The logic of violence in South Sudan

In the past week, there’s been sustained violence in Yambio, the capital of Western Equatoria state in South Sudan.

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Main St., Yambio

A friend in the area wrote me this:

Beginning from Wednesday last week has been very hard for Yambio, many people have been killed. A delegation from Juba came in to try to sort out the issues. They left yesterday. [There are] many IDPs [internally displaced persons] in various points including the UPDF [Ugandan army] base in Nzara airstrip, ADRA compound in Yambio and other churches. Starvation is getting high.

The news is somewhat surprising because Western Equatoria has been largely remote from the ongoing violence in parts of South Sudan that began in December 2013. This news report frames the conflict as being one between members of the Zande and Dinka ethnic groups. There’s probably some truth to that, though as always it’s important to understand the long history.

The Zande are an agrarian people and the Dinka are cattle-keeping pastoralists. I don’t want to essentialize people, but I remember on a visit to Western Equatoria once seeing several Dinka driving a huge herd of cattle down the road. (Our car had to pull off to the side.) On either side of the road were the farms of the Zande. It’s basic, but you can see the potential for conflict right there.

But there’s a more recent history as well. Yambio is the heartland of the former Zande kingdom, which was dismantled with the coming of colonialism. Dinka are more recent arrivals. During Sudan’s second civil war in the 1980s and 1990s, the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army—dominated by Dinka—”liberated” western Equatoria early on but then ruled the territory in ways that made many Zande resent their presence.

In any event, this recent violence in Western Equatoria pales in comparison to what is going on in other parts of the country, where horrific reports are emerging of violence involving Dinka and Nuer. But I highlight this episode for two reasons.

First, it shows the logic of violence. When a state can’t stop violence—indeed, when it becomes a perpetrator—people start thinking that violence is a legitimate recourse to “resolve” grievances. In this case, the particular grievance appears to be the governor. As South Sudan’s civil war stretches on without any meaningful resolution, the logic of violence is that it will only spread until it comes to seem as if it is the only way to address conflict.

Second, I was struck by the note my friend sent me. The government comes. The government “sorts things out.” The government moves on. And what remains? People whose lives have been changed, who are seeking refuge and who are now displaced. What happens to them? The cumulative impact of these “small” outbreaks of violence is only to further destablize and set back the country.

My friend, who works in the church, concluded his e-mail by saying that church leaders are meeting to consider their response. I shall share more information as I receive it.

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