We must resist the lazy notion that South Sudan is an ‘ethnic conflict’

A catastrophic refugee crisis has been unfolding, but it’s not the one you’re thinking about. While the horrific plight of Syrian refugees (among others) struggling to make their way into fortress Europe dominated headlines in 2015, the South Sudan conflict has gone virtually ignored in comparison. This is in spite of the fact that the situation in South Sudan is a humanitarian disaster of horrific proportions; an estimated four million people are at risk of starvation and 1.7 million have fled their homes. Yet Google searches for more information repeatedly lead to articles that describe the South Sudan crisis as ‘forgotten’. Scan a recent newspaper and I’d be very surprised if you find anything on South Sudan inside.

African conflicts rarely get the attention they deserve in Western media. All too often they fail to supply a victim-and-villain narrative deemed satisfying enough for readers, watchers and sharers. They happen in countries most people couldn’t place on a map, or even spell. Most depressingly of all, people just don’t consider them to be of global importance. Lack of narrative mean African conflicts can often be confusing, multi-faceted and difficult to understand. In the soundbite driven, info-snippet obsessed media cycle, nuance is often left at the door, in favour of snappy two word labels that tell people everything it is thought they need to know. This is how the South Sudan conflict became labelled an ‘ethnic conflict’, and the media packed up and went home. But this is alarming, as conflicts like the war in South Sudan affect millions of people and failing to understand them can leave the people caught up in them out of the spotlight and therefore out of reach of public sympathy and, more crucially, humanitarian aid.

But ethnicity is never the sole cause of conflict, and the difficulty in South Sudan is that what might be seen to be ethnic violence is often tied up in complicated regional politics. One crucial factor that must be considered is that a key source of tension among local communities isn’t ethnicity itself, but how different ethnic groups that pursue different livelihoods – crop farmers and those that tend to cattle – can co-exist peacefully when they pursue the same resource: land.

But it is also political instability caused by a power struggle at the top that has allowed these tensions to boil over unchecked. Journalists report that local government is highly suspicious that the problems with cattle farmers are part of a wider government plot to evict them from their land. Nonetheless these government officials continue to mediate between farmers, knowing full well that violence is in nobody’s best interests. The fact that the two leaders locked in dispute, Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, are from different ethnic groups plays little part in the conflict; both have supporters from the other’s ethnic group and many of President Kiir’s harshest critics came from those of his own ethnicity. These two ethnic groups, the Nuer and the Dinka, are just two of the many ethnic groups found in South Sudan, all of whom have suffered greatly because of the violence. As both men were formal rebels in the independence wars against Sudan, the call back to militarism has been only too easy. This is about personal power, not ethnic domination.

With the horror of the Rwandan Genocide still fresh in the minds of many, ‘ethnic violence’ has become a lazy media cliché used to brush off African conflicts without delving more deeply into the root causes. But if this is the way the media treats Africa, it’s no wonder Western audiences’ knowledge of African issues is woefully inadequate, and even deeply ignorant. Of course there is an ethnic dimension to the South Sudan conflict, but labelling it an ‘ethnic conflict’ ignores that complicated intersection between ethnicity, livelihood, culture and power that make this war particularly difficult to unpack. This goes a long way to explain why it has attracted few column inches and even less in-depth analysis. Ultimately, however, this a political war, fought by two men and their supporters for the highest seat of power.

As infrastructure crumbles, medical supplies dry up and communities fall apart, violence spreads outwards and, as is all too depressingly familiar, it is everyday people who end up suffering the most. These refugees don’t just need emergency food parcels and somewhere to sleep. They need schools, and healthcare, and a way of making money so that they can rebuild a sustainable future and continue living their lives, even when violence threatens to take it all away. For children it is simply not enough to wait for the conflict to be over to restart their education; by then it will simply be too late. For most South Sudanese, their priorities are the same as ours; putting food on the table, caring for our children, living as comfortably as we can. Ethnic violence is the last thing they want to pursue. The South Sudan conflict may not get the column inches it deserves in our newspapers, but the ‘ethnic conflict’ label is damaging and lazy. This is worrying, as it denies the British public knowledge of this war, and its victims. It’s vital we provide the South Sudanese with the support they need.


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