South Sudan’s Tangled Crisis

817London — The last time the world’s eyes were on South Sudan, it was a time of jubilation. In July 2011, its secession from Sudan after decades of civil war was feted as a triumph of international advocacy. It seemed a long overdue deliverance for the people of the South, who had borne the brunt of successive Sudanese military assaults. South Sudan has always been viewed through the prism of its victimhood at the hands of its former northern neighbor.

Now, two and a half years later, South Sudan is in the news again. It has become clear that the country is not a bucolic land ruled by the freedom fighters. It has its own internal fissures, ethnic tensions and residual wounds of war. But the outside world must not misunderstand the roots of the current outbreak of violence in a rush to come to grips with this new internal conflict.

Although there are plenty of reports indicating that the current crisis has unfolded along tribal lines, this is an extremely simplistic and dangerous way to frame events. The real source of South Sudan’s violence is political, not ethnic — and Western policy makers must grasp this reality before it’s too late. The international media has been all too ready to frame the violence that erupted after Dec. 15 entirely in terms of ethnic violence and state collapse — a familiar narrative for conflicts in African countries that glosses over the political roots of the conflict.

The Guardian splashed its front page with “South Sudan: The State That Fell Apart in a Week,” and the paper’s reporting reflected a media narrative that has shifted from the South’s victimhood at the hands of the North to one of bipolar tribal conflict between the two dominant tribes in the country, the Dinka, the president’s tribe, and the Nuer, his challenger’s. On Christmas Eve, London’s Sunday Times focused on “Gangs Deal Out Death by Language Test,” detailing how gangs chose who to kill based on what language they spoke, and therefore what tribe they were from.

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