When the countdown to the creation of South Sudan began after the 2010 elections, some western sources described the upcoming state of the south as "predetermined to fail". They justified this by citing the many obstacles that faced the new state, including unclear borders, weak infrastructure, absence of institutions, internal division and corruption. Western and some regional powers made serious efforts to delay or even avoid the division of Sudan, but the popular movement in support of separation was unbeatable.
What those analysts did not take into consideration was that the biggest problem facing the nascent state was not the separation itself but rather the resistance to that separation. The SPLM ruling in South Sudan was established with the ideology of reformulating Sudan on the political, cultural and economic levels, and not separation from it; separation was the movement's second option. Thus, it had established coalitions with political movements and armed wings in Darfur, east Sudan and other areas, and was unable to remove itself from those coalitions after the separation. So the first conflict in the movement was between the group that leaned towards continued involvement with Sudanese politics led by those who were close to the late leader of the movement, John Garang, and those around President Salva Kiir who call for strengthening the state and concentrating on internal construction.
This reminds us of conflicts witnessed by the Soviet Union in the nineteen-twenties between advocates of "permanent revolution" and supporters of the idea of "socialism in one country", as well as the conflict between the state-building team led by Ibn Saud and advocates of a continuous jihad of "brotherhood" in Saudi Arabia during the same period. As everyone knows, the state-building movement was the one that won in each case. In South Sudan, there was no escaping that option due to the weakness of the state resources and its dependence on foreign aid which does not favour foreign adventures.
However, the problem with South Sudan's current leadership, led by Salva Kiir, is that it decided to fight on all fronts at the same time. The conflict over the state project was not the only one, as the popular movement has witnessed from its early years tribal and ethnic conflicts, and the ongoing complaint of the dominance of the Dinka tribe over the tools of power. Kiir chose from the beginning to face his tribal rivals and not give in to them; he dealt his blows at radicals in the movement at the same time.
The origins of the tribal conflict go back to the era of autonomy in the South when tropical tribes complained of what they described as the dominance of Nile tribes (mainly Dinka, but also Nuer and Shilluk) against tropical tribes which come from a different ethnic group and are proud to be better educated. This conflict led to the outbreak of civil war again after former President Jaafar Nimeri responded to demands of the tropical tribes and divided the south into three districts in June 1983. Less than ten years later, in 1991, the split inside the popular movement was turned into a tribal conflict between Dinka led by Johan Garang on one side and the Nuer led by Riek Machar and Shilluk led by La Akol on the other.
Despite reconciliation between Garang and his two opponents before the peace agreement of 2005, the issue of tribal dominance over the popular movement and its army was not resolved. The enemies were surrounded politically and security-wise, where opposition leaders were banned from participating freely in the 2010 elections, which the SPLM won. This year, Kiir fired his deputy Machar and then excluded radical symbols in the SPLM in the past few months, bringing all opposition groups against himself in the process. Kiir and his supporters made another mistake when they rushed into describing the latest armed clash as being a coup attempt led by Machar, and also targeted the Nuer on the basis of identity, which deepened the division in a situation that was extremely vulnerable to begin with.
It seems that the worst of the pessimistic predictions have come true, where South Sudan is now facing the risk of imminent collapse after the consecutive splits and wearing away of the legitimacy of the leadership of the SPLM and the state. What we see right now is not only the collapse of the state and its disintegration, but also its meltdown due to the fact that there are no institutions outside the movement's army, which is also falling apart rapidly.
The irony in all of this is that all players are the losers in these confrontations. Salva Kiir's initial goal was to strengthen the state and sustain it against his rivals, but the state is collapsing. As for radicals in the movement, they wished the conflict with the north to continue and they supported rebel movements there and escalated unrest around the Abyei area. Internal conflict, the collapse of the state and the disappearance of international aid will deal a strong blow to their projects, which are now looking too far away from being realised than at any other time. Supporters of democracy and transparency in the movement and the state also face a problem due to ethnic division, the spread of conflict and the absence of state institutions, none of which favour the democratic structure
Since its inception, the SPLM has opted to declare war on the north and hold it responsible for all of the problems in the south instead of dealing with internal conflicts. The movement also chose separation without committing to its consequences and it continued to meddle in Khartoum's affairs. The result was that problems worsened rather than getting resolved.
The only solution is for the SPLM to start doing what it has always told others to do; it has always complained of the dominance of the northern elite on the reins of power in Sudan and it justified its separation on this basis, but it has done the same in the south and dominates over party, militia and tribe. The solution is not tribal fragmentation or the arrival of a rival tribe in power, but rather the application of what has been called for by the movement regarding equality for all and non-discrimination and exclusion on the basis of identity; at the very least, not to murder on the basis of identity.
This is a translation of the Arabic text published by Al Quds Al Arabi on 19 December, 2013
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.