Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Whither the tribe

Over the last weekend 180 individuals were killed in Jonglei state, Southern Sudan. The incident was described in the media as a revenge attack by armed Murle tribesmen against a Luo Nuer village, a delayed response to a round of bloodshed between the two ethnic groups last February when 200 Luo Nuer and 452 Murle were killed in a Luo Nuer assault on a Murle village. In April the Murle attacked a Luo Nuer area leaving 300 dead. Such clashes, described universally as tribal, have left more than 1000 people dead this year, the victims being largely women and children.

Pro-NCP newspapers practically rejoiced at the predicament, arguing that the situation proves the inability of the South to rule itself. SPLM politicians responded with the same argument on its head. A major general in the SPLA accused the central government of providing arms to the militias responsible for the attacks. He said the SPLA was trying to disarm the civilian population however its efforts were being thwarted by the continuous supply of arms supposedly from the North.

In essence, the NCP may well be providing militias in Southern Sudan with weapons, and the Government of Southern Sudan is surely having a rough time managing the legacy of a 22 year long war on its now semi-autonomous territory. However, both possible conditions of the situation are not satisfactory in themselves as an explanation for such a scale of violence, unless one buys in to the notion that Southern Sudan is in fact a constellation of warring tribesmen locked up in demonic pre-history. In that light the self-satisfied, even inert, determination of these outbursts of violence as tribal in nature obscures, even distorts the reality and historicity, I dare say modernity of the situation to justify and excuse combined state failure and an ambiguous intervention in the tradition of colonial maintenance of silent stability/dormant conflict.

The intuitive tribal explanation I claim is false. Murle and Nuer are neither tribesmen in any traditional sense of the word, nor is any party a simple passive tool of NCP conspiracy albeit plausible involvement. The realities of Southern Sudan deserve a better informed investment in understanding, most of all from the Government of Southern Sudan, the responsibility lies on its shoulders. If there is to be an investigation of the violence it can not be one based solely on the administrative rationale of disarmament and crime management. Communities don't battle it out at this cost for the sake of a tribal token. This violence has, no doubt, more superficial causes, the deep and dark notions of tribal animosity are but an ideological imaginative. Instead of tribe a more demanding exercise is needed, one that involves understanding the dynamics of local livelihoods, land ownership and relationships, administrative borders and political patronage systems, demobilisation and reintegration, demography and population movement, displacement and communal organisation, and yes private property, and so on and so forth. What we are witnessing is not the consequence of tribal divides, that is but a shadow of itself, rather the combined effect of war and state building, both are acts of violence - a modern conflict, a detribalised conflict despite appearances.

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This work by Magdi El Gizouli is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.