I am not South Sudanese. In fact, I have never been to Africa. While I have friends from that continent and have certainly been involved with some good South Sudanese friends due to my work with Deng Atem both on Ramciel Magazine and his memoir, Jumping Over the Ram, this is the first time that I am publicly voicing my own views on South Sudan and beyond that on Africa. Hopefully, my perspective will offer something fresh to the discussions and some meaningful ideas that might be of use.
The first thing that an outsider sees in the current situation in Sudan is the residual of colonialism. Sudan is a hodgepodge country, a mosaic created first by the Ottomans and then solidified by the British. To say that it is an Arab state is similar to saying that South Sudan is a cow-oriented society. Yes, the two biggest groups in Sudan are Arabs, but they are not the same; in fact, they have a history or rivalry, just as the Nuer and Dinka (and yes, some others) are cow-raisers but they are not friends.
The Arabs of Darfur and the Arabs of Eastern Sudan are not allies but rivals. For years, the Eastern Arabs played the Darfurians by allowing them to terrorize their tribal neighbors. When the South Sudanese had had enough of Khartoum’s shenanigans and started fighting back, the two Arab groups found common cause. Just as the Dinka and Nuer found a common cause in seeking independence.
Now, the rivalry between the two Arab communities is heating up. And, just to get some perspective, let’s recognize that much of the heat is being supplied by the rivalry between two new colonial powers, Russia and China. In Darfur, the Russians, guised as the Wagner Group, have a great investment in obtaining gold, gold with which to maintain the Russian offense against the dollar and Western Sanctions. In the East, China wants to continue the flow of Sudanese (South and North) oil, but more importantly to create and increase Beijing’s investments so as to have a financial hold on the region, a hold with which they can challenge Kenya with its greater British/American orientation.
One of the reasons that the conflict in Sudan has become so fiery is that the Darfurians now have money with which to buy weapons, money from that gold. In the end, just as has happened with the oil, the wealth of Africa is too often turned into weapons rather than development. One of the first lessons of the current fighting in Sudan from my perspective is that unless old rivalries can be put aside by a common interest, money only adds to the suffering of the region. Which leads to a corollary: The development of a mutually beneficial economy is absolutely necessary for a country, especially a country like South Sudan with its history of tribal rivalries.
Another clear lesson is that the interests of the great powers are not necessarily consistent with what is best for an African nation. No matter how well-meaning the rich countries may be—and some actually are—it is up to each nation of Africa to set its own course and utilize its resources for the betterment of its people, all of them. One of the mistakes that often comes from listening to the developed nations is the belief that there is a zero-sum game to be played, that if one region or tribe gets more then it follows that the others must get less. In fact, the goal should be more for everyone.
The next lesson is that in a hodgepodge mosaic country such as Sudan or South Sudan, a political system must be created that gives assurance of equity and fairness. From the perspective of South Sudan, it is easy to see how badly the tribal communities of Sudan have been treated, especially those in Darfur and the Nubians. I am sure that were I writing from Khartoum’s point of view I would be saying something similar about the smaller tribes of South Sudan that are caught between the rivaling Dinka and Nuer. Part of the inherent distortion of colonialism is that traditional tribal and ethnic identities are to be washed away—except when it serves the colonial government to maintain rivalries. Traditional religions are to be undermined. Customs are to be replaced by bureaucracy. If a central government is to bring prosperity to all it will be a government that represents all communities and gives them all recognition and a voice. This means coming up with new constitutions, ones that find a middle ground between what has worked for countries like the United States, Great Britain, Norway, or Israel and ones that reflect the more divided populations of such African states. Perhaps, more attention should be given to the governments of the native North Americans before the incursion of the Europeans.
In no way is this last point clearer than the locations of both Sudan and South Sudan’s capitals. For Sudan, the location of Khartoum makes some sense since unquestionably the juncture of the two Niles is a central geographic feature of the nation. However, the reality is that the Nile divides the country. Were I designing the government of Sudan, I would suggest creating alternating or moving capitals so that the inherent east-west conflict of the country would be lessened. Interestingly, some of the Sudanese I have met along the way, refer to Omdurman as the capital in a manner that seems wishful to me. Perhaps they are addressing the same sense that I have that the colonial powers artificially divided the country.
In South Sudan, the use of Juba makes no sense for the nation. Way off in a corner, that city has little to do with the overall economy or social flow of the country. It made sense for a colonial power, one that was preoccupied with controlling the Nile, or at least one branch of it. But for the people of South Sudan, it is at best a poor choice. Interestingly, the founders of South Sudan recognized that reality and planned the building of Ramciel, a city that is as yet only a great idea.
If the above are some takeaways from the current crisis in Sudan, what exactly should South Sudan be doing in the face of this ongoing conflict?
Recently, Deng Atem, who is currently in South Sudan talked with me about a dog, a stray, that was sitting in the middle of the road and quite simply ignoring the traffic. Deng wondered if the pathetic animal was perhaps suicidal. My take was that it had reached a sense of apathy, of helpless resignation. Currently, the government of South Sudan is like that dog, sitting, not knowing or perhaps caring what to do, as the crisis unfolds to the north. What should Juba be doing?
There are three parts to the ongoing challenge to Juba. The first is in the Abyei Area and is spilling over into Northern Bar el Ghazel. There, despite the United Nations’ proposed role of dividing factions, many Dinka, feeling threatened, have pushed south of the border and into South Sudan proper thereby creating hard feelings and conflict. The second is the pressure being put on Juba by Khartoum demanding in effect that Sudan have a primary say in South Sudan’s policies if the oil exports are to continue. While this puts Khartoum at some odds with Beijing, there can be no question that the Chinese government has assented to this strong-arming tactic, a tactic to which Juba has so far succumbed. The third issue is the well-being of other tribal peoples who live within the borders of Sudan. Should Juba play a hand in helping those people and what might that role be?
All three of these pressure points come down to one larger question: Does the government of South Sudan believe as an independent nation? If it does, then Juba must get up on its legs and stop sitting helplessly in the midst of that dusty road.
To begin with, any blockade of petroleum shipments should be considered an abrogation of the revenue sharing agreement and the South Sudanese army should be sent to Abyei to secure the oil fields. Quite simply, it must be clear to Khartoum that South Sudanese sovereignty is real. That said, Juba has no role to play in the conflict between the Arab communities in Sudan. There should be no aid given to either side.
On the other hand, Juba has a clear responsibility along with other countries that include tribal communities to give assistance and succor to the tribal groups in Darfur and Nubia. This assistance should be primarily humanitarian including opening of refugee camps, hopefully with the assistance of the rest of the world. Towards that end, Juba should be particularly engaging with Chad as the other major option for those displaced from Darfur. In addition, Juba should be reaching out to the rest of Africa and to the United Nations to push for a peaceful resolution and for the protection of the tribal communities. Juba needs to stop looking inward and focusing on the needs and concerns of its own divided governance and take a leadership role in the greater struggle for African peace and development.
When it comes to the people currently being displaced in Abyei, Juba should take a direct role in providing them solace and refuge. Instead of intensifying the animosity and stress within the Dinka community of Northern Bar el Ghazel, the government in Juba should be dealing with this essentially international issue. That the president of South Sudan comes from that area of the country and that tribe makes it even clearer that the answer to this problem should be found in Juba.
It is said that the Chinese symbol for crisis is composed of two parts: dangerous and opportunity. The current crisis in Sudan offers a great if dangerous opportunity for the leadership of South Sudan. It provides a moment to reflect both on the needs of the country in and of itself and the place of Juba in world, or at least African, affairs.
Do the people currently claiming to govern in Juba have the courage, the insight, and the will to make use of this dangerous opportunity? That is a question that demands an answer.
By Kenneth Weene