Southern Sudan: The Quest for National Identity

By Limnyuy Konglim

With the southern Sudanese referendum for independence less than a year away, it is a bit puzzling that the south is not overcome by an overwhelming sense of nationalism. It is true that on the eve of the national elections, the increasing number of independent candidates has fractured southern political parties that were previously utilized as national rallying bases. After decades of war between north and south Sudan, the absence of a distinct and unified southern identity is a deep rooted issue that citizens of south Sudan must overcome in their quest to establish an independent state.

Last year, Refugees International reported on the increase in local conflicts in south Sudan and the threat that it posed to security in the area. Today, as I travel throughout south Sudan, it’s clear that the security situation continues to worsen, ethnic tensions continue to rise, and tribal groups are fracturing from within. The south needs to strengthen its security sector if it will establish itself as a sovereign state, but the importance of national identity should not be minimized or overlooked.

While much of this violence is historical, Refugees International has learned that tribal clashes in the south go beyond the acquisition of cattle, land, and at times, even children. There have been reports of fighting between members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and local communities. This news was quite alarming considering the fact that since the end of the civil war the SPLA has been regarded as south Sudan’s heroes and freedom fighters- but it seems that the honeymoon is over.

The SPLA is currently the first line of civilian defense since police forces are widely considered ineffective by civilians. To their defense, they are rarely paid, under trained, under resourced, and the Government of Southern Sudan has little capacity to do more. Due to these constraints the SPLA has taken on this responsibility, and at times have taxed local communities in order to sustain themselves while deployed in remote and volatile areas. Some local communities have not taken kindly to this since their resources are already stretched thin, and have resisted SPLA authority. Mounting tensions and conflict in south Sudan have also led many community members to acquire weapons for protection. This high proliferation of arms has led the Government of Southern Sudan to employ forced and unbalanced disarmament tactics that have further stoked brewing tensions between the SPLA and certain communities.

Unfortunately, all of this tension is further exacerbated when ethnic identification by local authorities comes into play. Refugees International has learned that some members of the SPLA feel more allegiance to their tribes than to the people of south Sudan as a whole, and are “switching sides” when conflicts erupt. The battle for sparse resources and protection of one’s community supersedes all national identification and it becomes every tribe for itself.

There have even been reported outbreaks of intra-tribal fighting. Late last month, seven people were killed in Lakes State when the Rek Dinka and Gok Dinka ethnic groups fought one another. A short time later, the Gok Dinka attacked the SPLA base in Cueibert town, resulting in the death of seven SPLA members and at least seventeen civilians.

Violence in Sudan is no longer solely an issue between the north and the south and cessation won’t be the quick fix. Long standing grievances as well as the common theory that the north will use local proxies to destabilize the south, all highlight the importance for the citizens of south Sudan to put their personal gripes aside in order to unify and determine their own destiny. In this regards, the formation of a national identity and unity among the people of south Sudan is not only critical for citizens that seek the path to independence and the success of the state, but it may also affect the possibility of an independent state existing at all.

Click here to read our latest report on contingency planning in Southern Sudan.


I think we should not expect

I think we should not expect the entire population of Southern Sudan to feel united and follow a single political direction. Afterall there are about 8 million people, living in a region the size of France. There are approximately 68 ethnic groups in the south, many of which speak different languages. Although everyone living in the South experienced the same 21-year civil war, their experiences are all different: as the 1 million refugees living in either Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, or Canada, Cuba, USA, Australia....), or as the 4 miliion internally displaced people (IDPs) shuffled around within the south or in varying regions of the north of Sudan, or as one of 2 million returnees since 2006 that have returned to a place they have never lived in or have not seen in decades. I think you are correct in concluding that the SPLM post-CPA 'honeymoon' is long over and is less able to rally the southern population against a common foe: Omar al-Bashir's Khartoum government. We must remember that even during the civil war, Khartoum successfully divided the SPLM in the 1990s, by becoming allies with present southern Sudanese vice President Riek Machar's and pitting his SPLM wing against John Garang's main SPLM. Some of the worst fighting of the war took place during this period. This 'divide-and-conquer' tactic is not a new one in warfare, but it seems to have continued in Southern Sudan during times of peace with evidence of Khartoum arming certain groups in the South to foment conflict and portray the regon as ungovernable by GoSS. An article about recent violence in the South can be read at the Enough Project website.