x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Ethnic rivalries mean South Sudan faces challenging birth

Fears are that old rivalries will resurface after southern Sudan's independence as tribes jockey for power and resources in Africa's newest nation.

Boys play football on the dirt airstrip in Boma, one of southern Sudan's centres of ethnic tension.
Boys play football on the dirt airstrip in Boma, one of southern Sudan's centres of ethnic tension.

BOMA // Nainet Locale sat up on the metal-framed hospital bed with his legs stretched out before him. His right leg was covered in a plaster cast; his left was wrapped in bandages. Six days before, he had been shot during a cattle-rustling attack by rival tribesmen.

A farmer and member of the cattle-owning Jie tribe, Mr Locale said he was helping a friend look after his cows when the raid took place.

"We sat down and lit the tobacco pipe," recalled Mr Locale. "We were smoking and then we heard gunfire. He was killed and I was shot."

"It was the Toposa," he added, referring to a neighbouring tribe.

Far from being an isolated incident, such clashes are common across southern Sudan, which is awash with guns left over from decades of war. The region is also plagued by ethnic tension that threatens to undermine efforts to fashion a viable state from this vast swathe of sub-Saharan Africa.

Results released on Monday showed 98.8 per cent of Southern Sudan's voting population chose independence in a week-long referendum in January. Sudan's president, Omar al Bashir, said on Monday that he would accept the referendum results, easing fears that Khartoum would try to block secession and spark a new round of war.

While the enthusiasm of voters embracing self determination is undeniable, many observers point out the massive challenges faced by southern Sudan. Not least of these is creating a political system that provides equal distribution of resources among the region's numerous ethnic groups.

John Mojule, a member of the Bari ethnic minority who is hoping that stability will finally allow him to develop a commercial farming operation, said: "If they don't play their cards right, they will have another civil war on their hands."

During the war, some of the worst atrocities were committed by tribal groups that turned on each other rather than fighting their common enemy in the north. There are concerns that such rivalries could surface again as tribes jockey for political power in a state expected to declare independence on July 9.

Stephen Pande of Justice Africa, a London-based advocacy organisation, said: "When the new political system is set up, it should not take on an ethnic perspective. There is definitely a pronounced ethnocentrism. There will be a lot of political play around resource allocation."

Many experts point to resource allocation as the key to alleviating ethnic rivalries that are exacerbated by poverty. Boma is a case in point. The area lies in the south-eastern corner of Jonglei state, where the French energy giant Total holds massive but unexploited oil reserves. Locals also speak of finding gold nuggets in rivers during the rainy season.

Despite the wealth that lies beneath the ground, Boma is poor. There is no electricity, no running water or mobile phone network; prices are high for foodstuffs, which need to be trucked over punishing roads from Kenya; there is no secondary school and jobs are rare.

With so few opportunities, many people survive by subsistence farming and food aid. For tribes competing for scarce water and grazing land, wealth continues to be accumulated in cows. But herding cattle in an era of gun-toting tribesmen often leads to battles with considerable casualties.

The number of violent incidents rises dramatically in the dry season, according to community leaders including Paul Oleyo Longony, head of the Boma Development Initiative. His organisation tries to resolve tensions in the area by holding meetings with tribal leaders who are invited to raise their grievances and discuss solutions.

But what is really needed is development, Mr Longony said.

He said government and international donors should build dams, which would would create ponds that would retain water during the dry season, decreasing competition between cattle herders.

Mr Longony hopes independence will bring development that has so far failed to reach Boma. He expects the government of an independent southern Sudan to employ locals to build schools, roads and clinics. In the longer term, he said, jobs would come as Jonglei state taps its natural resources and develops agriculture.

"There are going to be a lot of jobs that this new state will create, both from government and private entities," he said.

While such expectations run high throughout southern Sudan, the new government has its work cut out. A UN assessment of the region suggests that 85 per cent of adults are illiterate, one in seven pregnant women die during or before giving birth, and half the population survives on less than $1 (Dh3.70) a day.

Mr Longony warned that building a new nation could not succeed if the government was dominated by the interests of the Dinka and Nuer tribes, which are the most populous. He said the new state must ensure that resources are directed also to areas like Boma, which is home to smaller ethnic groups.

"If it is going to be a fair government, they need to involve the minority groups," he said. "If they are represented, some of the [cattle] raiding and violent clashes will end."