January 18, 2015 (SSNA) — Oxford dictionary defines tribalism as a behavior or attitude which is based on being loyal to a tribe or other social group; or the state of being organized into tribe or tribes.
By that social definition allow me to add that tribal politics is about the identity of a given group or tribe that is based on common ethnic identity or cultural factors that are used to induce the group into a functioning political unit subtly or in a dynamic pattern.
A tribal grouping although based on a defined or understood interest may have some disagreements on how to express a common purpose but will, likely, ultimately rally behind that common purpose.
Formations of groups or tribes for mere social reasons have some advantages, such as clear communication and the establishment of traditions that are expected to be observed for tranquility and social development.
However, tribal politics always has bold negative side as it creates a barrier between the various other tribes that make up a given societal political constituency in a given country.
The consequences of this is that ascending to or maintaining political power in many instances becomes less about presenting attractive ideas such as visions, principles, policies and programs that are for the welfare of the collective all, but rather about manipulating tribal political alliance.
Groups and individuals therefore concentrate on struggle for influence, position and money, and in most cases play along without concerns about the consequences for cohesiveness and national development, which is being ignored and eroded.
This phenomenon also carries the danger that societies may become oligarchies by default, as an outgrowth of the shifting alliances of tribal leaders.
Thus, groups or individuals with a strong sense of tribal unity and identity can benefit from kin selection behavior such as common property and shared resources.
The tendency of these tribal members to unite against an outside tribe and the ability to act violently and prejudicially against that outside tribe is in this situation likely seen to be boosting the chances of survival in prolonging the reaping of the fruits of that unity of tribal purpose.
South Sudan Crisis
In the light of the above discription one may confidently say the ongoing crisis in South Sudan emanated mainly from the curse of tribal politics.
A group of tribally motivated elites, which became desperate to scapegoat and avoid genuine national issues, unfortunately bent on entrenching dictatorship in order to dominate political power and control the country’s resources at the expense of the rest in the country?
Prior to the 15 December 2013 violence, cues were clearly written on the wall.
This group led by the president of the Republic, chairman of the ruling Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement (SPLM) and commander-in-chief of the organized forces – in government – was driving at it.
General Salva Kiir, in a seemingly mindset which combined tribalism and dictatorship, perfectly concluded his plan by first dismissing reformist leaders from his government and further dismantled organs of the ruling party.
In that he unconstitutionally dissolved the SPLM structures including the Political Bureau (PB) and the National Liberation Council (NLC).
He strangely further declared that only his office survived that unconstitutional undertaking and that the secretariat should singlehandedly report to him. All these he did as the party’s national convention was to be conducted.
Coincidently or by design, his action was more or less a replica of what he previously accused our late chairman of 10 years ago with these remarks.
“The Chairman killed the national Executive Council (NEC) by creating the leadership Council. But there is no provision in the Convention for a ‘Leadership Council’. Does he want to revive the Political Military High Command? The Leadership Council creates a situation where all are directly reporting to the Chairman – including SPLM County Secretaries. When I mentioned these facts, they should not be construed to be my personal or family problems. Those around the Chairman don’t tell him the opinion of the public. The Chairman is everything, from a finance officer to one at the lowest level,” Salva Kiir Mayardit, from the minutes of Rumbek meeting in November 2004 while reconciling with the late chairman, Dr John Garang de Mabior.
As if he was not the same leader who later on became president and administered tribalism as a silent criteria for selections in employments to public and civil service jobs, in which more than 90% of the civil servants at the ministry of finance, for example, came from one tribe; and as if 90% of the culprits and beneficiaries of the infamous Dura Saga were not from his home region, he further accused the late chairman.
“…Corruption, as a result of the lack of structures, has created a lack of accountability which has reached a proportion that will be difficult to eradicate….,” also from the Rumbek meeting.
General Kiir in that meeting also clearly showed that his primary interest and obligation as a leader was to first and foremost look after the welfare of his tribesmen or region when he stunned the same meeting with this anti-nationalistic statement.
“I assure you that the allegation that I am against peace is not true. I am really for peace so that the International Community could rescue our suffering people. People of Bahr El Ghazal have suffered too much from repeated famine and from the Arab militias – and for these reasons I am the first to embrace peace to relief them from suffering,” Salva Kiir.
When in 2013 he felt that he was losing popularity in the Political Bureau as colleagues declared intention to constitutionally contest for his chair, General Kiir went to his home region and uttered tribal remarks in which he asked his kinsmen whether or not they would allow “their leadership to be taken away.”
The answer was a big NO followed by an assurance that the homeboys would defend “their” leadership with bloody iron fist.
From that moment he relentlessly continued to play up threats against the Nuer community from which a leading reformist and challenger, Dr Riek Machar, hails.
Immediate recruitment of tribal private militias was then entrusted to the then governor of Northern Bahr el Ghazal state, Paul Malong Awan.
The recruitments ensued in the president’s regional states of Warrap and Northern Bahr el Ghazal without the knowledge and consent of the then army’s Chief of General Staff, General James Hoth Mai.
This is the private militia group which teamed up with the presidential guards and carried out the targeted massacre of Nuer unarmed civilians in the capital, Juba.
General Awan was later on given the new task as army chief in recognition of his role in the recruitments of the tribal militia group and the subsequent massacre.
Thousands of the Nuer civilians butchered inside their houses and in the streets of Juba for many days knew nothing or had nothing to do with the political debates in the SPLM.
They were simply targeted due to sharing ethnicity with the leader who happened to come from their tribe.
I want to reiterate by underlining that before the 15 December crisis, reformist leaders were much concerned about the prevailing state of tribalism, insecurity, corruption, stagnant economy, poor foreign relations and lack of vision and direction in the ruling party.
The leaders were also from different ethnic groups, of whom members from the Dinka tribe were the majority.
However, the ongoing challenge to democracy in South Sudan is not the prevalence of ethnic diversity, but the use of tribal politics to promote narrow tribal interests. This is tribalism.
This is a worrying trend given its obvious negative consequences. The 15 December tribally motivated violence by Salva Kiir and his accomplices revealed the extent to which tribal forces could deny freedom, democracy and development and quickly plunge the country into civil war.
The regime would argue that their blood tainted administration recognizes inclusivity in ethnicity. But this is just a coated cover on a bitter pill.
It is crystal clear that elite leaders in Juba have exploited tribal loyalty, coupled with the treason of surrendering the country’s partial sovereignty to foreign agents to advance personal gains.
These unsecure leaders also engage in patronage to these foreign agents and continue to dwell on parochial interests at the expense of the suffering masses.
In essence, tribal chauvinism and practices have occupied a vacuum created by lack of strong democratic institutions in the country.
South Sudan needs peace and introduction of various reforms including political reforms under an able leadership so as to build genuine democratic institutions and viable political parties that compete on the basis of ideas, not tribal groupings, as foundations for political platforms and competitions.
There should also be concerted efforts to organize and step up civic education among the populace as well as create a common identity for South Sudanese with the aim to discourage tribalism and dictatorship and instill nationalism and democratic values in the minds of the people.
We should not allow the gains of the decades of our collective struggle for freedom, democracy, justice, equality and prosperity, etc to be swept under the carpet by these unremorseful elite leaders in Juba.
We should be one people, free, secure, equal, prosperous and happy.
The struggle continues…and may God bless South Sudan!
The author is a Spokesperson in the Office of the Chairman, SPLM/SPLA. The opinionated contents in the article are however his personal views. He can be reached at [email protected].