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Does ethnicity matter in South Sudan's conflict?

By: Amir Idris

January 16, 2014 - The simple answer to that question is an obvious 'yes'. But that answer does not explain the intersection of politics, ethnicity, and conflict in South Sudan. After all, South Sudan, like other African postcolonial states, is composed of people belonging to a variety of ethnic groups. The term ethnicity acknowledges the place of history and language into the making of identity. Ethnicity emerge as a powerful factor in South Sudan politics not, as many commentators on South Sudan affairs assume, because of the traditions it embodies but because of the politicization of ethnicity. Although ethnicity in African politics is commonly associated with negative connotations, it can also play a constructive role in a post-conflict situation if the state is reformed. The role of the state is to engage with ethnicities rather than favor some, or exclude others. The type of state and the behavior and action of its leadership influence and shape the manner in which different ethnic groups interact and operate in a shared space such as South Sudan.

The ongoing deadly violence in South Sudan is neither ethnic nor cultural. It is a political one triggered by the failure of political elites who failed to reconcile their narrow vested political and economic interests. The root causes of the conflict are deeply embedded in the structures of the postcolonial state. The ethnically driven violence has nothing to do with the existence of various ethnic groups in the country. It is not only the politicization of ethnicity and the manipulation of ethnic differences and belongings but also the manner in which members of the society respond to the politicization of their ethnic groups which leads to ethnically driven violence.

Political independence of South Sudan has uncovered buried ethnic sentiments among South Sudanese. The long decades of the national liberation struggle prevented South Sudan from looking into its soul to discover its own societal ills. The task of self-reflection and criticism had not been accomplished prior to the declaration of political independence. Instead of moving away from the illusion of tribalism and ethnicity, the political elites of South Sudan reshaped the basis of government. They substituted 'African' racial identity for a multiplicity of ethnicities. The ethnic differences invented by the colonial policy of indirect rule were frozen and maintained by the Government of South Sudan as a political goal. It served as the formal basis for granting or denying access to political and economic power.

Instead of cultivating a common national belonging to the new state, the political elites began to think of themselves as ethnic beings. They forgot that leadership is about the quality of an individual's behavior and vision. The success of the national liberation movement during the struggle against the North rested on a visionary leadership committed to an ethnically inclusive society. Shortly before independence, ethnicity and regionalism replaced the inclusive vision of the liberation struggle. In turn, in presenting their political program to win seats and secure access to public resources, political elites relied heavily on their ethnicities. The institutionalization of ethnicity as a powerful tool for access to public resources and political power has indeed corrupted the state and the society in South Sudan. Ethnicity and loyalty became more valuable than merit and qualification. For instance, securing a job can be difficult if the person belongs to the wrong ethnic group. The popular perception among many South Sudanese is that hiring decisions and promotion prospects are linked to a person's ethnic identity. Such perceptions of ethnic group favoritism are even more common when it comes to resources controlled by the government.

It has been commonly viewed that people from the President's region or state benefited more than people from other parts of the country. The President is also believed to favor members of his own ethnic group, especially his extended family when it comes to making governmental appointments. Even though there are some ministerial positions that have been given to individuals from other groups including minorities, these individuals are not influential in the decision making process. The perception that the President favors members of his own ethnic group or extended family goes beyond the cabinet to include the people that he appoints as diplomats, judges, heads of commissions, senior universities administrators.

In response to the institutionalization of ethnic favoritism at the top level of government, other public office holders that the President appoints will also favor their fellow ethnic group members. They are expected to provide special treatment for their fellow group members. In turn, the entire society begins to see these kinds of administrative behaviors and actions as norms. Hence, people begin to assume that having a member of their own ethnic group in a position of power will increase their access to public resources. The current rise of ethnic and regional sentiments in South Sudan represents a direct response to the government's policies and attitudes toward the excluded and marginalized ethnic groups.

Therefore, ethnicity does matter in South Sudan's conflict but not because the people of South Sudan do not cherish the value of cultivating a national identity, but the political elites have turned ethnicity into a powerful tool to secure public resources and political power. It is a response to the manner in which the leadership of the state operates. Can we expect the state to function as a neutral institution speaking a civic language instead of an ethnic one? Finding a lasting political settlement in South Sudan cannot rest solely on addressing the political, economic, and security issues which were identified by the two warring parties. The ongoing peace process on South Sudan's conflict has to consider issues of ethnicity, politics, and belonging. Efforts have to be made to engage the state and society in a conversation about the role of ethnicity in politics. Ethnic differences are not necessarily a source of conflict. Rather, the translation of ethnic differences into political ones leads to conflict. Therefore, to avoid the reoccurrence of political violence, South Sudanese political leaders need to acknowledge the mistakes of the past by searching for a new mechanism that allows them to reconcile their ethnic and national belongings.

Amir Idris is Professor and Chair of Department of African and African American Studies at Fordham University, New York City, USA. He can be reached at idris@fordham.edu

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Publication:Sudan Tribune (Sudan)
Date:Jan 17, 2015
Words:1067
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