THIS is not an article on South Sudan, which is just as well because the conflicts there are almost fractal in their complexity.
The mini-war last weekend between the forces of President Salva Kiir and Vice-President Riek Machar, which killed more than 270 people and saw tanks, artillery and helicopter gunships used in the capital, Juba, is part of a pattern that embraces the whole country.
The four days of heavy fighting began on Friday, July 8, with a disagreement between the two men’s large forces of bodyguards outside State House where they were meeting, and rapidly escalated to an all-out clash between all of Kiir’s and Machar’s troops in the capital. Nobody was surprised, because the peace deal last August, which ended a two-year civil war that killed tens of thousands across the country, was never very secure.
After a shaky ceasefire was agreed, President Kiir said: “Making South Sudan glorious will only happen if we see ourselves as South Sudanese first rather than tribal or political groupings,” which is the sort of thing that leaders are obliged to say after a pointless clash like this. It’s true, too, but in South Sudan it is very hard to do.
Last weekend was the fifth anniversary of South Sudan’s independence from Sudan, but celebrations had already been cancelled before the shooting started because the government couldn’t afford them. The country has some oil but virtually no other exports, and was hard-hit by last year’s collapse in the oil price.
The real reason for its poverty, however, is war: the country that is now South Sudan has been at war for 42 of the past 60 years. British colonialists included it in what we now call Sudan for administrative convenience, but the dominant population in the much bigger northern part was Muslim and Arabic-speaking, while the south was mostly Christian and culturally, ethnically and linguistically African.
The fighting began a year before Sudan’s independence in 1956, with the southerners resisting the Sudanese government’s attempts to Islamise and Arabise their part of the new country. That civil war lasted until 1971, and the second (1983-2005) was even longer. By the time South Sudan finally won its independence in 2011, it had long been a fully militarised society.
It didn’t take long after independence before the two biggest ethnic groups, the Dinka (led by President Salva Kiir) and the Nuer (led by Vice-President Riek Machar) were at each other’s throats. Those are just two of South Sudan’s sixty ethnic groups, each with its own language, culture and territory – and even within the two big ethnic groups, different sub-groups sometimes find themselves on opposite sides of the fighting.
One-fifth of South Sudan’s 12 million people are currently refugees within their country – the lucky ones in United Nations camps, but many hiding in swamps and badlands from local ethnic militias. Kiir and Machar are both brutal, untrustworthy men, and neither is fully in control of his own generals. And the outside organisations that have poured foreign aid and peacekeeping troops into the country are losing patience.
Two Chinese peace-keeping soldiers were killed in the most recent fighting, causing UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to abandon his usual diplomatic caution. “Yet again, the leaders of South Sudan have failed their people,” he said. “Rarely has a country’s conduct squandered so much promise so quickly.”
The current ceasefire may not last: seven others were broken during the course of the recent civil war. South Sudan is unlikely to achieve a lasting peace settlement any time soon. But South Sudan is not representative of sub-Saharan Africa. Out of 48 countries south of the Sahara, only Somalia, Burundi, and South Sudan are currently suffering from large-scale internal violence.
A dozen others have experienced similar upheavals at some point in the past 15 years: sub-Saharan Africa is unique in the extravagant diversity of its population, with two hundred ethnic groups of more than half a million people and only three with over 15 million people. But mostly they manage to co-exist fairly peacefully, and over time broader national identities are being built over the post-colonial wreckage.
The image of a continent ravaged by war is an optical illusion perpetuated by the international media’s fixation with violence. For example, during most of 2014-15 the headline news coming out of Europe, as far as the rest of the world was concerned, was the war in Ukraine – although all of the continent’s other fifty countries were at peace.
South Sudan is desperately unfortunate in its history and its leaders, but it is no more typical of Africa than Ukraine is of Europe.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.