Ethnic and Political Conflict
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Political conflicts within a nation most often take the form of ethnic conflicts leading to civil wars. These inner conflicts then give rise to international tension and the necessity for international interference (Narang, 2013). Until recently, several conflicts across the world especially in the African and Middle Eastern nations have claimed millions of lives and caused much disturbance in the internal arena as well. South Sudan, the world’s newest country, has however been at the center of international attention owing to its ongoing conflicts. The conflict, which started in 2013, began as a political issue but soon took the form of ethnic riots. It was due to the involvement of two largest ethnic groups in the country – the Dinka and the Nuer.
The essay will focus on the actors involved in the conflict and highlight their ethnic background as reason for escalation. Further, the essay will discuss the social, political and economic reasons of the conflict. In addition, the essay will highlight the historical context of the problem followed by the role of international players in the conflict.
South Sudan achieved independence from Sudan in 2011, making it the newest country in the world and garnered much recognition. However, the country has yet to achieve complete independence in the truest sense as the majority of population is still illiterate and devoid of the basic human needs like food, shelter and water (Bbc.com, 2018). After the country achieved its independence, the two key players, Salva Kiir and Reik Machar, have been on the edge against each other. Although both Kiir and Machar represented the same party, that is, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) belonged to different ethnic groups. While Kiir hailed from the largest ethnic group Dinka, Machar belongs to the second largest ethnic group, Nuer. Both the President and his deputy had fought side-by-side for the liberation of South Sudan but both had conflict on interests. During the fight for liberation, the Murle tribe representative David Yau Yau accused the Sudanese government of prejudice and started a rebellion. Furthermore, the widespread atrocities by the Dinka against the Shilluk people after the notorious 2010 disarmament campaign also escalated ethnic tensions. Another incident in 2011 where the Lou Nuer and Murle tribe clashed over cattle rearing issue, added fuel to the already disturbed nation (Voanews.com, 2018). The Nuer White army even released a statement calming that the security of Nuer’s cattle could be guaranteed only if the entire Murle population is wiped out. These incidences prior to the creation of South Sudan indicate the long-standing trouble between different ethnic tribes and its people like Kiir and Machar. Machar had dreamt of becoming the President of South Sudan and considered Kiir to be incapable. Signs of resistance within the ruling SPLM party surfaced more clearly in the July of 2013 when Kiir sacked Machar and his associates, who were mostly Nuers, from the cabinet. The conflict could have been averted by both the parties but they instead gave it an ethnic color just to fulfill their political goals.
As mentioned in the last part of the previous section, the two major players in the conflict utilized their ethnic identities to accomplish their political objectives. The conflict initially began as a political turmoil after the Vice President Dr Reik Machar opposed the move of sacking him and his associates by President Salva Kiir. However, social and economic unrest have also played a major role in the creation of the conflict. South Sudan is predominantly an agricultural country and cattle are the dominant part of livelihood. Apart from that, the country is also rich in oil, which makes it an economically vital nation within the African continent and internationally as well. Moreover, the country has River Nile flowing through its regional centers and is a major trade and transportation route. These factors make South Sudan an economically vital country that had the potential to develop at a fast pace. It was fortuned to have an already established oil industry that placed the country well enough to bear the cost of huge investments needed for education, health and physical infrastructure. However, these benefits were not strategically utilized and resulted in the creation of the conflict. Disagreements with Khartoum during the time of independence regarding the oil flow led to the worsening of the economic condition with investors leaving the country. Corruption by the government officials also added to the worsening condition of the country on the economic side and allowing the rebels to oppose the government and start a conflict. As pointed out by De Waal (2014), the “political marketplace” of South Sudan was so expensive that the military-political support system consumed the country’s abundant resources and revenue. The authors further explain that the shutdown of oil production in January 2012 made the system completely bankrupt.
On the social front, as already discussed, the powerful Dinka and Nuer tribe people dominated major part of the country and often clashed with each other. Tension between the two tribes was evident even before the creation of South Sudan when members from both ethnic groups battled to dominate cattle raiding. Few small armed uprisings, border conflicts and fatal cattle disputes have been there over the period of some decades. The political leaders or political opportunists knew about this inherent tension and waited for an opportunity to use it as a weapon. The inherent presence of ‘kleptocracy’, which means governments run by corrupt leaders and exploitation of people by the use of power confirms the above statement. Caselli and Coleman (2013) mentions that the social inequality based on ethnicity as well as gender played a significant role in setting the platform for the major conflict.
Historical and Social Factors
In this section, the social, political and economic factors that led to the outbreak of the civil war shall be assessed from the historical perspective. Conflicts on grounds of ethnic differences are not a new phenomenon in the African country. However, the dangerous combination of ethnic and political conflict did make for one of the worst civil wars in the continent after the 1994 Rwandan genocide. An inclusive peace agreement was arrived at ultimately in 2005 between the SPLM and the then President of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir. The agreement also fixed a schedule for a vote on whether Sudan should be divided or not. Held in January 2011, the referendum received maximum votes and the Republic of South Sudan officially came into being. Although the creation of the newest nation was appreciated and hailed by many within the country and across the globe, the flaming but underlying ethnic tension was completely ignored. Justin and van Dik (2017) while focusing on the issues of land reform as an aspect of the civil war, state that the long history of land disputes between ethnic groups and legal frameworks failing to address these issues further escalated the tension. In his official speech to the people of the newly born South Sudan, President Kiir stated that the people must demonstrate unity and strength despite diverse ethnic groups. In an attempt to demonstrate unity within the government, Kiir appointed Machar as his second-in-command despite Machar being a Nuer and being responsible for the 1991 massacre of Dinka people in Bor. Within two years, Machar became vocal against the President and even challenged him for 2015 presidency. One particular incident in the December 2013 in the country’s capital, Juba, where forces loyal to Machar clashed with Kiir’s forces sparked the flame that engulfed the entire nation. The actual reason for the attacks although still questionable, both Machar and Kiir blamed each other. While Kiir designated it as an attemot for coup by Machar, Machar reverted with the accusation that Kiir failed to tackle corruption and violence. The political squabble soon turned into a large scale ethnic conflict leading to the deaths and displacement of millions of South Sudanese.
Amidst the entire episode of the conflict, its rise, the final spark and the ongoing tensions, the role of international players is disputed. The United States has been the most active amongst international players aiding the cause of South Sudan. First, the U.S. was vocal against the atrocities carried out against the Christian community in southern Sudan, which was even evident from George W. Bush’s foreign policy concerning Sudan. After South Sudan’s independence, the U.S. was most welcoming of the new country designating it as a “victory of the oppressed”. It is but interesting to note that since the U.S had been long associated with South Sudan cause, it did know about the inner ethnic conflict. Further, it also knew that the independence was achieved keeping aside these ethnic issues but still it decided to ignore it. Had the U.S. made the decision to advice first the SPLM for resolving the inner conflicts first and then move ahead building a new nation, things could have been different. Apart from the U.S., the role of the international organization like the United Nations also comes under scrutiny. The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) was formed to stop further escalation of the civil war. Having around 7,500 peace-keeping troops in South Sudan, the organization has been unable to prevent the brutal conflict. In fact, the UN troops denied stopping the clashes stating it did not fall under their responsibility. The UN has been criticized heavily for its failure to protect the civilians and stop the conflicts for the past five years and as a result, it even sacked the military chief responsible for leading the mission in 2016 (Reuters.com, 2018). The intervention of the Ugandan government into the conflict has also been questioned by many. Claiming that the UN Secretary General had requested Uganda to intervene and that it wanted to evacuate its own citizens, the Ugandan troops soon started fighting for forces loyal to Kiir. As Apuuli (2014) notes, “The participation of Ugandan troops in the fighting on the side of the Kiir government renders the intervention illegal”. The Ugandan intervention is not only illegal, but it demonstrates the economic self-interest of the government. In terms of ethics also, the intervention was far from being ethical.
Kiir and Machar were both fighting for one common cause back in the 2000s to 2011 but the lust for power changed the entire scenario. The country later was further divided into the Dinkas and the Nuers and the actual motive for attaining freedom was lost.
The conclusion thus could be made that the South Sudan conflict could and should have been stopped from escalating. International players like the U.S., Uganda and the UN could have kept aside their vested interests and thought of helping the innocent South Sudanese people. The above discussion highlights a massive lack of ethical decision-making on the international front.
Apuuli, K. P. (2014). Explaining the (il) legality of Uganda's intervention in the current South Sudan conflict. African Security Review, 23(4), 352-369.
Bbc.com. (2018). South Sudan: What is the fighting about?. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-25427965
Caselli, F., & Coleman, W. J. (2013). On the theory of ethnic conflict. Journal of the European Economic Association, 11(suppl_1), 161-192.
De Waal, A. (2014). When kleptocracy becomes insolvent: Brute causes of the civil war in South Sudan. African Affairs, 113(452), 347-369.
Justin, P. H., & van Dik, H. (2017). Land Reform and Conflict in South Sudan: Evidence from Yei River County. Africa Spectrum, 52(2), 3-28.
Narang, V. (2013). What does it take to deter? Regional power nuclear postures and international conflict. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 57(3), 478-508.
Reuters.com. (2018). U.N. moves to protect South Sudan civilians after years of criticism. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-southsudan-un/u-n-moves-to-protect-south-sudan-civilians-after-years-of-criticism-idUSKCN1B80KA
Voanews.com. (2018). What Triggered the Kiir-Machar Rift in South Sudan?. Retrieved from https://www.voanews.com/a/what-triggered-the-kir-machar-rift-in-south-sudan/1826903.html
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