Tribalism and Civil War

South Sudan’s nightmare continues

By Reed Szymanski

Source: LA Times.

Source: LA Times.

Africa. It is a strong word that invokes strong images. What do you picture when you think of Africa? Do you think of exotic animals, safari landscapes, and miles of lush forest? Or do you see genocide, famine, disease, extreme poverty and constant tribal conflict? The people of South Sudan lived under the latter for roughly 30 of the last 60 years. They suffered from two civil wars before the current one, ranging from 1962 to 1972, and 1983 until 2005 respectively. Now, with the recent escalation of violence, they are forced to do so again.

South Sudan is a relatively new country that seceded from Sudan in 2011. Prior to secession from the North, South and North Sudan were engaged in a bloody civil war that claimed approximately two million lives. Optimists hoped that South Sudan’s independence would hearken a new era for its people. But it seems that is not the case.

The current conflict centers around two tribal factions, the Dinka and the Nuer. This is a distinction that currently means life or death in South Sudan. The Dinka back the pro-government forces, headed by President Salva Kiir. Ex-Vice President Riek Machar, a member of the Nuer tribe, leads the rebels. The conflict started shortly after President Kiir dismissed Vice President Machar. The unfortunate point to illustrate is that tribal conflict is not rare in Africa. Tribalism is considered one of the primary causes of conflict in Africa, and the tribal rivalry between the Dinka and Nuer just one example of that.

The quote, “It’s me and my nation against the world, then me and my clan against the nation” from the song, “Tribal War” pretty well covers the dynamic of tribalism in Africa. Many Africans feel loyalty to their tribe before their country, which causes a high level of political instability for the region. Tribalism may seem like an odd concept in the West, but it has deep cultural roots in Africa. Africa was not allowed to develop naturally and draw its own national boundaries. Instead, Africa was invaded and colonized by Europeans who created artificial borders between countries without considering ethnic and cultural ties within the region.

Near the end of the 1800s, Europe turned its eye toward Africa. The Berlin Conference and subsequent European colonization of Africa drew arbitrary national boundaries that cross cut ethnic groups, creating inharmonious mixes in nearly every African country. Certain tribes that aided the Europeans in logistical aspects of the ruling process were granted preferential treatment, which created tension with other tribes. Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sierra Leone, and Rwanda are all prime examples of tribal conflict at its finest, or more accurately its worst.

The recent mass killings in South Sudan on April 15 that resulted in an estimated 400 dead and 400 wounded in a single town exemplify the tradition of tribal conflict and civil war in Africa. Is there a way to end this tradition, to stop the tribal conflict and bloodshed?

At this point, one can only hope that the tradition of conflict and war will end. The sad truth is there is no easy solution. In an ideal world, the warring tribes would choose peace over war, but that is extremely unlikely to actually occur. In the meantime, South Sudan needs to start creating a strong government to develop economically and provide security for its people. It may not completely solve the problem, but it is a good start. A strong government will be difficult to establish when there has been near constant civil war in the region for the last 50 years, but South Sudan must still attempt to do so.

While South Sudan is engaged in war, the U.N. is trying to address the conflict by aiding refugees and imposing sanctions directed toward financial assets of coalition leaders; however, more needs to be done. The recent mass killings could be a foreshadowing of future genocide. Genocide is an atrocious act, and the act of genocide is an automatic call for international intervention under the UN charter. Unfortunately, one must only look at Rwanda to realize how slowly the U.N. moves to act on genocide.

If the U.N. and the West truly want to make a difference, they must insert a stronger military presence there. The UN peacekeeping forces have been inadequate in defending civilians in South Sudan, just as they were in Rwanda. A stronger military presence and more liberal use of military power would permit the West to end civil war and prevent mass killings from tribal conflicts from occurring. It is either that or the U.S and U.N. take the opposite approach and avoid African affairs. At any rate, the hesitant and apologetic approach taken in situations like Rwanda cannot continue.

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