A few weeks ago many EAC pundits were busy analyzing whether South-Sudan should be allowed into the EAC bloc or not. We can say that we were caught off-guard when the current insurrection broke out because the attention of the world and the region was on Mandela’s passing and the 50th independence anniversary celebrations in Kenya. But all along the indications had been there of a possible stand-off between the two prominent politicians: President Salva Kiir and his former vice president, Riek Machar. When president Kiir sacked all his cabinet including Machar, he betrayed political amateurishness and the simmering tribal tensions within the world’s youngest country.
So many perspectives of analysis can be used to understand what is going on in South-Sudan but in this brief analysis we can focus on the threat that this outbreak of violence reveals. But time of posting this reports indicate that about 500 people have been killed so far and many more injured. Both world powers such as USA and UK and neighboring EAC countries Uganda, Kenya, etc are frantically trying to evacuate their nationals caught up in the mess. A key lesson that we learn from this episode of fighting in SS is that it is not viable to argue that EAC should keep away from affairs in their neighbors. Everyone seems to agree that it was necessary for governments to send in evacuation troops to rescue their nationals. It is interesting that the UN which has traditionally blamed countries like Uganda for meddling in regional affairs was calling for Museveni to intervene to avoid escalation of violence in SS. So in principle, the EAC need to monitor what takes place in their backyards so that violence does not overrun the region.
Did he make a mistake by sacking VP in a government of national unity
The other key observation is that the EAC faces a key existential threat that has largely not been given attention. There are pundits who argue that one of the problems that the bloc suffers from is a lack of a common existential threat that can act as an adhesive. But such analysis is usually externalistic – the tendency to search for EAC’s common existential threat from outside the bloc – such pundits imagine a military takeover or overrun from a super power across the globe. But the 2013 outbreak of violence in South-Sudan reveals to us that there is another and far more problematic existential threat that is within the region i.e. tribal differences. If there is any threat that ought to bring the region together is the resolution of that problem. The regional bloc would provide ‘breathing space’ for tribal differences and diffuse the local jostling over resources especially in resource-stricken members. As Chidi (2013) as argued, violence is the main existential threat to Africa as a whole and there is need to understand the nature of these threats and find possible solutions to them.
Even though Kiir’s government has tried to change the narrative about the violence in SS not to be seen as a tribal conflict, all indicators point to exactly that. Kiir is of the largest tribe in SS the Dinka while Machar is from the second biggest tribe the Nuer. These two tribes traditionally fought for political and economic power even before the young nation was born. Even the late Garang, despite his enormous leadership appeal in SS and internationally, had problems containing Machar and his warrior tribesmen of the Nuer tribe. There were several times during the rebellion when Machar broke off the SPLA with his loyal tribesmen and allied with either their common enemy Bashir of Sudan or with other forces. This almost derailed the birth of the nation: even though towards the time of the referendum the Garang had tilted remaining in the bigger Sudan, those with insider information claim that he had feared the retaliation from the alliance between Machar and Bashir.
Even after the referendum and independence, there still remained a couple of tribe-based rebellions in SS. In 2010, the state of Jonglei saw the threats to rebel by former army General, George Athor Deng who had been defeated in the first elections. Then there was the ragtag rebellion by rebel leader David Yau Yau from the Murle community. These are just but a few with many other simmering tribal conflicts in the country of 64 big and small tribes. Even the political class is not spared from the tribal conflicts as witnessed by the differences between Kiir (Dinka) and Machar (Nuer) turning into bloody violence recently.
Note that looking inside in order to find an existential threat does not mean that the external existential problem is lessened. Rather the internal tribal and ethnic conflicts make the external existential threats all the more precarious. This conclusion can be made from the fact that the Bashir government has been reported to meddle with the internal issues of South-Sudan; both Kiir and Machar have come under scrutiny for hobnobbing with Khartoum at the expense of their internal cohesion. The accusation against Khartoum is also labeled against bigger powers like China and the USA who are in search for oils and other natural resources. The point is that the tribal conflicts make it easier for external forces to manipulate and weaken the sovereignty of the nations in the region.
Such tribal and ethnic conflicts are not limited to South-Sudan only; other countries in the EAC face similar challenges. The Rwanda genocide is still in our memories and it was a result of the conflict between the majority Hutu and the minority Tutsi. The same ethnic conflict is found in Burundi albeit in a lesser measure; and it still shapes events in the region and particularly in the DRC. Kenya is yet to heal from the violent outbreaks that took tribal lines after the 2007 elections that saw the former president Kibaki retain power. The resultant ICC cases against president Uhuru and his vice president Ruto are shaping the Kenyan political narrative 6 years after. In some cases the Kenyan problem has been presented as a conflict between the Kyukuyu, Kalenjin and Luhya on one side against the Luo and other smaller tribes on the other side. In Uganda there was a 2009 episode of violent street fights between the biggest ethnic group the Baganda and the military police. They threatened to render the country ungovernable because their traditional King Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II had been blocked to travel to one part of his Kingdom. Apparently the Baganda think that they have been short-changed by the Museveni regime after having paid a big price to bring the rebel group to power. In Uganda’s oil-rich region of Bunyoro, there is an under-reported conflict between the ethnic Banyoro and the ‘Bafuruki’ (immigrants) especially over land. In Tanzania tribal conflicts between the Maasai and the Waarusha or between the Maasai and the Sonjo are well-known.
There are calls for EAC elder statesman, Museveni to intervene & exert influence
The recent expulsion of Ugandans, Rwandese and Kenyans by Tanzania’s Kikwete did not make matters any better. Instead the region should find innovative ways of dissolving these ethnic and tribal conflicts. Without doing that, the regionalization project may not be realized. Instead of encouraging more integration of the peoples of East Africa, the leaders seem to be discouraging it. When Tanzania expelled people from neighboring countries it sent out a wrong signal to the people in neighboring nations in the same region. But allowing local tribes to move across the region would go a long way in diffusing the local tribal tensions because more and better relations would be forged among the many tribes. Free regional movement would diffuse the local conflict by providing more opportunities. Another means that could be applied is to form a military outfit made of members of various ethnicities across the region which can act as an intervention force in cases of outbreak of tribal or ethnic conflict. If the member nations are to realize the goal of the East African Community, them such creative means need to be devised.