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A history of almost four decades of conflict culminated in South Sudan achieving autonomy from Sudan. The expectation was that an autonomous Sudan would be a peaceful nation. However, the violence that broke out in South Sudan in 2013 brought a new dimension into this persisting Sub-Saharan conflict. The new conflict consists of political disputes that are intertwined with ethnic and political issues. In the past, there have been a few attempts to associate social anthropology and policies in South Sudan. This anthropological association begins with the colonial era, post-colonial developments, and lengthy conflicts about resources. Various scholars have attempted to form the missing link between the conflict in Sudan and cultural issues. This paper is a report on the situation in South Sudan from a historical and current events standpoint. The paper will also curve out an anthropological perspective from the situation in South Sudan in a bid to explain why this conflict has persisted.
Environment and Natural History
Geographically, South Sudan is a landlocked country that is situated in the Northern part of Africa. The country’s vast geographical area borders six other East African countries. The White Nile also passes through South Sudan including the country’s capital city, Juba. The country has a large and complex eco-system that includes wetlands, grasslands, national parks, escarpments, woodlands, deserts, and rivers. Currently, the country has a population of close to ten million people, although there has not been an official census to confirm these statistics. One of the most notable aspects of South Sudan is the country’s lack of basic infrastructure (Deng, 2011).
Decades of conflict have left the country virtually without development. Currently, South Sudan has close to five million refugees and internally displaced persons, most of whom live in camps across the country and in the neighboring countries of East Africa. Dinka is the most dominant ethnic group in the multi-ethnic country followed by the Neur, Bari, Azande, and Shilluk. Most of the country’s social and institutional systems mimic those of their neighboring country Kenya, as opposed to those of Sudan. Although the country’s official language is English, there are approximately 50 indigenous languages in Kenya. On the other hand, the country’s policies have been aimed towards a shift from Arabic to Swahili in a bid to fit the country into the East African Community.
The Pre-Colonial Era
In the pre-colonial era, South Sudan has never had a legitimate connection to the geographical area of Northern Sudan. The two regions were only united by the ambitions of the Ottoman Empire. Consequently, in the pre-colonial times, South Sudan has gone from being part of Mahdist, Anglo-Egyptian, and British regions (Middleton & O’keefe, 2006). The earliest forms of civilization in Sudan consist of Kush Kingdoms, which were constantly in conflict with Arabic Egyptian Kingdoms. Christianity’s influence in South Sudan dates back to medieval times. Nevertheless, for a long time, South Sudan formed a major passage for pilgrims to the Hajj. The interactions between the dominant North and the traditional South started in the 1800s. Prior to the nineteenth century, most of the native South Sudanese tribes had limited contact with the North and the rest of the world. Furthermore, most of the area that is now South Sudan remained protected by swamps, rivers, and mountains.
The Colonial Era
Colonization of South Sudan first occurred under the Turko-Egyptian rule, which took place from 1820 to 1882. Under this regime, Sudan’s way of life involved trade in slaves, ostrich feathers, and ivory. This regime also marks the beginning of the Northern exploitation of the Southern regions. The rulers were able to penetrate the traditional non-Islamic and non-Arabic South Sudan by successfully forming trade routes and pushing the current borders towards East Africa. The Turkiyya was unpleasant for South Sudan mostly because of its hunger for the slave trade (Middleton & O’keefe, 2006).
The next colonial invasion of South Sudan occurred under Britain. However, the British first concentrated their attention on the North, where they built infrastructure and social amenities in a bid to capitalize on the resources of the White Nile. Initially, Britain governed the North and South using separate borders that were instituted in 1922. This system of colonization segregated the South from the North. Consequently, South Sudan’s provinces “were largely ignored in terms of social and economic development and the few social services such as schools and clinics that were available, were provided by Christian missionaries for the most part” (Collins, 2008).
A controversial policy that was known as the “Southern Policy” initially severed partnerships between Sudan and South Sudan. This legislation prevented those in the North from venturing into the South and forced most of the Arab merchants to leave. On the other hand, “native Southerners were prohibited to travel or seek employment in the North” (Kebbede, 1997, p. 3). Another impact of the British colonization in South Sudan was the shift of the official language from Arabic to English. The main goal of the colonial powers was to integrate South Sudan with the British East African Federation, in a bid to harness the resources of the region.
Independence and After
The “Southern Policy” was reversed a few years before Sudan was granted independence amid opposition by the residents of the South. Britain nullified the restrictions that had been imposed through the “Southern Policy” thereby ignoring the concerns of the Southerners while fulfilling all the demands of the Northerners. The reversal of the policy brought significant shocks to the South including the imposition of the Arabic language and domination of Northern Arabs in both government institutions and private commerce. South Sudan cited the dishonesty of the northerners in their bid for self-determination. The fears of the southerners were confirmed when northern nationalists locked out the South from self-determination negotiations. Eventually, these issues led to an armed struggle that sought to agitate for secession in 1955 and a full-blown military conflict in 1962.
After Sudan gained independence from Britain, the leaders from the North continued to pursue a process of forceful Islamization and Arabization in South Sudan whereby the identities of the South were suppressed. One of the most adverse effects of post-independence domination by the northerners is that they “closed mission schools and restricted Christian missionaries and later expelled them from the country” (Sharkey, 2008, p. 21). All these developments accelerated the secessionist war in the South with the Anyanya Guerilla becoming the more formidable Southern Sudan Liberation Movement.
An Anthropological Perspective
Over the years, the armed conflict in South Sudan has taken various forms including flaring instances of genocide. To understand the full anthropology of the South Sudanese society, it is important to re-evaluate the assumptions and practices that have fueled the conflict. For instance, policymakers tend to frame their actions based on “flawed situational framing, informing a dominant theory of change that disregarded key elite interests, misjudged the main conflict driver, promoted a culture of appeasement, and obscured symptoms of a deeply rooted crisis of governance” (Natsios, 2012, p. 134).
The assumption was that after independence, South Sudan would develop in an independent and governable nation. However, the general assumptions have undermined smaller ideologies and beliefs that have been the cause of conflict, including prevailing narratives such as the Kuna narrative. Another anthropological cause of the conflict in Sudan is the country’s pre-colonial enmities, which are still reflected in today’s political alignments. The main political opponents in the conflict are President Kiir and Vice President Machar. These individuals come from tribes that have had changes in fortune over the course of history; the Dinka and the Neur. Historically, “the Dinka and the Nuer resulted from resource conflicts among the three cousin groups, provoked by harsh geo-ecology and the need for migratory survival” (Pantuliano, 2006, p.709). These faults of these initial interactions are still relevant in present-day South Sudan. Sudan is not an isolated case as other countries in sub-Saharan Africa have witnessed inter-tribal warfare, such as Uganda, Ethiopia, and Somalia.
The conflict in South Sudan is an example of a clash that has persisted longer than expected. Consequently, the situation in South Sudan has attracted the interest of anthropologists owing to its complexity and ever-changing dynamics. Sudan has experienced a perpetual conflict that has become impossible to solve using political means. Therefore, an anthropological study of the South Sudanese culture is important because it reveals the tribal and policy dynamics that have continuously fuelled violence.
Collins, R. O. (2008). A history of modern Sudan. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Deng, F. M. (2011). War of visions: Conflict of identities in the Sudan. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
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Kebbede, G. (1997). Sudan: The north-south conflict in historical perspective. Contributions in Black Studies, 15(1), 3.
Middleton, N., & O’keefe, P. (2006). Politics, history, & problems of humanitarian assistance in Sudan. Review of African Political Economy, 33(109), 543-559.
Natsios, A. S. (2012). Sudan, South Sudan, and Darfur: What everyone needs to know. Boston, MA: OUP USA.
Pantuliano, S. (2006). Comprehensive peace? An analysis of the evolving tension in Eastern Sudan. Review of African political economy, 33(110), 709-720.
Sharkey, H. J. (2008). Arab identity and ideology in Sudan: The politics of language, ethnicity, and race. African Affairs, 107(426), 21-43.