In the year that saw the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide there are rising fears that similar power struggles drawn on ethnic lines may precipitate another genocide in Africa. There are certainly parallels between South Sudan and Rwanda not least the lingering colonial legacy. There is also the exploitation of ethnic identity in times of political strife as well as a lack of robust structures to deal with internal political conflict.
The current rift between Dinka and Nuer and associated power-brokers and groups came to the fore with the dismissal of Riek Machar as Vice President by President Salva Kiir in December of last year. This put an end to the rather fragile, uneasy alliance fraught with mistrust that existed between the two men and their factions since before independence.
Ethnically South Sudan boasts tens of languages and almost as many tribes, but recent spates of violence are forcing different groups within the country to align with one of only two sides – with no guarantee of protection from either. Whilst it is evidently Machar’s wish to gain more power and Kiir’s reluctance to concede it that has caused the rift, the danger is that the many armed, militarised groups let loose in populated areas have been encouraged to view their struggle as an ethnic one.
For his part Machar, a member of the Nuer group, has long emphasised the ethnic dominance of the Dinkas in government and previously in the SPLM/A as a sign of an attempt to gain ethnic hegemony by the group. The Dinkas constitute the largest ethnic group of the South Sudanese population.
Ethnically-based killing particularly aimed at the Dinka group has happened before. The 1991 massacre in which armed Nuer fighters, under Machar, killed around 2,000 Dinka in the town of Bor, was a shameful episode in the South-South violence that characterised much of the fighting during the civil war (1983-2005). Today, tensions are more fraught and, in the absence of a common enemy, the stakes are much higher. As an independent country South Sudan and its resources present a huge coup for any group, but instead of being content with power-sharing both sides seem now to be seeking full authority.
South Sudan suffers from inflation rates at 50%, abject poverty and intense rivalry within an increasing number of political factions. As the world’s youngest country it may be forgiven (right now) for many of its political short-comings but its inability or unwillingness to demilitarise its politics will only catalyse ethnic warfare. With no strong institutions to govern, many power-brokers and generals still essentially command their own forces, their loyalties to the government fluctuating with their cut of oil revenues. This is largely a failing of President Kiir’s government. Faith in his leadership has been steadily dwindling. The fear now is that some in opposition, particularly rebels, may not see the IGAD-mediated peace talks in Addis Ababa and the 2015 elections as viable ways to address these failures. These fears triggered the release of a letter to the IGAD mediation team from 39 Dinka tribal chiefs in which they cited the danger of attributing government failures to the Dinka group as a whole and worries as to where this blame culture will lead. It also discussed concerns over the lack of democratic leadership in South Sudan and the dangerous precedence set by armed rebellion in the fledgling country. IGAD would do well to consider these.
The slow pace at which efforts in Ethiopia seem to be responding to events in South Sudan is also of concern given that patience is not Riek Machar’s strong suit. Having been at odds with Kiir’s predecessor Dr John Garang, Machar has never liked playing second fiddle; particularly it seems to a Dinka. And although he apologised publically for the Bor Massacre before taking office as Vice President, there remains a strong sense of déjà vu. Machar, then as now, has courted the favour of the government in Khartoum who not without a sense of schadenfreude would perhaps enjoy giving support to the SPLM’s own rebellion. In the long-term, however, the Sudanese will need to be aware of the effects that destabilising South Sudan will have on border communities, refugee flows and the proliferation of small arms northwards into volatile regions beyond the border.
But history need not repeat itself: South Sudan is not Rwanda nor does it need to relive its own dark past. In some ways there is greater difficulty today in that both sides are killing each other, leaving the potential for human loss immense. In the long run this would change the demographics of the country and may well produce a power vacuum as, like many of its neighbours, South Sudan has not cultivated a robust younger breed of politicians. Instead power, and to a great extent wealth, has been withheld by the old revolutionary commanders giving rise to consistent two-horse races. Power-sharing must therefore be made attractive to both sides right now and guarantees of representation must be given for all groups in the long-run; after all South Sudan is yet to have its first election. The 2010 ‘trial’ elections, seen largely as a precursor to secession, have not managed to build trust and confidence in ‘government’ thus far; neither has it given Machar and Kiir the safety to lay down their weapons, with their behaviour largely unchanged since their military days. Practically, as well as curbing the proliferation of arms throughout the country, opportunities and resources have not been made available to all; something that a country with the largest proportion of its population under 17 years of age cannot afford.
However, silver linings do exist. While the slow pace of the IGAD process can be exasperating, given the right incentives, it can provide the warring sides with a chance to work through more of their deeply-rooted disputes, having been denied the chance to do so during the CPA negotiations a decade ago. Faith in the African leadership of peace talks and mediation efforts has not yet waned and if powerful actors are not yet accountable to their own citizens then at least they will have to take note of their neighbours. This is a continent quite aware of its recent violent history and its status in the world. Africa is endeavouring to take ownership of its issues – this regional effort must therefore not be undermined.