Tribal violence undermines South Sudan's future
South Sudan has officially been at peace since 2005, yet 2,500 people were killed there and 400,000 displaced this year - more than in Darfur.
Crows picked at the last grains near some collapsed silos. A twisted bike lay in the remnants of a burnt-down house. Crops had been torched. Under a fig tree, empty grenade shells bear silent witness to a battle in which women and children were killed, and tens of thousands of civilians sent on the run.
This is not the Darfur region in West Sudan, which has been in a state of war since 2003, but South Sudan, which has officially been at peace since 2005. In the past year hundreds of villages have been burnt-down here, 2,500 people have been killed and 400,000 displaced because of tribal conflicts.
"Everyone in the villages is armed these days. It's frightening," said an aid worker who wished to remain anonymous. "The presence of arms has changed the existing tribal and political conflicts. In South Sudan small children carry arms now; you would never see that in Darfur."
Dinka vs. Mundari
In Gemmeiza, north of South Sudan’s capital of Juba, tribal chief Victor Mangga crouched next to the village's destroyed church. Gemmeiza sits on the banks of the river Nile. Palm trees sway softly in the wind. This area is inhabited by the small Mundari tribe; the much larger Dinka tribe is not far away. Hundreds of displaced people wandered between the burnt-out 'tukuls,' the round clay huts with thatched roofs that are typical for the area.
"We are on the run from the Dinkas," said Anita, a villager. "We sleep under trees, we eat leaves and berries. The politicians negotiated a peace for South Sudan, but the civilians still suffer from the violence."
The conflict between the Dinka and Mundari tribes has already cost more than 40 lives and has displaced 24,000 civilians. All over South Sudan similar tribal conflicts broke out this year, mostly over contested grazing grounds and cattle. The conflicts pit farmers and cattle farmers against each other, but also follow tribal and clan lines.
"The conflict is politically motivated," said John Lado, a civil servant in Gemmeiza. "Where else do the fighters get their bullets? They don't just steal cattle; they also target government buildings. We saw an officer distribute bullets, and a local garrison commander joined in the looting, carrying off a refrigerator."
Destabilising the south
Clement Wani Kongo is the governor of the state of Central Equatoria. He blames the dinkas, "who are trying to take over part of my state." The Dinka are the largest tribe in the area and they are well represented in the autonomous government of South Sudan. "There has always been tribal conflict, but now entire villages are being burnt to the ground and women are being killed. The government is wrong not to act," Wani Kongo said.
Who is the enemy? From 1955 until 2005 the black Africans of South Sudan have intermittently fought the Arabised north. "The Arabs from the north" are routinely blamed for everything that goes wrong in the south, and this time is no exception. Many South Sudanese point the finger at the Sudanese capital Khartoum, saying it is once more trying to destabilise the south. Sudanese president Salva Kirr recently blamed unnamed "politicians" for inciting violence in the south.
But Salva Kirr probably didn't have the north in mind. "When Kirr talks about destabilisation he means southern politicians," said the head of a UN organisation in Juba. "He means vice-president Riek Machar, militia leaders Gabriel Tanginya and Paulino Matib, the renegade politician Lam Akol and many others."
All these southern leaders have in common that, at one point or other during the 1983-2005 war, they collaborated with the northern government forces against the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA), the former southern rebel group that is now in charge in Juba. "Their soldiers were never fully integrated in either the northern or the southern armies; they still take orders from their former leaders during the war," said the UN official.
Elections, referendum coming up
The recent troubles in the south started when world oil prices collapsed at the beginning of 2009. The government in Juba, which is almost entirely dependent on oil, suddenly saw its revenue drop by 40 percent. Civil servants and soldiers went without pay. "Only the former SPLA guerillas in the army managed to get paid through their old connections," said the UN official. "That led to frictions inside the army which spread to the general population."
South Sudan is on the threshold of historic events. In four months time the first free elections ever will be held, followed by a referendum about independence from Khartoum.
"The upcoming elections are causing friction among the politicians and inciting conflict among the population," said government minister Peter Adwok Nyaba.
Nyaba laid the final responsibility at the feet of the South Sudanese government: "The government has failed to solve the ongoing conflicts, and the north is using that situation to its advantage. Under these circumstances, independence for the south will be meaningless."