Inside the Growing Conflict in South Sudan — Blood, Oil and Cattle

The war in South Sudan is about ethnic identity and wealth, but the wealth is in two totally different forms: oil and cattle.

This article first appeared in PandoDaily.

The first thing you usually hear about the fighting in South Sudan is that it’s “tribal.”

It’s true enough that there’s a big tribal, or ethnic dimension, to the slow, simmering war there, but that doesn’t tell you much. Wars are always tribal, even wars supposedly fought over religion, like the Thirty Years War.

When Europe tore itself apart at the start of the 17th century, religion was the pretext but tribe was the working principle, the organizing principle. The war broke down on ethnic lines, because no matter what well-meaning liberals try to tell you, religion is almost always adopted by an entire tribe, and used to distinguish “our” group from “their” group. Cultures aren’t in the business of promoting diversity. Maybe they can be in the future, but they never were in the past.

Even the U.S. Civil War was tribal, on one level, in the sense that it was a war between two very different ethnic groups, with very different religions–Yankee/Anglican/immigrant North and Ulster/Calvinist/Scot South. Those two tribes fought over the fate of a third group, the African-American slaves. Both world wars were tribal; as soon as the guns boomed in 1914, working-class solidarity was forgotten and socialists signed up for the tribal army that was recruiting in their neighborhood.

So most wars are tribal–among other things. Rather than avoiding that colonial-sounding word when talking about Africa, it makes more sense to realize that it works just as well in non-African contexts. Africa is tribal because the world is tribal. What happened on the Malaysian Peninsula in the mid-twentieth century, for example, was bitterly tribal: The Malay and the Chinese who’d briefly coexisted under the rule of an alien tribal empire, Britain, reacted to independence with a bloody apartheid, ending up with two ethnic hegemonies, a Malay one call Malaysia and a Chinese enclave, Singapore. You could multiply examples like this from recent history just by opening an atlas and jabbing your finger at any random spot. Like the man said about turtles, it’s tribal all the way down.

Still, it’s a very tricky word to use, “tribal.” Very easy to twist to a nasty purpose. A lot of diehard colonials, who’d have been mortally insulted if you’d called them a “tribe” in their glory days, have done a little post-colonial word-judo by wrapping their oligarchies in the word “tribe” as if it gave them a backdated title to whatever scrap of land they grabbed. It gives them a soppy, sentimental claim to pity, like when pro-Unionists call Ian Paisley’s folks “The Faithful Tribe.”

That’s what you get after generations of victim-rhetoric: Colonials claiming to be tribal, and trust-fund kids shining up their hard-luck stories to impress the admissions committee.

Most wars are also about money, though that part isn’t always as easy to see as the ethnic angle. The war in South Sudan is about ethnic identity and wealth, but the wealth is in two totally different forms: oil and cattle. It’s easy for us to understand that oil equals money, but a little harder to understand that in South Sudan, cattle are money too, and a lot more than money–something very close to religion. Until oil came along, cattle were the only way you could maintain, show, and trade wealth in this landlocked, isolated swampland. A man was only as good as his herd.

There’s something weirdly Texan about the cattle culture of South Sudan. The president of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, always shows up wearing his trademark cowboy hat, looking like an African J.R. from Dallas, ready to wheel and deal for grazing, oil, or the odd assassination.

The real reason it looks so Texan to us urbanites is that Texas stereotypes are about as close as most of us get to cattle-worship. And yet it used to be standard practice among the Indo-Europeans, from “sacred cows” to stories about the horrible fate awaiting anyone who touched Apollo’s private herd.

Cattle are the oldest form of wealth, and still one of the most sensible. They produce their own interest, in the form of calves; they supply milk, blood, horn, leather, and meat–but meat isn’t part of the deal very often. You don’t want to eat up your capital. What you want is to grow your herd. You buy brides for your sons with cattle, and if your herds are big enough, you can choose the best available. To put it brutally, you breed prime grandchildren by breeding prime cattle.

It’s a great system, if you’re a cattle baron–and if you have the military power to protect your herd. When the rain fails and the grass withers on your home pastures, you move the herd to someplace greener. If there’s somebody grazing their herd there, you have a little war to see who gets the good grazing. Herding cultures don’t usually have the concept of private land; you take what your herd needs, by force if need be.

So cattle inevitably lead to little armies and little range wars. The fact that cattle are a portable feast means you can grab them out of an enemy’s territory and drive them back to your own. And that leads to the concept of the cattle raid. In every culture that worships cattle–which is most of them, from India to Sudan to Ireland–cattle raiding is an honored tradition, the most glorious and practical form of warfare.

It’s worth looking at the whole tradition of cattle raiding, just to remind yourself that humanity didn’t use to think bloodshed was a bad thing. Bloodshed, in fact, was the first and best fireside entertainment in every culture, and cattle raids were the socially acceptable way to provoke it on a large but manageable scale. You see it in culture after culture. For example, the big epic of Irish literature is something called the Tain bo Cualgne (pronounced “Toyn vuh Cooley,” because it’s a rule that no Irish word is allowed to be pronounced how it’s spelled).

“Tain” means “cattle raid,” and the whole plot of this clunker is a bunch of Irish thugs go to steal a bull from a bunch of other Irish thugs. And they kill each other in various elaborate and graphically described ways, one after another—kind of like Gangs of New York but with swords and bare feet.

It’s kind of a pint-sized Iliad, organized in classic death-porn style, starting out with the slaughter of smaller critters–one chapter is titled “The Killing of the Squirrel and the Tame Bird”–and going on to loving descriptions of the evisceration of various Celtic heroes, one by one–you don’t want to waste deaths, so they do it one at a time for maximum fireside-narrating pleasure. The Achilles of this pocket epic is Cuchulain, “He of the goddamn unpronounceable name,” as students of Irish lit. like to call him. He kills like a stripper disrobes, drawing it out slow. He kills one guy by first cutting a divot out from under him–you have to imagine them busting a gut around the fireside here at the sheer humorosity of it:

“Thereupon Cuchulain gave him a long-blow whereby he cut away the sod that was under the soles of his feet, so that he was stretched out like a sack on his back, and his limbs in the air and the sod on his belly. Had Cuchulain wished it, it is two pieces he might have made of him.”

But that would spoil the comic timing, so C.–let’s just call him “C.” so I don’t have to look up that spelling again–gives him another demonstration, this time a Vidal Sassoon sword trim:

“Cuchulain dealt him a well-aimed edge-stroke. With the edge of his sword he sheared the hair from him from poll to forehead, from one ear to the other, as if it were with a light, keen razor he had been shorn. Not a scratch of his skin gave blood.”

But sooner or later, you have to get to the point–“point,” geddit? That would’ve slayed’em around some smoky peat fire in the rain, believe me–so C. dispatches his straight man with an admirable cranium-to-navel stroke, and just when you think this Mozart of the sharpened tire-iron can’t top his latest bravura performance, he chops the fresh corpse into three pieces before it can even hit the ground:

“Cuchulain dealt him a cleaving blow on the crown of the head, so that it drove to his navel. He dealt him a second crosswise stroke, so that at the one time the three portions of his body came to the ground.”

The whole motive of this epic is the King and Queen are lying in bed doing an Irish version of pillow talk, which is ‘My family is just as rich as your family you bastard,’ but it turns out the Queen isn’t quite as rich because she can’t match the King’s bull, the bull being the original wealth-growing device. The bull was hers in the beginning but it “scorned being owned by a woman” and defected to the King’s herd. So the queen tries to negotiate for stud rights to the best bull in Ulster, but her envoys get drunk and mouth off, and the war is on. Which is what everybody wanted in the first place, so all is well in ancient Ireland.

Cattle raids, very much like the one described in the Tain, were the normal form of warfare among the tribes in South Sudan. For the average citizen of South Sudan, cattle are still the hot-button issue, as shown by the fact that a Nuer army threatened to wipe out a neighboring tribe in 2011 in order to keep Nuer cattle safe. But like politics in most countries, the issues that get the suckers excited aren’t really what’s behind the trouble. South Sudan has a lot of oil, and that make it an attractive target for meddling from the Islamist regime in Khartoum which supposedly let the south go free a couple of years ago. Outside powers have been raiding this part of the world, playing one tribe against another, for generations. It’s a grim history, with the tall black people of the South getting used by one invader after another. They weren’t colonized, because no foreigner could last long in the fever swamps of the Upper Nile, but those swamps were full of elephants, and ivory was worth money. So the African Elephant, maybe the most magnificent animal on the planet, was slaughtered to make billiard balls and cane handles for Victorian assholes.

Killing all those elephants, hacking off their tusks, and carrying them north to the Mediterranean required a lot of labor, and since the cheapest labor is the kind you don’t have to pay, the people of the swamps were turned into slaves by the Ottoman and Egyptian ivory traders who sold to the Europeans. That led to the creation of whole armies of Southern slaves, and to the grim spectacle of Dinka, Nuer, Shilluk and other Southern tribes slaughtering each other not just in the traditional cattle raids but for the profit of foreign entrepreneurs.

In the 1880s, when Europe was doing a supposedly final division of Africa, the British joined the swamps of the South to Northern Sudan, a dry, Arab, ultra-Islamic region that had nothing in common with the South–and so the accursed, artificial country we used to call “Sudan” was born. It was always two totally different countries forced into one; worse yet, one of them, the Muslim/Arab North, was always much stronger than the other, the South. There are tribal divisions even among Sudanese Arabs, but there’s also a common “Arab” identity and religion uniting the whole North. The South had no single identity; South Sudan is divided up among dozens of tribes, with only two, the Dinka and Nuer, big enough to form real power blocs. And since the North was the part that had most contact with the rest of the world, the South was left to the very un-tender mercies of the Arab/Muslim cliques that rule in Khartoum.

The South began rebelling against the North very soon after independence in 1956, organizing the SPLM/A, Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement/Army. The Khartoum government has acted exactly like any brutal regime faced with insurgency in a multi-ethnic region always acts: When the two biggest tribes are temporarily united against you, you make an alliance with the third-biggest, arm it and use it against them.

The third-biggest tribe in the South is the Murle, who are the most isolated of all, stuck east of the Nile, up against the Ethiopian border in the Pibor region of Jonglei. The Murle are paying a big price for siding with Khartoum against the South; they’ve been starved of what little funding there is in the South, and even tried an insurgency of their own under the whimsically named David Yau Yau, which was brutally crushed by the SPLA.

The Nuer have an especially intense fear of the Murle, because the Nuer provinces butt up against the Murle’s land east of the river. The Nuer have been the wild card ever since the South got its independence, because they see themselves as surrounded by old enemies–the Dinka, who dominate the new government, to their west, and the Murle, who steal their precious cattle, to the southeast.

You can see the resentment of the Nuer educated elite in this bitter, detailed blog listing the new government’s preference for Dinka, especially those from President Salva Kiir’s home province.

This is the stuff that fuels coups among tiny elites in new countries like South Sudan. The number of embassy posts available is even tinier than the pool of Western-educated candidates, so any perceived tilt in the ethnic origin of the winning candidates makes for lifelong hatred. Kind of like tenure-track job competitions I could name.

Among the rural masses, resentment has a much more traditional cause: cattle raids, water rights, all the plot devices you remember from old Westerns, but still deadly serious in places where cattle are the only form of wealth. It was probably inevitable that the two biggest tribes, Dinka and Nuer, would split once they no longer had a common enemy to fight. Dr. Riek Machar, the man causing all the trouble in the country at the moment, got off to an early start in his splittin’ ways. Unhappy with Dinka domination of the rebel movement, he started his own SPLM/A-Nasir faction and took his fighters on a horrible, bloodthirsty rampage through Dinka territory, culminating in an atrocity in the very same neighborhood Machar’s Nuer fighters are terrorizing now, the Bor district.

That episode ended in the Bor Massacre. Ever hear of that? Not many people have, but it was one of the worst. At least 2,000 Dinka civilians were killed around the town of Bor, and another 25,000 died when the local population fled the massacres, hunkered down in the bush, and starved. It’s the little kids who die first in that situation, so massacres like this, as horrible as they are, are not “senseless.” Heartless yes; senseless no. By killing a few thousand people, you force a much bigger group to flee. And in Central Africa, fleeing your village for the bush means death for a good percentage of the group, especially the youngest. Most likely, the real death toll was much, much higher than the estimates, because this is a part of the world where the death tolls are always low-balled. So Dr. Riek managed to kill a big part of the next generation of Dinka, and he did it without incurring the wrath of the world community, such as it is, because the world doesn’t care what happens to inland Africans.

But the Dinka remember. Check out their comments on this story about the time Machar got around to issuing the inevitable tearful apology these creeps always make, once they’re sure they won’t be prosecuted. This is from a London newspaper aimed at African immigrants, and you can see that some of the Dinka readers aren’t willing to let Dr. Machar squirt a few and move on:

Nyanditjuny says:

September 11, 2012 at 12:12 pm

Dear Dr. Riek.

Even if you shed the tears of blood. It will very hard to forgive you.

In 2011, the Nuer “White Army,” which is now trending for the first time in history in Google searches, struck out at the Nuers’ other enemies, the Murle. This group of armed young men from the Lou Nuer officially declared that it would “wipe out the entire Murle tribe on the face of the earth as the only solution to guarantee long-term security of Nuer’s cattle.”

That particular raid fell way short of its genocidal goal, but only because the Murle have weapons of their own, courtesy of the Arabs of the North, and aren’t all that easy to wipe out. But the intention was clear: tribe-on-tribe genocide. If cattle mean your family’s only wealth, your only hope of a good marriage or status in the group, you will kill for cattle. And it’s more than wealth involved. There’s real love between people and cattle among pastoral African groups. I remember a letter someone got from a friend among the Maasai of Kenya. The writer signed off with this unforgettable message: “People and cows are in a good mood.”

So the trend for what happened recently was set a long time ago. The Dinka are in power, the Nuer are in a paranoid mood, and the most prominent Nuer in South Sudan, Dr. Riek Machar, is more than willing to use that bad mood among Nuer people and cows to turn the whole country upside-down and kill large numbers of people to put himself on the presidential throne. He did it in 1991, and for all his tearful apologies, he’s perfectly ready to do it again.

As usual, there are no clear good guys in this situation but there is one very clear bad guy, Machar. And if you know your insurgencies, he has one obvious move left, now that he’s alienated both the Dinka and the Murle: Make a deal with the Arabs in Khartoum.

After all, it always did seem a little suspicious that the North let the south go so easily after the South voted for independence in a 98.83% landslide.

And no one, not even the Islamist, Arab-chauvinist bastards ruling in Khartoum, even suggested there was anything inflated about that result. Once you’ve been “governed” by the Sudanese Army under Omar el-Bashir, you don’t ever want to be inside their big tent again, and even they know it.

But that doesn’t mean they accept the results. Bashir and his genocide-specialist army know they’ve done horrible things in Darfur, too–Bashir even admitted it, more or less, or came as close as an animal like him can to it– but that doesn’t mean Khartoum has any intention of giving up Darfur. Khartoum is like the Deitzes in Beetlejuice: they don’t walk away from equity. And the South is a big, oil-rich equity. So why did the North seemingly walk away so easily from big money and all that land?

Maybe they didn’t. Maybe they always intended to let the South fall apart, collapse in the inevitable inter-tribal feuds–at which point their brothers in the North would march south to save the day. Bashir himself laid out the scenario for the South’s collapse with very weird, uncharacteristic honesty in a 2011 interview (HT Paul Skallas):

“Unfortunately, we notice that there is a lot of complaining, divisions and insurgency, because the government in the South has serious problems in dealing with its people. [The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement] have all the rights, and others who are not with the liberation movement don’t have any rights.

“Inside the liberation movement there are influential groups controlling everything, authority and money, while other groups are being marginalised.”

There’s Omar el-Bashir, the organizer of the Darfur genocide, head of a clique that considers Southerners, and all black Africans, “abeed” (slaves) and “Kufr” (unbelievers), suddenly waxing eloquent about the unequal division of political rights among these people he considers subhuman. It’s a very odd spectacle, and if you’re part of the South Sudanese government, it’s a very worrying one.

It’s possible Machar and the Khartoum government have already made a deal, with Machar getting some kind of puppet-ruler guarantee in the event he manages to wreck South Sudan thoroughly enough to allow the North to step back in. The very good Africa analyst who goes by the Twitter name @tresthomas_HOA hinted at this by asking a very good question: Who’s paying the Nuer fighters Machar has unleashed on the South?

Horn Of Africa ‏@tresthomas_HOA26 Dec

SPLA claims of pro-Machar forces looting in Bor raises broader ? of how rebel troops are getting paid…

Eric Reeves laid out the Machar/Khartoum alliance scenario in an excellent article, pointing out that, though this is a high-risk strategy, Khartoum doesn’t have a lot of others left:

“Riek will certainly feel free to make a better offer than Khartoum now receives from Juba…In assessing what Khartoum makes of this overture…it is important to realize that the most militaristic and “anti-South” elements predominate in the regime, especially on decisions about war and peace (it was this security cabal that demanded President Omar al-Bashir renege on the agreement of June 2011 to negotiate a peace in South Kordofan, an agreement signed by senior regime official Nafie Ali Nafie). Regard for international opinion among these brutal men is minimal.”

You have to hope that Reeves is wrong in this analysis, but it makes a lot of sense. Machar has a huge ego, a history of brutality, and no other way to make it back into power. He can scare ordinary Nuer herders by raising the terror of cattle raids on an ever-larger scale by Murle and Dinka enemies, but at the level that really matters, Riek’s level, this isn’t about cattle. It’s about a much more modern form of wealth: oil, and the blood that keeps it flowing.

If Machar can give the oil-rich parts of the South back to Khartoum, they’ll be more than happy to let him rule a Vichy state in the rest of the South. The only losers would be the people of the South, and no one cares much about them.

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