Off I go on holiday and suddenly there’s a civil war in South Sudan. What, exactly, went down? Well, there are specifics – and they are better detailed elsewhere – and there are the generalities, which carry the grand geopolitical sweep of things. Like many of Africa’s conflicts, South Sudan suffers the effects of rapid and incomplete decolonization (the effects of which are spoken of here), and, like many of Africa’s conflicts, this civil war is just another tribal war gone national.
South Sudan was not well-prepared for governing itself, though it wanted to believe it was.
Sudan’s rump state to the north is already horribly run, governed by varying degrees of nationalist, Islamist, and genocidal regimes since Britain cut it loose in 1956. The problem for Khartoum was a country split between too many culture groups. Along the Nile River, Sudan’s long been tied up with Egypt – and when Egypt went Arab, so too did much of Sudan.
This part of Sudan was comparatively easy to run – at least the locals agreed they were Arabs and Muslims, and wanted to stay that way. Alas, the southern reaches were not Arabized, not Muslim, and not happy to be ruled by either. Thus began a series of civil wars. Worse than that, the southern portions have never been part of a centralized state before, and therefore haven’t undergone that process of cultural standardization and myth building that underpins modern nations. It’s pretty much every tribe for itself.
Here’s another great indictment of tribalism as a form of organizing society
Tribalism is fantastic under very specific circumstances. Otherwise, it’s garbage. Why then does it survive to this day? Human beings naturally tribalize – we do this to a harmless extent at work, at school, and in wider society. We link ourselves to people of similar social outlook, interest, or, sometimes but increasingly rarely in modern states, to kinship. We do this as a survival method, but in a functioning state, we don’t take it much further having a few beers with the bros.
That’s because in a modern state, if we bros decide to tear up the bar and take it over, invariably the police will arrive and put us all in prison. If we resist, they will beat us and, if we fight hard enough, kill us. Moreover, while we may be greatly heroic and kill many of them, they will be replaceable cogs in a system capable of calling in more and more powerful reinforcements. This is why, in Grand Theft Auto, you can never take over the entire city through mass violence even with the cheat codes on.
But in a state that’s lacking a police force with enough recruits, or an army with reliable commanders, such things break down. What happened in South Sudan only happened because people on both sides realized they could fight and beat state institutions.
Whose tribe is better than the other?
Not that anyone has an interest in chaos
Few powers, even Sudan to the north, want to see South Sudan fail. Uganda has gone so far as to send troops alongside UN ones to prop up the central government. With nearby Central African Republic also going to pieces, the feeling is that there’s a corridor of insanity running from South Sudan to the Democratic Republic of the Congo down south. Along that axis lies a potential threat of instability. From Ethiopia to Kenya to the United Nations and China, most would prefer to see South Sudan put itself back together and get on with the necessary business of supplying oil.
But this is proof positive of how little power outsiders have in Africa
Since the end of decolonization, the only thing that outsiders have done well is prop up badly run governments and ensure that borders stay the same. Other than that, from development aid to intervening in civil wars, outsiders have been unable to shape the continent’s destiny. African states still have to face down the ugliness within their tribal societies, something that starts with simple things, like reliable roads, electricity, and water supplies, and ends with really complicated things, like modern education systems, corruption-proof governing systems, and peaceful transfers of power. South Sudan hasn’t yet sorted that first set; there’s the simple problem of logistically building such systems after nearly sixty years of on and off civil war.
Unlikely to be the last round of this, alas
Until South Sudan breaks tribalism, it will suffer the corroding effects of it. Sooner or later some other scumbag will take a stab at the presidency through violence, knowing his tribe will back him. It doesn’t have to be that way, of course. South Sudan might establish an uneasy peace and gradually wear away at the tribal blocs, turning them into a single community. But that day’s a long way off.