Perspectives on Ethnic Violence in South Sudan

The UN is demanding that ethnic clashes in South Sudan cease:

At least 600 people have reportedly died and unconfirmed reports indicate almost 1,000 others were wounded during clashes between the Murle and Lou Nuer communities in Jonglei, the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) said in a press release.

The attacks have followed large-scale cattle raids – a persistent problem in South Sudan – by members of the two groups which have led to the theft of between 26,000 and 30,000 cattle.

Violent episodes like these have large implications for the world’s newest country. Here are a few perspectives on what the clashes mean.

The New York Times writes that cyclical violence threatens national cohesion and the stability of the country:

In June, just weeks before independence, members of the Nuer and Dinka ethnic groups, two of the country’s largest, teamed up in Jonglei State to attack the Murle there, stealing cattle and killing hundreds of people in what was said to be retaliation for attacks carried out by the Murle.

South Sudanese officials worry that the Murle attack on Thursday was in response to the events in June, and that the tit-for-tat violence could tear at the new nation’s fragile political cohesion.

The Brookings Institution’s John Mutenyo anticipated the challenge of ethnic violence in February, writing that the combination of long-lasting ethnic enmity and weak internal security leaves South Sudan vulnerable to destabilizing conflict:

[One] serious challenge for this young country is the dominance of one tribal group over the rest. South Sudan consists of over 200 ethnic tribes, with the Dinka forming the majority followed by the Nuer. Currently, a great majority of the ruling class and those in key positions in the civil service are Dinkas. This could create a major problem similar to what occurred in Kenya in 2007 when violence broke out after the election and left 1,500 people dead and thousands of people displaced. Unifying different ethnicities continues to be a big problem in South Sudan. For example, in 2009 ethnic violence in the South, which was allegedly sponsored by North Sudan, left over 2,500 people dead.

The threat of ethnic violence coupled with an inexperienced and fragmented army, and political rivalry among the Southern Sudanese politicians, could provoke further chaos in the South Sudan. Unless democratic institutions are put in place quickly and the government is able to evenly distribute resources and benefits across different ethnicities, violence and chaos could be a definite possibility.

Finally, the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Richard Downie (.pdf, page 17) notes that ethnicity is only one factor in causing conflict. Downie, more pessimistic even than the other authors quoted here, writes that violence cannot be entirely prevented, but rather only contained, in the coming years. He says that both the state and traditional authorities have a role to play in preventing and managing conflict, but that neither force has the capacity to completely restrain violent actors.

As these pieces show, concerns about ethnic violence in South Sudan are not new. Now that independence has come, though, many people inside South Sudan (including rebels and ethnic fighters) and outside the country are watching to see how – and whether – the government will deal with cyclical conflict.



One thought on “Perspectives on Ethnic Violence in South Sudan

  1. I strongly encourage anyone who is interested in Sudanese issues to read Richard Cockett’s excellent book, Sudan: Darfur and the Failure of an African State.
    I can’t say enough good things about it honestly.

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