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South Sudan: When the Wolf Cries Ethnicity

Amal Hassan Fadlalla
Amal Post

The nation, like a garden, is never finished.

Whenever we hear about war and conflict in Africa, the perplexing response often begins with polarized conclusions, salient among them ethnicity and tribalism. This simplistic explanation allows for a reductionist interpretation of African conflicts and their root causes, and often leads to inaccurate responses from the international community. This was the case for Rwanda, Congo, Darfur, and currently in the Central African Republic, Mali, and South Sudan.  It must be understood that ethnicity is not a bad word and it is not an African predisposition: We are all ethnic at heart.

Ethnicity refers to social identification with a larger community (or with a tribe, the word that anthropologists are reluctant to employ). In many African societies, these communities are organized according to kinship ties or other affinities, belonging to ancestral lands. This parallels our intellectual understanding of nationalism, sovereignty, and citizenship.  Our African ancestors, who came before the architects of the Westphalian nation-state, thought similarly about social and political structure and the rule of the law. They constructed boundaries, organized gender relations, and invented rituals for life, love, and death.  These founding organizations birthed larger polities and Kingdoms in Africa, such as the Zulu, Mali, Axum, and Darfur.

After the end of colonial rule when nationalism became the norm in many African societies, those who received the national message bought into it. Other communities were lumped together randomly under the national rubric with little persuasion from the emerging ruling elites, who were quick to invest in their own ethnic, religious, regional, and international loyalties.  The type of governance that invests in all members of the nation, regardless of any social differentiation, failed to manifest during this period.  There are many infrastructural, economic, and political reasons for this inability to realize such national vision, but poignant among them is elite despotism and adherence to narrow ideological projects. With more exclusion than inclusion in the imagined national project, the result is, unsurprisingly, 'elite wars.'

A Closer Look at the Sudans

Instead of crying ethnicity, we need to shift focus to the mobilization and militarization of ethnicities at both the national and transnational levels. Conflicts in Africa are not solely tribal matters; rather, they involve complex political questions. Let's use Sudan as an example. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed in 2005 to end the war between the North and the South, privileged the southern question and gave the two warring parties five years to work for a united Sudan. Five years is not enough time to resolve intricate questions of sexism, racism, and class division given the short and troubled history of the Sudanese nation-state. Indeed, the agreement ended a brutal war between the warring parties, but it only provided piecemeal solutions to the national question.

When President Omar al-Bashir wavered on an inclusive, secular, national agenda, the elite from the South, Darfur, and other ethnic minorities intensified their war against the state, and found good allies in the West.  The liberals and seculars in the North, who supported an inclusive nation-state, were lumped together under the newly formed ethnic categories of "Muslim, Arab" villains who inflict suffering on the "Christian, black" victims. This new categorization reinforced the pre-existing ethnic divisions in the country and shifted attention away from building a viable national union. The liberals and seculars in the North, therefore, had no choice but to congratulate their southern fellow citizens on the prospects of building a new nation. They hoped, however, for a peaceful southern nation that could serve as a refuge for them in the future.

After the independence of the South, why does the war persist?

Note the choice of my words: these are WARS, not simply "genocides" or "ethnic cleansings" committed by villains against victims, or Nuer against Dinka.  Because 'wars of visions,' Francis Deng taught us - like famines - are genocidal. In the context of war, there is no nation; there is death, rape, and chaos. The outcome of galvanizing ethnicities was horrific for the Sudanese nation: first in the South, then in Darfur, and finally, the bleak ambiguity of the Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile.  Not to mention the unresolved issue of Abyei, which is no longer a priority due to the dispute among the southern elites over how to govern the new nation-state.   What we managed to achieve through a long, tedious, and costly process is a 'fragment-nation.' A 'fragment-nation' emerges when we stop thinking nation, and begin sinking deeper into the pitfalls of ethnic and racial divisions.

It is ironic that the President of South Sudan now follows a path of despotism, the same tyranny that he and his comrades rebelled against for 56 years. More ironic is that he started by excluding the comrades who fought alongside him, while making strong alliances with Uganda.  It is therefore unsurprising that the former Vice President, Riek Machar, would default to the support of his ethnic group, even though his primary reason for ending the rebellion was the release of his party members who are not Nuer, like him, but rather hail from different ethnic groups in the South. If the large, nation-wide project in South Sudan crumples, then the foreseeable smaller nations that may arise — be they Nuer, Shilluk, Azande, or Aduk - serve as saving grounds.

A 'Fragment-Nation' in South Sudan: A New Narrative for both Sudans

However, we must confront the 'fragment-nation' of South Sudan with a better strategy, a better language, and empowering, pro-nation narratives in both Sudans that reconcile ethnic and political divisions.  To reconstruct the nation and heal incurred grievances, we must first learn the A-B-C's of avoiding the fragmentation of the national project. Here are my top three recommendations:

A) Abide by the political process. Mainly, support the negotiation underway and assist the two parties to create an inclusive national agenda. Negotiations spare us new injuries of ethnic labeling and categorization.

B) Be impartial.  These conflicts are historically grounded and politically constructed, and not solely between Arabs and Blacks and Nuer and Dinka.

C) Civil society organizations and other groups invested in reconstruction efforts should stand firm in their demands for reconciliation and peaceful resolutions to Sudan's conflicts. This is a better remedy than the politics of shame, blame, and demonization.


Amal Hassan Fadlalla is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center.  She is an associate Professor of Anthropology, Women's Studies, and African Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and the Author of Embodying honor: Fertility, Foreignness, and Regeneration in Eastern Sudan, Wisconsin University Press, 2007

Photo Credit: Turkairo on Flickr.

About the Author

Amal Hassan Fadlalla

Amal Hassan Fadlalla

Associate Professor of Women's Studies, Anthropology, and Afroamerican and African Studies, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more