South Sudan – such hopes, such despair. It’s been five years since South Sudan became Africa’s latest independent country. Rarely have such high hopes turned into such bitter disappointment in such a short time. What does that mean – and where will it lead?
Let’s briefly recall history. Before independence, there was civil war in Sudan, a low-level but violent conflict between North and South. It actually goes back as far as 1955, the year the First Sudanese Civil War started. That war ended with a peace agreement in 1971, an agreement that did not solve all problems. Then the Second Civil War broke out again in 1983 – it lasted basically until South Sudan’s independence in 2005 (leaving the Darfur area to a separate peace process).
At least in the Western media, the conflict in Sudan was often cast in religious and racial terms: here was an underdog of noble black African Christians, gallantly fighting against cruel Arab Muslim domination.
Well, if proof was still needed, the South Sudanese have reminded us all – Christians are just as good as killing one another as Muslims are (but then, we already knew this, for example through the conflict in Northern Ireland).
In addition, Africans are just as willing to kill one another as Arabs or Europeans are (but that also hardly needed any more proof). It is a bitter but positive conclusion: racist theories will not help us get a better understanding of South Sudan.
Yet hopes were so high… Sure, at independence, the country did not have much in terms of infrastructure – neither physical, nor human. But it did have a large commitment from the UN, the EU, the AU, the international donor community.
All well-meaning people of the earth were ready and willing to step in and help get things right (finally). And – South Sudan has oil. Of course, it was known that there were different population groups in South Sudan: the conflicts between pastoralists and agriculturalists that exist in other African countries also exist in South Sudan. But in fact, the two major groups, the Dinka and the Nuer, are both part of the same Nilotic group of peoples.
Some have argued that the Dinka and Nuer languages are both part of the Kitara dialect continuum, including also languages such as Luo, spoken mainly in Kenya, and Nkore, spoken mainly in Uganda.
Again, as the experience of Europe and especially of former Yugoslavia has shown, people who are one other’s brothers can just as easily fight one another as other people can.
So – where to go next? Obviously, one ‘solution’ would be to wait until they have had enough and give up the killings. But history shows that can take a long time – and will cause even more suffering to innocent women and children. So that is not acceptable.
Again, when it comes to finding a way out of a situation of seemingly endless killing between peoples who are really brothers – we can turn to European recent experience, and especially the experience in Bosnia.
Again, some history: there was a civil war in that part of the world from 1992 to 1995. It was bad, including large-scale ethnic cleansing, concentration camps, and the infamous Srebrenica massacre. In that massacre alone, more than 8,000 Europeans were killed by their European brethren.
The Bosnian war ended only after massive foreign intervention, including a NATO bombing campaign. The solution, contained in the Dayton accords, includes not only a physical separation of the brethren into separate provinces and cantons, but also a High Representative, appointed by the international Peace Implementation Council.
In fact, what this means is that the civil administration of Bosnia is no longer entrusted to the Bosnians alone. The country, although sovereign in name, is effectively under Trusteeship. The High Representative basically is the boss in the country. Among other things, he has the power to:
- adopt binding decisions when local parties seem unable or unwilling to act;
- remove from office public officials who violate legal commitments or, in general, the peace agreement.
Bosnia today is no paradise, and a lot of animosity remains between the different population groups. But the deep wounds that they have inflicted on one another will take time to heal. At least, they’ve stopped killing each other.
A solution like the Bosnian one now seems the only way out for South Sudan as well. Both Salva Kiir and Riek Machar have lost all credibility in the eyes of the international community – and probably in the eyes of their own peoples as well. It would be good if they could be brought to trial.
This is what many, both inside and outside of South Sudan, are now arguing for – see, for example, this article by Gebrehiwot and De Waal or this one by Lyman and Knopf. There is one organisation best placed to take the lead in this: the African Union.
So here is a chance, finally, to give a positive sign: people of all races and beliefs can kill each other, yes. But by the same token, they can also work to establish peace. Let us hope that five years from now, a more hopeful post on South Sudan will at long last be possible.
Bert is a Dutchman who was trained as a social scientist. He has been active in the environment and development movement in the Netherlands and elsewhere, starting his ‘career’ in the Anti-Apartheid movement. Bert has lived in Kenya for four years and is passionate about anything related to culture and intercultural communications. He is pursuing a Masters’ in African Studies.