To understand the South Sudan crisis, we must look at the role of politics, not identity



Focusing on racial, religious and ethnic differences is the least satisfactory explanation for decades of conflict

The easiest but least satisfactory explanation of decades of war in Sudan, and now in South Sudan, is to focus on racial, religious and ethnic difference – between Arabs and 'Africans', Muslims and Christians, Nuer and Dinka. Yet ‘identity’ never explains war in and of itself – what is important is how and why identities harden at particular historical moments and how and why they are used to motivate people to fight. Here, we must emphasise the role of politics, and particularly the agency of political and intellectual elites who pursue their ambitions or ideologies via the use, encouragement or licensing of violence.

Sudan, and now South Sudan, has suffered from being governed by a series of predatory, violent states that have repeatedly seeded and hardened division among the various peoples that live within the region. Before the twentieth century, what is now South Sudan was persistently raided by Sudanese and Egyptian states in northern Sudan for slaves. This history of enslavement has never been forgotten.

When the British became the rulers of Sudan, they enforced a line of division between northern and southern Sudan, based on their understanding of local history and their view of racial and religious difference between north and south. When it came to the moment of Sudanese independence in 1956, this legacy of division would prove particularly toxic in ensuring the domination of Sudanese nationalist parties by a small number of ethnic groups from northern Sudan. 

The British also persistently used force and violence to govern the more remote parts of their territory, including Darfur as well as southern Sudan, often arming particular ‘friendly’ ethnic groups to fight their more ‘truculent’ neighbours. These territories were also massively neglected in terms of developmental expenditure: education and literacy was in particularly short supply.

UN vehicles patrol a street lined with looted items awaiting collection
UN peacekeepers in the disputed Abyei area on the border of Sudan and newly-independent South Sudan in 2011. United Nations Photo on Flickr/Stuart Price/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Since independence, wealth and power continued to be concentrated in the Nile Valley of northern Sudan: the political and economic marginalisation of Sudan’s various peripheries motivated rebellion in these regions, which in turn produced further state repression. The scale of state-led and state-licensed violence in 2003-4 in Darfur was termed a genocide by many international and local observers. With the final achievement of South Sudan's independence in 2011 after decades of struggle by southern rebel groups, long-standing rivalries among the rebel leadership exploded in civil war in 2013: once more ethnic identities were violently mobilised to serve the agendas of political elites.

In the final analysis, it is the consistently dysfunctional character of the state in the Sudans, its weak legitimacy, and its frequent recourse to violence as a strategy of control which lies at the root of persistent conflict in the region.


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