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The Tragedy of South Sudan

IDEA Viewpoint

Ghelawdewos Araia, Ph.D.                                                               January 9, 2012

The new republic of South Sudan gained independence just six months ago, and yet it has already embroiled itself in the contagion of ethnic politics and conflict. The recent conflict that flared up between the Lou Nuer and the Merle, two traditional enemies, has claimed three thousand lives. According to the New York Times, the heavily armed Nuer attacked the Murle and as a result 2182 women and children and 959 men were killed, 1293 children were abducted and 375,186 cows have become booty for the Lou Nuer.1

I had always worries about the future of Sudan and as far back as 1997 I anticipated the breakaway of South Sudan, and I was also right with respect to the destruction of Somalia and the war preoccupation of Ethiopia and Eritrea. In point of fact, just one year after I wrote an essay on conflict and conflict resolution in the Horn of Africa, in 1998 Eritrea and Ethiopia entered into a bloody war that claimed about ninety thousand lives on either side.

In 1997, I had serious concerns with the conflict-ridden Horn of Africa and attempted to address the political instability surrounding Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan. I suggested that members of the Inter-Governmental Agency for Development (IGAD), the United States, and the United Nations engage in concerted efforts to peacefully resolve the conflicts. I further argued, “Members of IGAD must utilize their Agency to promote peace and not war. For one thing, the continuation of war for the peoples of Eritrea and Ethiopia (who were yearning for peace for three decades) would be totally unfair, and for another development agendas will be curtailed and altogether stifle any meaningful reconstruction. …To avoid the coming political quagmire, peaceful resolution to the conflict should be initiated by IGAD members themselves, i.e. African solutions for African problems. … If the United States deems it necessary to monitor the Horn, then it should try to resolve the crisis in that part of Africa by mediating and hence reconciling the various views and policies of the states involved. …The United Nations or the Organization of African Unity (OAU) must actively support the peace initiative in the Horn and condemn belligerence and war policies. The two organizations have historical obligation in settling disputes among nations.”

And I continued the argument as in the following: “If we ignore the peace proposal, this could possibly be the political outcome: Sudan will be divided into two; the existence of the Somalia nation (already questionable) could be a thing of the past; the victors (Ethiopians and Eritreans) would be preoccupied with a war economy and the hope of development will be dashed.”2 That was my analysis of the Horn in 1997.

The Government of Omar al Beshir that was blamed for the genocide in Darfur is now ironically witnessing (as a bystander) another genocide in South Sudan under the watch of the liberator, the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA) that was apparently expected to bring peace, stability, and prosperity to South Sudan. On the contrary, the new SPLA government of South Sudan, helpless and timid, was unable to quell the skirmish and ethnic infighting and it looks the bloodshed in South Sudan would continue unabated. On the one hand, the government of South Sudan is to be blamed for its inability to maintain peace and stability, a criterion taken for granted by all states. On the other hand, the South Sudan phenomenon of inter-ethnic clashes is not surprising, for the “tribal warfare” is centuries old in that part of Africa. The conflicts subsided only during the brief period in the history of modern Sudan, i.e. from 1956 to 2010, and in fact it could be likened to a dormant volcano that could erupt at any moment.

Unfortunately, the Nuer, Anuak, Merle, Shilluk, Dinka, just to mention some from the plethora of ethnic groups in South Sudan, were unable to learn from the Zande (another ethnic group found in South Sudan and Congo) and adopt their marvelous institution of ‘Blood-Brotherhood’, that systematically deter potential confrontations.

According to E. E. Evans-Pritchard, a British anthropologist writing about South Sudan in the early 1960s, “blood-brotherhood is a pact or alliance formed between two persons by ritual act in which each swallow the blood of the other. The pact is one of mutual assistance and backed by powerful sanctions.”3 The blood brothers address each other as Bakurėmi, literally ‘my blood brother’, and after the ritual initiation their brotherhood is cemented forever and never to fight against each other.

I strongly believe that Africans, in particular those who are engaged in bloody conflicts or are susceptible to ethnic infighting, must seriously consider to reinstate, revitalize, and implement Zande-type blood brotherhood. One major problem with most African countries is their suspension between traditional customs and modern values, and in due course they have lost their traditional institutions that enabled them settle disputes amicably in the past. They were unable to effectively install democratically oriented conflict resolution mechanisms either. It is for this apparent reason that Somalia and Congo, for instance, are still embroiled in bloody civil wars, although it is also abundantly clear that external hands and ideologies have also added fuel to the fire of the conflicts.

Once Africans begin to address each other as Bakurėmi, however, history will once again witness the enormous potential of Africa, and that will be the day when peace and stability have been anchored in earnest in Africa, and that, in turn, will certainly lay a cornerstone for genuine development and transformation.



  1. The New York Times, Friday, January 5, 2012 (reported by Jeffrey Jettleman)
  2. Ghelawdewos Araia, “The Horn of Africa: Conflict and Conflict Resolution,” African Link, Volume 6 No. 1, 1997
  3. E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Social Anthropology and Other Essays, Free Press, 1962 


All Rights Reserved. Copyright © IDEA, Inc. 2012. Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia can be contacted for educational and constructive feedback via dr.garaia@africandiea.org