“When the SPLA were fighting, the Dinka were told that they could take whatever land they liberated,” William explains with palpable frustration. “Now they remain here, forcing themselves on us.” He angles his battered pick-up abruptly, hoping to avoid potholes carved by recent rains. Despite his efforts, the bumps send my head crashing into the doorframe. Traveling thirty miles takes two grueling hours.
Our truck meanders through fertile plains outside of Yei, the main hub of Sudan’s deep south. Unlike many parts of the region, muscular, nourished farmers till soil along the side of the road. Steep mountains and lush hills form an unexpectedly serene backdrop, a stark departure from the arid, windswept plains farther north. The region is damp from rains that continue to elude the rest of southern Sudan. As states throughout the south remain on the brink of drought, this area enjoys not one, but two rain seasons.
“This is the best land in south Sudan,” William says, pointing out a well-developed plot of cassava plants. Several women and children swing hoes around the base of the plants, clearing weeds. “Most of the tribes outside the Equitorias are facing hunger, but not us.” He’s referring to Central, Eastern and Western Equitoria, three of southern Sudan’s ten states. Together, the Equitorias form the borders with Congo, Uganda and Kenya and constitute a significant portion of the so-called “green belt,” or agricultural heartland.
“When the SPLA arrived here in the late 90s, many of the Dinka commanders and soldiers decided that they wanted to stay,” William explains. The Dinka tribe is the largest in south Sudan and made up the majority of the SPLA fighting force. “Many of them were from Jonglei and Bahr al-Ghazel states and those places are not nice like Yei.” The states to which he refers are the stereotypes of Sudan’s notoriously harsh environment. They are occupied by largely by pastoralist communities that prefer cattle herding to agriculture. In many areas of these states, communities suffer from severe food shortages and a lack of access to schools, health facilities and other basic services.
“Those Dinka want to keep all the power for themselves and keep the native tribes of this area down,” William adds. His eyes dart frequently in my direction as his tome becomes more political. He’s checking to make sure I’m grasping the seriousness of it all. “They are stupid people mostly, many of them have never finished secondary school.” He contrasts Dinka with the Kakwa and other tribes native to this area. “Those of Central Equitoria are the most learned people in this country,” he insists. “It is not possible for us to live under the foot of these ignorant and aggressive people.”
Many share his sentiments here. I’ve yet to make a trip to this region that did not include at least one vitriolic tome against the Dinka. While the region shows no signs of imminent communal violence against the unwelcomed Dinka population, I fear that Equitorians retain dangerous illusions about the future status of their respective states.
“We are educated, we have resources and we are not being treated well by the Dinka who dominate the government [of South Sudan],” William says. “If things do not change, we will be forced to break away from South Sudan.” A smile spreads across his face at the idea of secession. Again, he looks readily in my direction for support, which I cannot provide.
While not all admit it, many Equitorians maintain that succession from an independent South Sudan is an option for the future. To be fair, groups in other parts of south Sudan also hold similar ideas, each citing its own reasons. I am deeply troubled by this notion because it illustrates a lack of understanding about international paradigms. With few exceptions, the international community no longer encourages nor recognizes the formation of new states. As recent history attests, it is only those secessionist movements that hold crucial geopolitical significance that are able to achieve their objectives. Those without it remain angrily tied to their central governments (see Chechnya, Somaliland, Kurdish movements in Iraq and southeastern Turkey, Islamic guerillas in southern Thailand and numerous others.)
Together, the southern Sudanese independence movement garnered international support largely due to the unpopularity of its opponent, Omar al-Bashir. With few exceptions, I do not believe that international bodies and government leadership believed in the nobility or righteousness of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. They merely saw an enemy-of-an-enemy and made it a friend. Partnership and support to the SPLA was a step towards denying resources and, consequently, revenue to a recalcitrant Bashir. International willingness to recognize southern independence is aimed at Bashir and, by extension, China and India, the primary consumers of Sudanese oil.
I fear that some in the south fail to see the political nature of international recognition and believe that further dismemberment of the country is a plausible solution to internal differences. The international community will not recognize the dissolution of southern Sudan. Once independence from the north is secured, differences between southern communities will have to be resolved within the boundaries of the “new” southern Sudan. With Bashir’s sphere curtailed, the west’s interest in southern Sudanese politics will not extend much further than securing the consistent flow of oil into friendly hands.
The fact that the broader southern independence movement is being internationally recognized sets enough of a dangerous precedent for states struggling with secessionist movements. It is a calculated and politically motivated move by the international community and should not be interpreted by southerners as a carte blanche to carve up the state every time a conflict arises. Maintaining this line of thinking only makes essential political discourse more elusive.