When Valerie Amos, the United Nations emergency relief co-ordinator visited the UN compound in Malakal, which serves as a refugee camp, she was confronted with a situation described as “unbelievably dire circumstances”. “When we spoke to people they said they’d completely lost faith, they actually wanted to leave altogether, or go to other parts of South Sudan or leave the country,” she told Associated Press (AP January 30, 2014).
This appears to be the wish of hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese, especially ethnic Nuers, who have been internally displaced across the country as a result of the civil war that broke out in December 15, 2013. The BBC’s Andrew Harding also quoted a student he met at a refugee camp in Juba saying, "Outside the compound people - Nuers - are still being killed day and night. We want to relocate this camp to another country - Ethiopia or Sudan." (BBC January 24, 2014).
It is a twist of fate that a people who had three years ago voted almost unanimously for the birth of the world’s newest nation are now praying to flee the country to elsewhere including Sudan! South Sudanese overwhelmingly voted, about 99%, for secession from Sudan in the independence referendum held between January 9 and 15, 2011. As a result South Sudan officially became a sovereign country on July 9, 2011. Many South Sudanese voted to leave Sudan not only to be part of history but also to begin a new life, of course with high hopes and aspirations.
Unresolved national question
But why has the country quickly moved into the verge of implosion? In an article reviewing the independence of the country, we wrote:“From the history of countries that got independence or freedom from the efforts of ‘liberation army’, this one-sided referendum is prophetical of what could happen for a long time in South Sudan. The country will be mostly run on the basis of one-party system and if election is conducted it would be just to ‘legalise’ the continued rule of SPLM, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. The opposition and democratic rights may be suppressed because the ‘liberators’ would see themselves as the only competent hands to rule the country. Such scenario is impregnated with a time bomb as the new country is not ethnically homogeneous, it is multi-ethnic. Therefore, the creation of South Sudan is not an automatic resolution of national question or enthronement of lasting peace in the country. The ruling elites of different ethnic groups, in the struggle for political power in order to gain access to oil revenue or the collective wealth of the country may play up the division and lie the people of their ethnic group behind themselves for their self-serving end.” (South Sudan: Independence on a Capitalist Basis Offers No Long Term Solution, Socialist Democracy, March-April 2011 Edition)
This prognosis has been brutally borne out by the current gory development in South Sudan. It is not accidental that the first gunfire in the current crisis was fired at the Convention of the SPLM called to decide the modalities for 2015 elections. Having led the “liberation” struggle SPLM leadership has arrogated to itself the sole right to rule the oil-rich country. Therefore, its control is the lever for political power. Hardly had Reik Machar, former Vice President who was sacked last July by President Salva Kiir, led a faction of the party out of the Convention when there were exchanges of fire.
Now the entire country is now caught in conflagration stoked up by fanning the ember of ethnic bigotry. The two biggest ethnic groups, Dinkas and Nuers, are now at each others jugular. The ordinary people have been mobilized and divided along ethic line to fight the war on behalf of the self-serving factions of SPLM. This is however possible because of the unresolved national question in the multi-ethnic country. Unfortunately, capitalism especially at its crude stage as obtains in South Sudan cannot solve the problem. The situation is worsened by the failure of the SPLM to improve the living conditions of the working people with the oil revenue. The country makes about $7bn annually from oil.
It is however instructive to note that the warring factions of SPLM themselves are not ethnically homogenous. There are Dinkas among those supporting rebellion against President Kiir and they include the family members of John Garang, the late leader of SPLM. Equally, there are Nuer generals and top politicians backing Kiir. This has underlined the fact beneath the ethnic façade is the bitter struggle for political power which is the really cause of the conflict in which about 10,000 have been killed and 750,000 displaced.
Sudan and Uganda
But while the South Sudanese are killing each other or rendered homeless, the war has strengthened the bond between their government and Sudanese President Omar El-Bashir, the man against whom they all fought the last war of independence. Oil and money are thicker than blood. El-Bashir flew to Juba to pledge his solidarity to President Kiir and offer service help protect oil facilities in South Sudan. This is however not an altruistic service to a friend in distress. El-Bashir needs the South Sudanese oil to continue to flow perhaps more than Kiir. The Khartoum government is kept largely afloat by its share of South Sudanese oil revenue.
South Sudan, a landlocked country, pays a fee for transporting its oil for export through the pipelines and port in its northern neighbor. Between 2005, when the ‘Comprehensive Peace Agreement’ was signed, and the July 2011 independence of South Sudan, Sudan used to amass 50% of the oil revenue. The secession of the south has meant a sharp decline in the resources largely looted by El-Bashir government.
In order to preserve the loot and privileges of its top functionaries the El-Bashir government has passed on the burden to the masses with removal of subsidies. This triggered mass street protests in September 2013 that claimed about 200 lives and weakened the regime. A further drop in Sudan’s oil revenue as a result of the war in the South will worsen the already precarious economic situation of the country with about $40bn debt burden and threaten El-Bashir government.
Another country that has been drawn to the conflict by the economic interest is Uganda which has already had troops and tanks fighting along with the government soldiers. South Sudan is the biggest market for Ugandan exports and has hundreds of thousands of Ugandans trading or working in the country including in the civil service. Uganda, for instance, earns $1.3bn from exports to South Sudan in 2012 which was a significant rise from $630m it earned in 2010, according to the country’s Central Bank.
But the militaristic intervention of the Ugandan government has set it on a potential collision course with Sudan. Facing rebellion in Blue Nile and South Kordofan states, Sudan, is watching Uganda whom it has a strained relationship and had once accused of supporting insurgency. Sudanese Foreign Minister Ali Ahmed Kharti told reporters, “To me, until now, there is no threat, but it could have been a threat if they are near to our borders or if they are colliding with negative forces who are already playing their role in South Sudan,” VOA News January 31, 2014.
Glimpse of working class potential
Therefore, though it is apparently remote, South Sudan has potential of becoming the spark for another regional war in Africa. But if the regional war is averted, the civil war in South Sudan can at best be kept in a keg of gunpowder. This is the best the reconciliation meeting taking place in Ethiopia at the instance of the regional bloc, IGAD, could achieve. The national question remains an ember in the hands of different sections of the self-serving ruling elites tussling for political power.
Unfortunately, at present the labour movement is not strong enough to unite the working people irrespective of ethnic background. But with the strike actions of health workers in April 2013, telecommunication workers in September 2013 and university teachers in October 2013, the working class has demonstrated the glimpse of its potential to unite the working people in mass struggles against their common enemy – the ruling elite of all ethnic background and their anti-poor capitalist policies. Building an independent movement of workers, the poor and youth could open possibilities for a socialist alternative to gain support.