The Cultural Bearing of the New War in South Sudan

By Tongun Lo Loyuong

January 6, 2014 (SSNA) — It seems the deadlock in the negotiation over the negotiations to end current violence in South Sudan persists in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia—the venue for the peace talks. At the time of writing, the key warring parties, those loyal to president Salva Kiir and those aligned to his former deputy, Dr. Riek Machar have so far failed to hold a noticeable direct talks to at least rapidly reach an agreement on immediate cessation of hostilities. And it also seems that the fugitive from the north has finally landed on the scene, which makes for intriguing developments in the coming days as South Sudan braces for regional and international political showdown. Deep breaths are taken and held!

What is important to discuss at this juncture, however, is that the political intransigence means violent escalation will continue to rage, rampant indiscriminate killing spree will remain and mass displacement, looting, destruction and the perpetration of heinous human rights violation will persist unabated in South Sudan. The humanitarian community is by now convinced more than ever that humanitarian disaster looms. Ceasefire needs to be declared and held by parties to the divide at anon. A humanitarian corridor needs to be established without further delay in order to reach and attend to the devastated civilian population in the conflict hotspots in South Sudan.

One explanation for this hurting stalemate both in the frontline and on the negotiation table lies in the cultural bearing of the new war in South Sudan. The prominent Professor at the Makerere University, Mahmood Mamdani is the closest to have ever put a finger in the causes of the unraveling violence in South Sudan, by providing a lucid and nuanced analysis that carefully weaves the key underlying and triggering factors to the violent conflict (see Mahmood Mamdani, “The way forward for South Sudan”).

He observes: “The immediate background to the current crisis is the declining support for Kiir…. The opposition to Kiir’s leadership is at several levels: personal, ethnic, and ideological. At the individual level, its root is the loss of confidence in Kiir’s leadership ability as he has moved to undercut whatever remained of accountability structures within the state and the party in order to hold on to power. At the political level, the causes of the conflict lie in a process of the state’s formation that has radically politicised ethnicity”

The “radically politicised ethnicity,” especially beholden from the perspective of the two major warring parties— the Dinka and Nuer is primarily embedded in the idea of “born-to-rule.” Both groups are convinced, albeit misguidedly in a sense of entitlement to wield exclusive political power. Each party is wired by circumstantial historical claim of some numerical advantage and participation in the liberation struggle that led to the independence of South Sudan. Hence an unwavering sense of entitlement to political power monopoly is ingrained in the psyche of both political power contestant groups. The quest to rule as such is also informed by dubious traditional legends, myth and prophecies that render ruling South Sudan as a birthright rather than a political privilege that must be earned through constructive national policies and agendas.

Hierarchical worldview is at play here. It is characterized by ethnic supersessionism or subordinationism that largely defines the social and political structures in South Sudan. This is a major contributing factor to the current violent crisis. As a result, one of the underlying causes to the violent conflict is this cultural extremist and zero-sum mindset propelled by the notion of ingrained sense of entitlement to rule South Sudan to the exclusion of the other and the rest of the many and varied South Sudanese ethnic groups. Such a radically politicised ethnicity is not just an underlying cause to the conflict, but equally serves as the triggering factor to the violent carnage. The compounding factor that has aided and abetted the ignition of the current crisis into violent explosion is the short-fuse and inclination to violence, which is arguably one of the common cultural denominators of the two main warring communities.

The Dinka Diplomat, Professor, Francis Mading Deng does not shy away from acknowledging this fact about the Dinka society. In his first book, “The Dinka of the Sudan,” Deng writes: “Dinka Society is an exceedingly violent society.” The same can be concluded about the Nuer. The renowned Dinka and Nuer expert, Godfrey Lienhardt, in his book “Divinity and Experience: The Religion of the Dinka” concedes that, “the Dinka and Nuer are warlike people, and have never been slow to assert their rights as they see them by physical force.” Perhaps this explains be it in part or in whole why the two belligerent parties to the violent conflict remain reluctant to engage in direct talks on the roundtable to end the violence even as their tribesmen and women, elders and children are dying in multitudes.

The political implications of this radically politicised ethnicity are profound for the future of lasting peace in South Sudan. This is true both in ending the current violence in the short-term as well as in the formation of a just state and nation in the long term. Because of the socio-cultural dynamics now visibly translated in the targeted killings of the innocent on the basis of ethnic belonging, South Sudan clearly yearns for statesmanship in the political process to end the persistent innocent suffering.

As things stand, the fledgling state clearly lacks patriotic policymakers with vision to forge a cohesive sense of national identity and kinship for the common good and well-being of the South Sudanese masses, a common national identity that rises above ethnic particularities and belonging. The political, social and economic space in South Sudan has in consequence been dominated by acute ethnically driven power politics, particularly since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed in 2005 and a semi-autonomous government structures were erected in Juba. This has prepared the tense ground for current political violence that unsurprisingly has taken an ethnic twist.

Tribal politics rather than social and economic national policies have permeated the political and social fabric of South Sudan. This is evident on all levels of administration, all the way from the top national leadership level to ground-zero at the State administrative structures—the County, the Payam and the Boma levels in the rural areas. The result is either an unfair distributive justice and allocation of national wealth and resources or a scandalous failure to deliver any meaningful social and economic services to the people of South Sudan, 9 years after the arrival of the CPA. The universal conventional language to articulate this anomaly has been tribalism, nepotism and corruption. But this vocabulary does not even feature in the local cultural idiom and expression in South Sudan.

In fact the opposite holds. None of this triad of core vices of tribalism, nepotism and corruption is considered a serious national problem, despite lip-services mostly meant for public consumption and relations. Blackmail or tipping a public servant to expedite the completion of paperwork or for providing any dutiful administrative services is seen as a gratuity and part and parcel of the process, which in turn is often regarded as a favor granted by the public servant. Embezzling and misappropriating public funds is not necessarily perceived as an illegal act and a crime, but an entitlement that comes with assuming a public office. As a result caution must be paid in cases of those incarcerated for corruption allegations in South Sudan. Political motivation is rife in the land.

Corruption as conventionally perceived is therefore a practice that is yet to be truly categorized as illegal and as such remains to be condoned in South Sudan’s culture. For instance as soon as one assumes a ministerial position or any other professional civil service position in South Sudan, few will disagree that expectations of family members and relatives are likely to soar and mouths to feed are likely to increase in what should essentially be a nuclear household. Under such circumstances it becomes an existential necessity to raid the public purse in order to sustain an increasingly costly tribal enclave that may converge in the house or the city or town of where “their” son or daughter has assumed a public office. It therefore follows that employment opportunities take precedent to be created first for family members and relatives, then for tribes and family friends, associates and clients and with minimal regard to merits and academic qualifications.

This means that a culture of social injustice against outsiders will develop. Only few lucky ones may then compete to benefit from whatever is left over, after those who are entitled have had their full. In the context of South Sudanese ethnically diverse society this is untenable and a recipe for hate, simmering conflicts that may subsequently erupt into violence. The implication is that until corruption, nepotism and tribalism is seen as a fundamental national problem that is honestly discussed incorporated in South Sudan’s vernacular, solutions are less likely to be deliberated and found. In turn this will remain to impede and erode any efforts to overcome this serious national problem, and thereby undermining the creation of a viable, peaceful, just and prosperous state in South Sudan.

Against this background, it is important to note several things. The conditions conducive to such violent polarization of politics across ethnicities in South Sudan though the making of South Sudanese themselves, also found comfort in the confines of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) process. Though the CPA process which was spearheaded by the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD) was meant to address the underlying causes of the civil war in the Sudan, it evidently ultimately failed as the current violent crisis betray and as elaborated above.

It will therefore be yet another occasion of absurdity if the same CPA mistake is replicated and not much is learned from past inadequacies of the process that have led South Sudan to the current violent quagmire. A starting point is for the IGAD fellows tasked with mediating current crisis to for once begin to be informed and appreciate the South Sudanese ethnically divided socio-cultural nitty-gritty. While ceasefire is yet to be reached, one would hope that this time the peace negotiators will be mindful that South Sudan is not just about Dinka and Nuer. There are more than two hundred other minority ethnic groups in South Sudan that must be recognized and included in any meaningful peace process.

For the current peace talks to make any sense for lasting peace in South Sudan the process must be all inclusive and all South Sudanese conflict stakeholders must be represented in the negotiating table. Obviously it will be a miracle if such an inclusive consideration process comes to bear while conflict management involving mostly state actors yet again drives the current political settlement to current South Sudan’s violent crisis in Addis Ababa. But who said that Jesus did not walk on water?!

Tongun Lo Loyuong is an American educated conflict and peace policy analyst. He is reachable at [email protected]; and can be followed on twitter @TongunLoLoyuong. Numerous other food for thought and intellectual exercise on South Sudan’s issues can be found at:

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