(Alfred Geri Duku – Gurtong) - Talk of tribalism, widely seen as an important factor for disunity among South Sudanese citizens
, has lately gained currency in South Sudan especially following the declaration of a national dialogue aimed at resolving a violent armed conflict that erupted in Juba nearly four years ago.
Politicians, religious leaders, women and youth groups as well as contributors to social platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp appear to easily and effortlessly link the seemingly unending conflicts and the resultant low pace of development in South Sudan to "tribalism.”
Following the volcanic-like eruption of the civil war in December 2013, pitting the government of South Sudan against rebel forces allied to former vice president Dr. Riak Machar, many media houses and human rights organisations across the world were awash with reports of an extermination campaign allegedly being waged by the Dinka against the Nuer people. There were few reports, if any, that expressly linked the eruption of the ongoing civil war to a political cause.
Members of the national dialogue steering committee, newspaper columnists and parliamentarians at both the national and state levels have equally voiced their unhidden feelings about tribalism, which they blame for catapulting the “young nation” into a “senseless war,” characterized with a host of such problems as economic hardship, widespread hunger, insecurity and communal violence in many parts of the country.
So far, however, nobody or institution seems to have been courageous enough to come forth with clearly palpable evidence to name people, communities or ethnic groups responsible for promoting tribalism in South Sudan – a country reportedly home to more than sixty ethnic groups.
Instead, and this is a clarion call echoed by many, South Sudanese of all walks of life are continually being asked to embrace peace and unity among themselves. The driving slogan for the realization of a durable peace has apparently been the famous “one nation, one people,” which appears on many billboards and posters in and around Juba.
Clergymen (and women), while delivering their religious sermons, usually untiringly appeal to their worshippers to love and accept one another as a means of promoting reconciliation and unity among South Sudanese ethnic groups.
On the other hand, the warring parties to the armed conflict are being continuously persuaded to “silence the gun” in a bid to bring about peace, reconciliation, unity and meaningful socio-economic development across the country. Quite a noble call indeed, but what exactly is the problem?
Let’s come back to the topic at hand. Are the diverse South Sudanese ethnic groups really tribalistic? In other words, is “tribalism” the most important factor to justify availability of hatred and disunity (if any) among the various South Sudanese ethnic groups? Does “disunity” actually exist among them, or is it simply an assumed phenomenon? If tribalism does actually exist, what really causes it in the first place?
To come to terms with these “research questions,” it’s much helpful to first and foremost understand the meaning of “tribalism,” now having been accidentally or intentionally rendered a taboo, if not scary, word in the Republic of South Sudan.
According to the third edition of the digital Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, “tribalism” refers to the “state of existing as a tribe, or a very strong feeling of loyalty to your tribe.” Admittedly, we all belong to different tribes, communities or ethnic groups. Words such as “tribe,” “community” or “ethnic group” might have only nuanced meanings depending on which context one is referring to, but in this article I would like to keep the term “tribalism” as “less academic” as possible.
I suspect the problem currently (being) attached to tribalism lies in the second part of its definition, which is “a very strong loyalty to your tribe.” The phrase “a very strong loyalty to your tribe,” as another possible meaning of tribalism, might easily lend itself to a variety of interpretations and even negative connotations depending on those defining the term.
But everything in social sciences is debatable, which is why I have hypothetically taken the “riskier” option of looking at “tribalism” as not being at the core of the quasi endemic political and social / communal conflicts as well as low socio-economic and political development in South Sudan.
In the meantime, though, it’s important to look at one more meaning associated with the term “tribalism.” The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as “tribal consciousness and loyalty, especially exaltation of the tribe above other groups” and, besides, as “loyalty to a tribe or other social group especially when combined with strong negative feelings [against] people outside the group.”
On the other hand, the online etymology dictionary traces the first use of “tribalism” to the 1590’s as referring to “a division of barbarous race of people, usually distinguishable in some way from their congeners, united into a community under a recognized head or chief.” The Cambridge Dictionary, interestingly, defines “tribalism” as “a very strong feeling of loyalty to a political or social groups so that you support them whatever they do.” It is this definition that I would like to subscribe to – at least in the context of this article.
Writing in his column, The Power of Word, William Sunday D. Tor also argues that South Sudanese nationals are not tribalists but that politicians in South Sudan use tribalism to enlist their support to achieve their own selfish political interests.
“The tribe is only used by politicians to gain support from tribal members, this when they are misinformed that their tribe is targeted and victimized by members of other tribes whose sons or daughters are in power,” notes Sunday in the 166th issue of This Day English language daily newspaper published on 21st September 2017 on page 6.
“In South Sudan conflict the element of tribalism is always used to gain support from one respective tribe [sic] although the cause of conflict has nothing to do with any tribe,” he further argues, clearly building his case against the widely held belief that “tribalism” is the most important factor responsible for the frequent occurrence of conflicts in South Sudan.
Mr. Tor’s argument above lends credence to my persuasion that South Sudanese ethnic communities are not tribalistic, but that politicians rather manipulate them by using a tribal name tag to fulfill their ambitions to access power and resources. In this respect, members of a particular ethnic group are usually “misinformed” that they’re being targeted by those from a “rival” one.
Certainly, this is not to oversimplify nor imply that tribal feelings against members of another ethnic group don’t exist… Rather, the point here is that in South Sudan the term appears to have been blown out of proportions just to score some “political capital” or to falsely attract “sympathy.”
The definition of tribalism as “a very strong loyalty to [one’s] tribe,” in my view, doesn’t necessarily reduce this concept to mean that the various South Sudanese ethnic groups are tribalistic. An ethnic group, or a tribe, is generally defined by and characterized with common dialect, history, customs, traditions and rituals just to cite but a few characteristics. The attachment of members of a given ethnic group to the observation of such “traditions” shouldn’t be misunderstood to mean they are practicing “tribalism.” People change over time in time and space, so until they reach an “expected standard behaviour,” they cannot and should not be lumped together as “tribalists.”
To find a durable panacea to the seemingly perennial conflicts in South Sudan, it would be prudent for the national and state governments to study the different ways of how to engage the youth in various productive activities in a bid to stamp out dependence on handouts usually doled out by politicians and leaders. It is usually such freebies (monetary or in-kind) that politicians and leaders at different levels exploit to engage the youth in subversive activities against a community, an ethnic group or government.
If youth are gainfully employed in agriculture, fishing, small-scale business activities and transport, they are not likely going to be easily lured into hating or attacking members of a particular ethnic group. Simply expressed, such youth will not have the time to waste in activities that aim at promoting “their tribalism” and thereby interfering with their livelihoods.
Are you unsure of how to engage South Sudanese youth in various socio-economic and political activities? Well, the starting point lies in gradually changing their attitudes in a positive direction so that they are able to “love” work.
Yes, the youth should be engaged in productive activities including doing menial jobs for them to be able to decently earn a living. It is a pity that many youth here detest certain categories of jobs even when they clearly do not have any other means of providing for their subsistence!
Again, it is imperative that youth across South Sudan are progressively trained on how to relate among themselves and with members from other communities and nationals from other countries.
So rather than blame “tribalism” for primarily being the root cause of conflicts in South Sudan, it is crucially important to look for the real underlying factors responsible for disunity and subsequent occurrence of conflicts in a country that came into being on 9th July 2011.
Such factors, as already highlighted above, include lack of serious engagement of the youth in worthwhile economic activities such as agriculture, fishing, beekeeping, carpentry and small-scale business. As a result, they are usually subject to manipulation by shrewd politicians and leaders hungry for political power and economic resources. To achieve their selfish ambitions, such politicians and leaders usually use “tribalism” as a bait to attract support from their unsuspecting admirers and followers.