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Ethnicity in South Sudan

South Sudan 4-24

By Elliott Levitt

South Sudan has been plagued with conflict since gaining independence in 2011. Disputes with Sudan over the oil-rich region of Abyei and other disagreements on oil revenues initially kept the Sudanese and South Sudanese governments preoccupied for much of the first two years following their separation. This led to a shutdown of oil transport which severely impacted both countries’ economies. Thankfully, peace talks in Ethiopia led to a ceasefire, and both governments signed deals on trade, oil, and security. However, before there was time for the South Sudanese government to rebuild, ethnic tensions within the country broke out into serious fighting. Now, rebel groups have been implicated in massacres and, according to a UN report, were responsible for killing hundreds of civilians as they took over the town of Bentiu, located in Unity State in the north.

The internal conflict has an ethnic base, but that is certainly not the entire story. The UN report claims that some rebel leaders “broadcast hate messages declaring that certain ethnic groups should not stay in Bentiu and even calling on men from one community to commit vengeful sexual violence against women from another community”.[1]  The rebel group initially formed when former Vice-President, Riek Machar, was kicked out of office after he was accused “of plotting to stage a coup”. Machar is an ethnic Nuer, and President Salva Kir is an ethnic Dinka.

Based on the location of where most of the conflict has taken place, control of the oil-rich regions seems to be the real motivation behind the ethnic strife. Machar may be encouraginging ethnic identities in order to boost the effectiveness of his rebellion. The BBC claims “politicians’ political bases are often ethnic”, meaning a power struggle would take on ethnic dimensions even if its initial causes were unrelated to ethnicity.[2]

Ethnic divisions are often one of the biggest problems when trying to create functioning democracies. If people identify with their ethnicity instead of with their nation, they are more likely to vote in alignment with their ethnicity. Politicians then reward their ethnicity for votes and ignore other ethnicities. Solving this problem can be extremely difficult. During my time in Rwanda, it became apparent that the government’s no tolerance policy for recognizing ethnicity made it difficult for social change because groups who have been ignored and oppressed because of their ethnicity could no longer ask for redistribution of wealth in their favor. For example, the Twa people are Rwanda’s most impoverished group, but because the new Rwanda no longer allows for ethnic identification, there is no room for the Twa to ask for targeted funds to improve their circumstances.

Tanzania presents an interesting case study because although it is home to over 260 different groups, ethnic conflict has never arisen in the country. According to one scholar, this is the result of several policy decisions made by the post-independence government. The administration made Kiswahili the national language, and banned ethnic terms. This “contributed to the widespread nationalistic sentiment and stability since independence”. Since these policies were enacted quickly after independence, Tanzania did not fall into the ethnic power struggle cycles that plague so many other nations in East Africa.[3]

It is too late for South Sudan to implement the policies that made Tanzania so successful, but some voices are calling for ethnic identities to be left behind. Right now, there is little hope for the conflict ending anytime soon. However, if peace talks do occur, they will present an opportunity for rebel leader Machar and President Salva Kir to bring stability back to South Sudan and to unify across ethnic lines. This could save thousands of lives in the short and long-term and would greatly improve South Sudan’s potential development.


[2] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-27116409

[3] http://depts.washington.edu/jsjweb/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/JSJWEBv3n1.Erickson.A.pdf

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