South Sudan: Why Are People Killing Each Other Again?

With thousands facing starvation in South Sudan, squabbles between rival elements of the country’s political elite have spilled over into ethnic violence, bringing more misery to one of the poorest, most war-torn places on the planet.

South Sudan is the world’s newest country. It’s also one of the most impoverished. In May 2011, what had until then been the largely non-Arab southern province of Sudan declared itself an independent republic, splitting with the Arab-dominated North, and the Arab supremacist government of indicted war criminal Omar Al-Bashir.

It’s hard to think how a fledgling nation could have a worse introduction to independent statehood. Left reeling from the horrifically violent civil war that brought state-sponsored genocide to nearby Darfur, five million South Sudanese had life-threateningly little to eat, and 250,000 were deemed at risk of imminent starvation. One in ten infants expired before their fifth birthday, and mothers were dying in childbirth at a rate higher than anywhere else in the world.

Its economy, arguably the world’s weakest, was desperately dependent on selling cash crops and oil, and its national infrastructure was practically non-existent – huge swathes of the population were without power or running water let alone healthcare or education (literacy rates are atrocious), and there were about 35 miles of paved road in the entire country.

And now, just two years into the nation’s crisis-plagued existence, people are killing each other again.

The first sign of trouble emerged in July, when Salva Kiir, South Sudan’s President and leader of the ruling Sudan’s People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), fired his entire cabinet. Vice President Riek Machar, who also got the sack, attacked the move as a step towards dictatorship, and announced his intention to challenge Kiir for the SPLM leadership.

It wasn’t long before the dispute went from being about personality politics to ethnicity. President Kiir is a Dinka, the largest of South Sudan’s ethnic groups. Vice-President Machar is a Nuer, the second largest. The two haven’t got a great track record when it comes to peaceful coexistence – in the 1990s, while the cross-ethnic SPLM was supposedly fighting for freedom against the north, internal relations broke down, and a Nuer splinter group calling itself the White Army massacred 2,000 Dinkas.

Fast-forward to December 2013, and Machar and other opposition figures threatened to boycott future meetings of the SPLM’s National Liberation Council in protest at President Kiir’s leadership. In response, Kiir tried to have all Nuer members of his Presidential Guard disarmed, claiming they and Machar were planning a coup against him. The Nuer troops resisted, and violence ensued.

Ever-simmering Neur-Dinka tensions suddenly boiled over. Dinka troops rampaged through Nuer areas of Juba, the South Sudanese capital, looting homes and shooting people on the spot. Then, startlingly quickly, unrest went country-wide. Nuer and other non-Dinka militias began retaliating against Dinka communities. Two Indian peacekeepers were killed trying to protect unarmed Dinkas from a two thousand-strong mob of armed youths. And as Nuer rebel groups loyal to Machar began seizing key towns and cities, ethnic in-fighting wobbled on the brink of civil war.

How could a relatively trivial political tiff ignite nationwide ethnic meltdown? And, more fundamentally, why do situations like these keep happening in Africa?

Privately, even a lot of well-meaning, scrupulously PC Westerners will admit to believing that it’s because African people are just inherently violent and sectarian – that it’s something ‘in the genes’.

Obviously, butchering your neighbours is no more inherently ‘African’ than cluster-bombing villages is inherently American. But people have an unfortunate tendency to avoid hunting for answers they know will uncomfortably challenge their view of the world.


Grimly often, Westerners look out at the world and assume that their customs, religions, forms of political organisation and general way of doing things amount to some kind of global default setting – that, in this case, big European-style nation-states are just the obvious, natural way of structuring societies.

In Africa, many societies developed along a different route. They were much smaller, much more locally focused and, as a result, there were a lot more of them. They hadn’t developed a lot of the technologies Europeans had – something a tech-fanatic West sees as proof positive of their inferiority – but, on the other hand, they weren’t anywhere near as staggeringly unequal or destructive to their environment either. These weren’t pre-modern utopias by any stretch of the imagination – irrational prejudice and chauvinism were often rampant. But they were very different to anything found in Europe.

There were still some indigenous African kingdoms, empires and the like. But hundreds of thousands of people across the continent identified with their village, a small group of villages, or an extended network of family and friends rather than any overarching geographical unit. This was the case in what we now call South Sudan – the Dinka people and the Nuer people were loose federations of cattle-rearing clans.

Then Empire arrived. Big, bad European Empire, not the relatively small, home-grown affairs that had occasionally cropped up in the past, especially in Islamic north-west Africa. The Great Powers carved up the continent, drawing arbitrary borders that paid no attention to indigenous social and political structures, and then set about exploiting their new imperial possessions for all they were worth. The first most people heard about being Congolese or Nigerian or French West African was when a white man with a gun and a pith helmet came and told them.

After 1899, Sudan was effectively British – it was technically part of the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, a flimsy power-sharing agreement-cum-proto PR exercise, but it was very obvious who was in charge.

By this stage, the British were well-versed in the divide-and-rule subjugation techniques they and other powers had practised to perfection across the continent. If your aim is to steal land and resources right from under an area’s indigenous population, you need to subdue that population as quickly and efficiently as possible or face them kicking up a time-consuming fuss.

In case after case, colonial powers achieved this by setting the locals against each other – making sure the subjugated were too busy squabbling to unite against their common enemy.

It wasn’t just a Machiavellian political strategy, though. We accuse ‘Africans’ of being fanatical about ethnicity. If they are, they got it from us. The British were genuinely fixated with race, reflecting the crude social Darwinism that underpinned much imperial thinking. Rather than seeing Sudan’s multiple ethnicities as a jumble of largely man-made cultural identities, they saw the various groupings as being profoundly different from one another at a genetic and biological level.

First, they split Sudan in half. They ploughed money for health, education and economic modernisation into the Arab north, believing it to be culturally and ethnically superior to the ‘backward’ south. They purposely exacerbated north-south tensions, instilling the idea that that the two groups were fundamentally, incompatibly different. And, unsurprisingly, the north came to despise the south, seeing it as savage and inferior, while the south bitterly envied the north.

When the heavily-armed white men keeping the two sides apart eventually left, the result was a half-century of civil war, thousands of deaths and genocide in Darfur. Imperialism left similar disasters waiting to happen all across Africa – perhaps most notably in Rwanda.

The south itself received radically different treatment. Before empire, relations between the Nuer, the Dinka and the various other south Sudanese ethnic groups were relatively harmonious. They had a lot in common – their languages and belief systems were quite similar. There were occasional clashes, and cattle raids were a part of everyday life. But, ultimately, these identities were fluid – Nuers and Dinkas mixed, made friends, sometimes even got married.

But under British rule, they were turned into rigid, compartmentalised tribes – Dinkas had to stick with Dinkas and Nuers with Nuers. Dinka villages were forcibly separated from Nuer ones by barren stretches of no man’s land. When the inhabitants tried to build on these British-policed no-go areas, their houses were dismantled. Some particularly zealous imperial foot soldiers suggested burning them down.

And so, over time, what ethnic group you belonged to became the be all and end all of south Sudanese life. Artificially separated from one and other, Nuer and Dinkas began to look at each other with suspicion. Gradually, one group became dehumanised in the eyes of the other. They were reduced to a name, a faceless ‘them over there’.

Once, the two had been neighbours, sometimes rivals, sometimes friends, but rarely openly hostile to one another. Their new unnatural isolation proved to be the perfect breeding ground for paranoia and inter-ethnic grievances. Distrust turned to prejudice which, in some cases, turned to irrational hatred.


Unfortunately, when things go wrong in people’s lives, there’s a human tendency to look for someone to blame, to lash out at it in revenge. And in a world that’s often bafflingly complex, and where the truth is frequently far from obvious, it’s easier and more emotionally satisfying to blame something or someone concrete,  a person that you know or a group you live near, rather than some invisible force you can’t understand. It’s why British people are so easily duped into blaming powerless immigrants and benefit claimants for their woes rather than an economic system run for and by a rich elite. Throw in the ludicrous inequality generated by said economic system, and people become bitterly angry at the assumption that other people are doing ‘better’ than them, possibly at their expense.

This, tragically, is what has happened in post-colonial Africa. Subjected to ever-more extreme and unregulated forms of neoliberal capitalism by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other rich Westerner-dominated international bodies, the continent has become extremely unequal.

‘Losing out’ in Africa isn’t about getting less pay, or losing your job. Horribly often, being at the bottom means starving to death, which adds a particular violent urgency to the daily fight for survival. Sustained poverty creates a constant tension. It only takes the tiniest suggestion that the other team might be screwing your team over or somehow threatening your chances of survival for people to lash out with desperate force.

And this, ultimately, is what lies behind the current crisis in South Sudan. The British turned the Nuer and the Dinkas against one another. Once they’d left, the two groups were able to establish a shaky truce while they fought against a common enemy, the Arab north, who the British had entrusted with the keys to the government on the way out.

With independence, that unifying bogeyman was gone. And when a Dinka President sacked his cabinet, used his Dinka bodyguards to disarm Nuer soldiers loyal to the Nuer Vice President, he lobbed a figurative match into a century’s worth of pent-up bitterness and suspicion. Ingrained prejudices one side harboured about the other were suddenly ‘proved’ right, and both sides responded with desperate violence – feeling that if they didn’t strike first, the opposition would and wipe them out.

That’s how you end up with a situation where members of one meaningless group can fill a police cell full of hundreds of members of another meaningless group who are fundamentally the same and then machine-gun them through the bars.

Where we’re at now.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been forced out of their homes by the continuing violence. Aid agencies are feeding and watering them, but, as ever, the task facing them is enormous, and the feeble South Sudanese state can do little to help them.

Neighbouring countries, themselves largely impoverished – Uganda, Ethiopia and others – are having to cope with waves of South Sudanese refugees fleeing the violence. Both inside South Sudan and beyond its borders, ramshackle displaced persons’ camps are running desperately short of clean drinking water and basic medical equipment.

It can be fairly safely assumed that Western governments will make their usual paltry contributions, and the bulk of aid will have to come out of the pockets of generous members of the public. That glaring injustice aside, it’s money that’s desperately needed, and if anyone had a bit spare, you can donate to Oxfam’s South Sudan appeal here.

As for the future, not just of South Sudan but of all African countries wracked by ethnic violence, a long-term solution is only going to arise from education – getting to kids when they’re young, and teaching them that the cultural divisions their parents’ and grandparents’ generation had hardwired into them are arbitrary and meaningless. That, and the rich world-sponsored wholesale socioeconomic reconstruction of the continent, but that’s a political conundrum for another day.