By Bonnie Bates.
Prior to independence in 2011, South Sudan was labeled the world’s first “pre-failed state” (Howden “Failed state”, Moszynski). Since that time, each step taken by the new country has been met with judgmental editorials smacking of paternalism and prejudice (Natsios, Tran “Failed”). The 2013-2014 South Sudanese political conflict between Salva Kiir and Riek Machar inspired a fresh journalistic chorus, bemoaning the post-independence retrogress (Allison “Mistake”, Popham). Some have questioned the merits of South Sudan’s creation, calling for the baby to be thrown out with the bathwater in castigating the South Sudanese as unready for the challenges of independent nationhood (Allison “Failing”, Howden “Fell apart”).
The current political conflict was quickly framed by the international media – especially the British media – as the latest African ‘tribal’ war (Gettlemen “Born in unity”, Green). This trope, and its companion narratives of civil war and genocide, dominated media coverage of South Sudan into 2014 (Kushkush, Van Dijken, Smith “Death of dream”). Such a facile treatment manipulates the history of the world’s youngest nation to fit a constructed narrative of African dysfunction. The use of easy tropes belies the history behind the current conflict and the challenges involved in building a new nation out of the detritus of colonialism.
Such contemporary manipulations perpetuate myths that are grounded in neo-colonial assumptions, and serve to paint a one-dimensional portrait of the South Sudanese; one that denies their agency and independence. Omitted from this narrative is a deeper understanding of the history of South Sudan and its people, as well as the historic grievances embedded in ethnic identity. South Sudan is a very heterogeneous nation of over 60 languages and nearly as many ethnic groups and clans that have grown from centuries of migration, intermarriage, and reactions to foreign interventions (Kramer, 145-150). Employing the ‘tribal’ trope ignores the varied and dynamic evolution of ethnic identity in South Sudan. ‘Tribe’ is not only a derogatory term; it does not adequately describe the nuanced identities created by the people of South Sudan, nor does it recognize their agency in doing so.
Conflict has been a leitmotif of much of South Sudan’s history. To understand why requires moving past tired tropes to the underlying factors; including how foreign forms of hegemony and power – religion, slavery and colonialism – have been imposed on the people of South Sudan. The impacts of these forces endure, inflamed by the prejudicial media coverage of the current political conflict.
Religion has played a significant role in shaping identity and creating disunion in Sudan and South Sudan. The simplistic narrative describes the Sudanese as Muslim, the South Sudanese as Christian, and therefore the two groups do not get along (Ahmad, Hickman). Not only inaccurate, this narrative ignores how religion has been used as a force of oppression and occupation (Malick “Egypt’s violence”), feeding centuries of slavery and British colonial policies. More recently, Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir’s forced Islamization and Arabization has exploited these legacies, furthering divisions and discord (Meredith, 588-593).
Such a history of occupation and ownership has also served to develop internal racism, with some Sudanese referring to southerners as ‘abd’’ (black, slave). Northern Sudanese generally do not consider themselves African; for them that term defines an inferior darker-skinned South Sudanese and is often seen as synonymous with slave, The Other. The tensions created from the legacy of slavery endure, as lighter-skinned Sudanese are considered to be slave owners and occupiers by many South Sudanese. (Malick “Paler shade”, Power and the Pain).
Language and ethnic identity are very powerful things. The legacy of slavery and occupation is alive and fueling a perceived power imbalance between Sudanese and South Sudanese. This myth is promoted by both the Sudanese and western media, castigating the South Sudanese as inferior and lacking competence to support independence (Howden “Fell apart”, The Guardian “Not yet a state”, The Independent “Conflict predictable”). This current western hegemony supports modern forms of occupation, such as ruinous development loans and foreign intervention and control over southern resources. The manipulative use of such tropes may satiate western appetites for oil, but it continues to starve the South Sudanese of their capacity to build their country on their terms.
To dismiss historic conflicts and a contemporary political struggle between two rivals as ‘tribal warfare’ is not only racist; it perpetuates stereotypes of the inferior South Sudanese – the slave, The Other. Conveniently ignored in this narrative is the story of why Kiir and Machar are rivals, their complicated history as members of the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army and the motivations behind their actions (South Sudan and the media of conflict). A more honest account would require western media to recognize Kiir and Machar (and the South Sudanese) as complex, multi-dimensional human beings; as equals and not slaves to empire.
Providing a critical analysis of leadership is certainly a role for the media, but it must be done responsibly and without prejudice. Utilizing the ‘tribal’ trope denies agency and nuance, telling the reader nothing; thereby encouraging the use of assumptions and stereotypes that are often themselves based on misinformation and tropes. Franz Fanon reminds us that “there is extraordinary power in the possession of a language” (Fanon, 2). In speaking of Africa and Africans, it’s about time that African power – in all its complications, nuances and forms – is acknowledged, and that tired tropes are retired once and for all.
Bonnie Bates is a Masters student in History and African Studies at Carleton University, Ottawa.
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