Tribal rivalries in South Sudan have deep roots that independence has failed to tear up, writes Matt Qvortrup
‘A people tall and smooth-skinned… a people feared far and wide, an aggressive nation of strange speech” (Isaiah 18:2), was how the Prophet Isaiah, in the Old Testament, described the Nuer tribe in South Sudan. Fast-forward 2,700 years and ancient rivalry between the Nuer and the Dinkas is still a tragic reality. Last week, president Salva Kiir, a Dinka, claimed that his former vice-president, the Nuer Riek Machar, was behind an alleged coup d’état. The fighting that ensued in Juba, the capital, cost the lives of hundreds of civilians, as well as two American UN soldiers. Hundreds of aid workers have been airlifted to neighbouring Kenya. The rebels now control several of the oil-producing towns in the north of the country
That the conflict dated back to biblical, indeed Old-Testament times, was a fact I learned when I was travelling with General Scott Gration, US president Barack Obama’s envoy in the Sudan 2009-10. After years of war between Omar al-Bashir’s Islamist regime in Khartoum in the north and the largely Christian tribes in the south of Sudan, a referendum on independence for South Sudan had been planned. This came following the US- and UK-sponsored Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2002.
We – the British and the Americans – were there to mediate in the negotiations between North and South – but also to ensure that the politicians from South Sudan were in agreement. It was not always an easy task. It is always intimidating to negotiate with men in uniform. And if you add to this that the average height of Nuer men is 6ft 2in and that of Dinka men is 6ft 3in, it was not surprising that my Bible-thumping American boss pointed out that the Holy Bible – as he called in with a southern drawl – described them as “tall and smooth-skinned”. These ethnic groups account for 90 per cent of the 11 million people who live in South Sudan.
It was clear there were tensions even before independence. However, always an optimist as well as an entrepreneur, Gen Gration thought the tall Nuer would be “well suited for college basketball”, whereas the Dinka would, “fit in well the NBA” (National Basketball Association). That part was a success. Two-thirds of the South Sudanese national basketball team play for American colleges.
But good basketball players have not brought peace. Only two years after South Sudan became independent, after a referendum in January 2011, the governing SPLM Party is split.
In July 2013, Kiir sacked his entire cabinet, including his vice-president Machar and former SPLA chairman Pagan Amum – both Nuer. In response, Machar said he would run for the presidency. The next presidential elections are scheduled for 2015.
But it is not just the recent disagreements that separate the two men. Kiir and Machar had a strained relationship going back many years. During the 30 years of war of independence, Machar initially fought against Kiir. But the two had made peace, and combined their forces in the struggle against the common enemy.
Without the common enemy, there are very few things that tie the groups together. The president’s ability to share the spoils of the emerging oil incomes with members of his own ethnic groups, has – along the removal of their most prominent politician – convinced Nuer politicians that they have little choice but to fight. Though, as a skilled politician, as well as a former guerrilla soldier, Machar has distanced himself from the alleged coup. It was only after Nuer troops secured the control of the northern town of Bor that the former vice-president broke his silence and spoke to the BBC.
Both Machar and Kiir have expressed a willingness to negotiate, though in Machar’s case only if his allies are freed from jail in Juba, in the southern and Dinka-dominated part of the country. In particular, Machar demands that Pagan Amum, who was dismissed from the cabinet following corruption charges, is released from detention. But it seems unlikely that either of the sides will accept the conditions. And, in any case, agreements are often broken in South Sudan.
Listening to the calm and measured voice of Dr Machar – he has a PhD from the University of Bradford – I was reminded of a short meeting had with him and representatives from the British embassy in the summer of 2009.
There were reports that Nuer cattle-thieves had burned down a village and killed the inhabitants; 2,000 people had died, or so were the reports. I mentioned the report. Machar looked back at me, baring his teeth in a gentle smile, while eyes were as cold as the snow on Kilimanjaro,
“Well, sir, you see in this country, a death toll of 2,000 is not out of the ordinary; 2,000 a month is pretty much peace”.
Of course, a brief conversation a few years ago does not qualify me to speak as an expert, but the remark is probably indicative of the way the warring parties see human lives. Based on my brief experience as a negotiator in the country, the conflict could last a very long time.
After independence, South Sudanese reggae singer Ras Korby performed a song in what to me was “strange speech”. He sang: “Junubin – ma na’shakil badun”, which a woman from the overseas development department translated for me as: “Southerners – let us not fight amongst ourselves”.
Alas, his compatriots did not heed his call.
• Dr Matt Qvortrup was an envoy for the US State Department in Sudan 2009.