Reinventing the Wheel of Divide and Rule Policies in South Sudan

By Tongun Lo Loyuong

September 5, 2013 (SSNA) — South Sudan is in a political purgatory at the moment that makes it easy to wave a white flag and resign to an inevitable future that looks bleak. From governance crisis to corruption to nepotism to cronyism to tribalism to inter-communal vendettas to cattle-raiding and child abduction to poverty to crime and gangsterism, to insecurity and lawlessness to human rights abuses to rebellions to oh dear, there is no end in sight. It is such that to avert suffering a stroke, throwing your hands up in the air and declaring: blessed are those who do not believe in South Sudanese human potential for positive social transformation and mutual peaceful coexistence seems comforting!

Discomfortingly, there is an increasing concern among many South Sudanese that “divide and rule” policies are being reprehensibly appropriated by the political leadership in South Sudan. On this score, it is exceedingly clear that the land continues to acutely suffer from the hangover of colonial legacies. There is an uncalled for continuity with the unjust and tragic history of Sudan here that must be immediately named and shamed. Reinventing the wheel of divide and rule policies in South Sudan is a red line. It is disheartening and overwhelming in all the least.

Should the “Mundukuru” (Arabic north of Sudan) be invited back to restore some sanity and the little South Sudanese unity that existed during the liberation struggle and prevailed in the overwhelming vote for South Sudan’s secession in the referendum or what (wele shunu ya jamaa)? Else, it seems complicated to build a nation in South Sudan under these circumstances, with the Dinka and Nuer cousins embroiled in a seeming irreconcilable and perpetual feud over who knows what. It is difficult to forge a nation in South Sudan while within the Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups there now appears to be a deep seated schism across clan and possibly political interest cantons. It is hard to dream of a nation in South Sudan where the Equatorians are largely and endlessly suspicious and distrustful of the Dinka, the Nuer and few other non-Equatorian tribes in between. It is near impossible to think of a nation in South Sudan while the Equatorians are perceived as foreign Ugandans, deserters and false beneficiaries of a freedom they never fought for and therefore do not deserve.

In this vein, it is not easy to imagine how a cohesive national identity out of the varied and many ethnic groups, mostly incoherent and with little or no commonsense of a unifying cultural bond and a sense of collective belonging can be crafted in this country. It is absurd and naïve that some continue to refer to South Sudan as a “nation.” What a nation?

Question is, how can a collective sense of urgency on the need to steer our people away from present increasing hostile vibes across ethnicities and sub-cultures, which make us vulnerable to external exploitation, be instilled among our people, including the “educated” internet warriors among us? And how should a collective sense of unity and nationhood be forged in South Sudan amidst the current challenges and the rife in social strife on mostly tribal basis? In all honesty I have no frigging clue on how to wrap my head around this!

Yet all considered it is cathartic to write and cling to the hope that current challenges will come to pass when there will be a national awakening in this beleaguered country one day, just one day. But writing about hope of a national awakening alone though cathartic at least on individual capacity, is insufficient. Reality remains, a collective South Sudanese effort must be committed to actualize this hope. And as a starting point, it must be accepted by all that it is our collective responsibility to redouble the efforts to begin to transition to a national awakening era in earnest. A national awakening that rises above the tribe and ceases from a vicious and endless cycle of apportioning blame and exchanging hatred.

South Sudanese and particularly our present political leadership must sincerely begin to think of creating a nation first. We must commit our hearts and minds in the service of working towards forging a national unity and identity that binds the diverse and colorful social fabric of South Sudan. Keep the cash but at least build a nation for future generations’ sake.

As things stand, current events in South Sudan are antithetical to anything peaceful, nation-building and reconciling. The present political path that is being treaded is an inversion of any efforts aimed at forging unity and commonsense of purpose and national identity in the land. More importantly and as noted above, it is an obnoxious political dispensation which is not short of a byproduct of various intractable colonial legacies in South Sudan that must be immediately shunned.

Whether it is based on ignorance or deliberate negligence blinded by lust for wealth and material accumulation that holds sway to our history and what we fought for, the present morally obscene political scene is unsustainable. It is an unbecoming of the tireless efforts of South Sudan’s founding fathers and mothers and selfless sacrifices of our previous generations of heroes and heroines to restore our human dignity. It is indeed a betrayal of the spirit of liberation and a re-inaction of colonial policies in South Sudan in our face by some poor, myopic, egotistic and power-mongers in our political leadership.

As many commentary entries have accurately concluded of recent, the present unfolding of polarizing tribal politics in South Sudan is a direct result of the so-called “divide and rule” policies which are being consciously or sub-consciously appropriated by our political leadership to serve their shortsighted parochial greed and political power interest. At the moment there seems to be little distinction between some of our present political leadership, namely the “liberators,” from South Sudan’s traditional colonial masters and oppressors.

For those blinded by wealth hoarding, they must be reminded that South Sudan is borne out of the resilient resistance to divide and rule policies, which were central to our downfall to colonial subjugation in the first place and which South Sudan has tirelessly toiled and ultimately liberated itself from. It is a known fact that the aspirations of successive colonial masters in consolidating political, geographic and economic power not only in the greater Sudan, but also in the African continent at large were significantly aided by inciting tribal hatred and fragmentation. Any new such attempts will equally ultimately be foiled.

In reminding ourselves about our tragic historic realities, the divisive colonial policies which seem to now find favor in current political manifest in South Sudan are thus, traceable to the first foot-imprint of the colonial masters—the Mundukuru when they first arrived in the Sudanese scene back in the 7th century C.E. Khartoum later perfected these policies, and sadly Juba seems to now follow suit.

The first batch of colonialists arrived brandishing the divide and rule policies with one intent and purpose: to loot and exploit the huge reserve of human as well as natural resources in the land. Their long term objective was, of course, to ultimately settle and rule the land indefinitely as “born to rule” as they are now doing, while aggressively embarking on cultural domination of Sudan through seductive or compulsive policies of Islamization and Arabization of the Sudanese. In this schema, converted local groups to Islam were (and are) given preferential treatment and afforded access to political power and resources in return for policing their disadvantaged compatriots in service to the colonial masters.

And as history records, despite initial local resistance, the project was always moving forward. Islamic enculturation and demographic transformation came to overwhelm the old northern Sudanese Christian kingdom of Nubia in old Dongola and Alwa in Soba further south not far from modern day Khartoum. As seen today, resulting from these historic processes, the northern part of the country, Sudan (which literally means the land of the black) is predominantly inhabited by the Arabaic people in the shape of Barabra ethnic group represented by Sukut and Mahas in lower Nubia. In upper Nubia there is the Ja’ali group, the nomadic or semi-nomadic Juhayna group and the Shayqiyya confederacy, who occupy the territory east of the Nubian land, known today as Port Sudan and Suoakin region.

While the locals exposed their vulnerabilities across ethnic divides, the Mundukuru settlers were busy hankering down and extracting the gold and precious stones known to be in abundance in the eastern region. They were also busy capturing and selling the locals for slaves, among other vices. The wicked lucrative slave business invited the Mundukuru to raid villages further south. This ultimately transpired in the cultural and demographic transformation of north Sudan as Mundukuru presence increased and local presence decreased. Waves of local migration to the south followed and those who remained in the northern areas have not only been enslaved, but also been absorbed into Arabism and Islamism.

As Ibn Khaldun, an Islamic historian writing in the fourteenth century is quoted by P. M. Holt and Martin W. Daly: “the clans of Juhayna Arabs spread over their country [Sudan], and settled in it, ruling it and filling it with ruin and decay. The kings of the Nubians set about holding them back, but lacked strength. Then they proceeded to win them over by marriage-alliances, so that their kingdom broke up, and it passed to some of the offspring of Juhayna…So their kingdom was torn to pieces, and Juhayna took possession of their land.”

As if this was not enough and sniffing the continued local vulnerabilities across ethnic groupings, Jallaba penetration continued further South under the leadership of Abdallah Jamma by 1504-05, where a fierce clash with the South Sudanese Shilluk kingdom in Funj is reported. The Arabs were severely defeated on that occasion, but the Funj kingdom also somehow ultimately succumbed and was “…soon after converted to Mahometism.”

As a side note, in this first phase of colonialism, the bitter irony is that the old Sudanese Christian kingdoms were left alone to fend off Muslim-Arab encroachment and expansionism, without any support from other Christian communities in the region. In a desperate attempt to preserve the old Sudanese Christian faith and identity, an envoy from the kingdom of Alwa was reported to have been sent to Ethiopia, a home to one of the oldest Christian churches in Africa requesting for priests to be sent to provide moral and spiritual support to their kingdom, but to no avail. Overall, divide and rule policies create disunity and incite hatred across ethnicities, which in turn were instrumental in the “successes” and “achievements” of the first campaign of colonial Islamization and Arabization of Sudan.

Divisive colonial policies continued to be significantly influential in subsequent colonialist agendas and were again favored and effectively used by the Turko-Egyptian colonial masters under the overall command and leadership of Mohammed Ali Pasha. Like its predecessor, the use of divide and rule policies in the invasion of Sudan in 1821 under the command of Mohammed Ali’s son, Ismail Kamil Pasha was primarily aimed at exploiting Sudanese human and natural resources. However, it was much less centered on cultural and religious expansion as an agenda. In seeking to serve this resource exploitation purpose through divide and rule policies, Mohammed Ali’s son installed local puppet client-rulers, the likes of Mak Nimer. Though Mak Nimer ultimately rebelled and assassinated his master, Ismail Pasha by burning down the house that hosted him and some of his cohort to ashes. Mohammed Ali’s administration also worked closely with the ilk of Zubeir Wed Al Rhama, the notorious Ja’ali slave trader, who wreaked havoc in Bahr el-Ghazal and Darfur regions.

The wheel of divide and rule policies was reinvented in subsequent generations of colonialisms in the Sudan from Anglo-Egyptian rule in 1898 to post independent Sudan from 1956 to the seeming current appeal to this policies in post independent South Sudan by our rulers. In his Complex Emergencies, David Keen aptly drove the point home. He maintained that, “using one ethnic group to police another was a common imperial tactic. For example, during the gradual imposition of British rule in Sudan from the end of the nineteenth century, elements of the Baggara cattle herders of western Sudan were used to quell southern Sudanese groups who were resisting colonial rule, and the use of southern slaves among the Baggara was tolerated by the British. Since the Baggara were themselves a potential threat (particularly after their role in the 1883 Mahdist uprising), this strategy offered to reinforce colonial rule on two fronts.”

Indeed the whole marginalization and center vs. periphery dynamic which was one of the underlying causes of the north-south divide was a product of colonial divide and rule policies. Our British colonialists saw to it that Khartoum was given preferential treatment where colonial administration in the Sudan was concentrated and left in the control of elite few from the north after the independence in 1956, at the expense of the peripheries. As Alex De Waal puts it, “the country’s wars are logical continuation of historic processes of asset stripping and proletarianisation of the rural populace which began in the nineteenth century and which has continued during war and peace alike.”

In her article “A Curse from God? Religious and Political Dimensions of the Post-1991 Rise of Ethnic Violence in South Sudan,” Sharon E. Hutchinson underscores Khartoum’s present continuity with and scaling up of the practice of divide and rule policies, now known by the Mundukuru as “killing the slave through a slave.” “Mounted on horseback and wielding government-supplied AK-47s,” Hutchinson observed, “cattle- and slave-seeking raiders declared a jihad against a southern civilian population armed with little more than spears. Trained in counter-insurgency methods by the Sudanese army and entrusted with the task of depopulating the oil fields north of Bantiu, these Baggara militias began to kill, rape and enslave hundreds of unarmed Nuer and Dinka women and children in a dramatic breech of previously respected ethical limits on inter-tribal warfare in this region.”

Ask Eric Reeves and he will sit you down. The trend of divide and rule continues in Darfur and elsewhere in Sudan, as well as in Jonglei State and elsewhere in South Sudan through the arming of David Yau Yau’s forces and others before him as is well-documented. These policies are now feared to be appropriated by South Sudan’s political leadership in current political calculations. I am not easily bent on dwelling on history. But our present government owners in Juba must be careful not to be equated with South Sudan’s traditional colonial masters. In their policies, they must refrain from invoking the bitter and unjust colonial history that was primarily based on divide and rule policies and that was thought to have finally been overcome with the independence of South Sudan. There are limits. Reinventing the wheel of divide and rule policies in South Sudan is one.

Tongun Lo Loyuong is reachable at [email protected]; and can be followed on twitter @TongunLoLoyuong. This and other pieces are also on his blog:

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