NAIROBI (AlertNet) - Ethnic tensions fuelled by unequal access to wealth and power in south Sudan threaten to create more violence and instability in Africa’s newest state, a rights group said on Thursday.
A report from London-based Minority Rights Group (MRG) said poverty is exacerbating ethnic clashes over access to water and grazing land while the ruling party’s strong grip on politics is creating resentment among excluded communities.
“There is this domination by Dinka and Nuer (ethnic groups),” Chris Chapman, MRG’s head of conflict prevention, told AlertNet. “Resentment can build up very quickly and very easily... There is a lot of risk for instability in the future.”
South Sudan has about 56 ethnic groups and almost 600 sub-groups.
The Dinka and the Nuer are the two largest, accounting for almost half of its 8 million people. They dominate the Southern People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), which controls the government of south Sudan, and its armed wing, the SPLA.
The country is due to become independent on July 9, following a referendum in January.
At least seven rebel militias are at war with the southern government, claiming to oppose tribalism, nepotism and corruption. Fighting between southern groups has caused more than 1,500 deaths this year, according to the United Nations.
In February, more than 200 people were killed and 10,000 displaced in militia attacks in Jonglei State, the largest of south Sudan’s 10 federal states.
“If such violence escalates, southern Sudan will be born a failed state,” the MRG report warned.
George Athor, a former SPLA general, took to the bush after failing to win the governorship of Jonglei in April 2010 elections. He accused the SPLM of fraud and said he was fighting for democracy in south Sudan.
Jonglei residents told MRG they are not receiving assistance from state or federal governments because political representation and access to resources depend on ethnicity.
Paul Oleyo Longony, a community leader in Jonglei, said the state government is dominated by Dinka and Nuer. “The three ethnic groups that live here receive nothing,” he told MRG.
Martha Juma, a member of the Murle group, said in the report: “We don’t have a voice in the government.”
CONFLICT OVER LAND
South Sudan’s traditional cattle-raiding culture has turned deadly with the easy availability of guns. Pastoralist communities, such as the Toposa and the Jie, regularly fight over access to scarce resources, particularly during the dry season.
“Land is such a burning issue in South Sudan… It’s going to be really explosive,” said Chapman.
Many communities own land communally, without title deeds. Recently, foreign companies have been leasing huge tracts of land without consulting local people.
Foreign governments and businesses sought or acquired 26,400 sq km of land in south Sudan from 2007 to 2010 for agriculture, biofuel and forestry projects, according to Norwegian People’s Aid. The largest lease was of Jonglei’s 22,800 sq km Boma National Park to an Emirati company.
MRG is concerned that south Sudan’s land commission, tasked with resolving land controversies, will lack credibility as all its members will be appointed by the president.
And while oil, tourism and agriculture have great development potential, these “projects will only ease ethnic tensions if the government develops mechanisms to ensure that all ethnic groups are able to meaningfully participate in decision-making around these projects as well as benefiting from them”, the report stated.
Moreover, analysts say corruption is widespread in south Sudan, a common problem in oil-dependent developing countries. An estimated 98 percent of the country’s revenue comes from oil.
The SPLM appears to be finding it difficult to change its mindset from that of a rebel movement to a democratic government.
Opposition parties withdrew from a committee to draw up a new transitional constitution after south Sudan’s President Salva Kiir increased the number of SPLM members from 24 to 41, rendering the 11 non-SPLM members irrelevant.
“The SPLM stuffed the committee with their own people, and that de-legitimised the whole process,” said Chapman. “That’s a prime example of the wrong kind of approach, which alienates people - not just political opposition but also from the other ethnic communities who don’t feel they are well represented in the SPLM.”
Observers have urged the SPLM to be more inclusive and address such grievances to stave off further rebellions.
The committee has removed the two-term presidential limit from the transitional constitution, which comes into force on July 9.
“They could become military dictators,” warned Stephen Pande of UK-based advocacy group Justice Africa in the MRG report. “These people might want to cling to power for a very long time.”
The SPLM’s armed wing fought the government in north Sudan from 1983 to 2005, when a peace deal was signed, granting the south a referendum on secession.
During the long civil war, some of the worst atrocities were committed by southern groups fighting each other, rather than their common enemy in the north. Splinter groups were often funded by the northern government, a policy many suspect is still continuing.
Two million people were killed and 4 million displaced during the civil war fought over ideology, oil, ethnicity and religion.
You can watch an MRG video interview with Boma community leader Paul Oleyo Longony.