Murle raiders attacked Lou Nuer villagers, in the latest in a series of raids and tit-for-tat attacks between the two groups that have left more than 1,000 dead since February. In grisly but illuminating symmetry, the UN said that around 26,000 cattle were stolen and 26,800 people displaced in the latest series of clashes.
It would be hard to overemphasise how central cattle are to both groups. Both Murle and Lou Nuer are transhumant peoples, seasonally migrating with their cattle. Cattle are more than just an economic resource, and a currency for marriage dowries – they are the language in which life is articulated. Perceptions of masculinity, in particular, are tied to cattle ownership, and cattle raiding has long been a traditional way of acquiring respect.
Though skirmishes over cattle have always been part of the rhythm of life, it would be wrong to see these clashes as somehow apolitical: the relic of a bygone age before the birth of the fledgling state. Raiding itself was transformed by the civil war.
Previously, regional codes forbade the burning of villages and the killing of women and children, but during the second civil war, both the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) – now in power in the south – and Khartoum backed tribal factions, arming them and creating a new style of warfare in which both women and children were targets.
The depths of the enmity between Murle and Lou Nuer doesn't stem from ancient conflicts, but from the war. During the long first civil war (1956-72), which began the same year as Sudan became independent, Khartoum armed Murle militias to fight against the Lou Nuer, who formed part of the Anyanya movement, South Sudan's first rebel force and a precursor to the SPLM.
Between 1983 and 2005, Sudan fought a second civil war, pitting the army of the SPLM – the SPLA – against the northern government. In this period, communities in the south could not rely on the government to defend them, and their relationship with the SPLM could also be difficult, so many of them formed self-defence forces.
The Murle leader, Sultan Ismael Konyi, created the Pibor Defence Forces, named after an area of Jonglei state, to protect Murle villages and cattle from the SPLA, which in that region was dominated by the Nuer. Khartoum exploited these divisions, funding some groups and making them turn against others. This is a process that Khartoum continues to this day.
While during the second civil war, Sultan Ismael Konyi accepted weapons from Khartoum, after the comprehensive peace agreement was signed in 2005, he joined the nascent SPLM-dominated government of South Sudan, and became a spokesman for peace and reconciliation.
The ease with which Konyi changed sides testifies to the primacy of tribal ties over national ones: his primary loyalty is to the Murle, who are his constituency. Tribal groups are exploited by state forces, to be sure, in order to further their own ends, but just as often tribal groups exploit the state structure when it is convenient for them.
The Lou Nuer also had a self-defence force during the war, the so-called "white army", which received arms from both Khartoum and the SPLA at different times. Since peace was declared in 2005, it has actually become more, not less, important. Sudan is a remote, rugged country, and the state is often not able to provide efficient protection for its citizens. In May 2007, for instance, the Dinka people of Duk county stole 20,000 cattle from the Lou Nuer, bolstering the sense among the Lou Nuer of a need for a self-defence force.
On 26 August, Salva Kiir Mayardit, the president of South Sudan, announced that he would be sending in the SPLA to break up the clashes between the Murle and the Lou Nuer.
One of the reasons local forces are relied upon is because they are embedded in local social structures: brothers and friends can be trusted. The SPLA, in contrast, is notoriously undisciplined – in April, following clashes between the army and rebels in Upper Nile state, Human Rights Watch said the army was responsible for a series of human rights abuses. Sending in the army is unlikely to address the core reasons for the emergence of self-defence groups.
UN calls for disarmament have met with little success. In 2006, the government of South Sudan tried to disarm the Lou Nuer self-defence groups, leading to heavy fighting and 1,600 deaths. When the dust settled, the "white army" was left largely intact.
In a country with an undisciplined army and heavily armed groups who threaten to steal cattle, one can understand why disarmament might not be an appealing prospect.
So what can be done? The answer is certainly not the deployment of UN peacekeepers, which was announced on 26 August; thus far, the UN has a less than enviable record in Sudan.
Instead, the best way to break the cycle of violence is, as it always has been, meetings between the leaders of the Lou Nuer and the Murle. On 27 August, the government of South Sudan announced that it would convene a conference of tribal leaders nationwide, to search for mechanisms to address the problem of tribal conflicts. New mechanisms may mean returning to some of the codes that existed before the war; codes that don't prevent raiding, but regulate it.