Tribal Tensions in Southern Sudan and Election Approaches

By Allison Moody 04-14-2010

Editor's Note: As Sudan prepares for this April's election, the Khartoum regime's leader, President al-Bashir, has threatened to cut off the fingers of foreign election observers who "interfere" in the process. In contrast, in the country's South (whose 2005 peace accord with the North, after a long-running civil war, is the reason why this month's elections are happening at all) the election lead-up is not dominated by autocratic threats of violence -- but the transition to democracy is still messy.

In Kajo Keji, South Sudan, it is impossible to ignore this April's pending election. Decorations are seen hanging from clotheslines, and posters can be spotted on the doors of nearly every shop. A woman has been employed by the government for the sole purpose of making announcements regarding the elections; she rides around town on a boda boda (motorcycle taxi) making announcements through a large megaphone. The local taxi service offered free rides one evening in support of a favored local candidate, and night-long celebrations were hosted to promote another.

A major highlight of the election season was a visit made by South Sudan's current president, Salva Kiir Mayerdt, and his Vice President, Riek Machar. Tribal loyalties were clearly evident in the outdoor stadium where these men both spoke. Dr. Riek, as he is called locally, holds a Ph.D, and his concise yet compelling speech clearly reflected this. Despite his eloquence and congeniality, the crowd, composed almost entirely of members of the Kuku tribe, barely applauded him. However, when President Salva spoke, the crowd shouted "Oye" to nearly every promise he made. The candidate spoke of the "accomplishments" made during his current time in office and made bold promises for the future. Salva, a member of the Dinka tribe, was an important military leader for the Southern People's Libertion Movement (SPLM), not an accomplished academic. However, because of his military accomplishments, the locals believe that he will be a good leader to take them through the 2011 referendum. Yet the conditions of Sudan under his current regime all too clearly show that Salva's strengths lie in being a military commander, not a political figure equipped with the skills needed to build up schools, hospitals, and roadways -- all things clearly absent across South Sudan.

It is very significant that Salva is a Dinka because the Dinka tribe believes that all Southern leaders should be of their descent. The Sudanese are very used to responding to Dinka leadership. Indeed, many people are happy to continue to be led by a Dinka simply because of the fact that "it is the way it has always been" -- a statement used all too commonly to justify how something should continue to be done in South Sudan. Others are beginning to resent the monopoly that the Dinka tribe holds on all leadership positions. Less populous tribes throughout the South are beginning to vie for positions in leadership, and are becoming increasingly angry at the Dinka's insistence on keeping positions of power for their own people.

It is generally assumed that the SPLM party will completely sweep elections across South Sudan. Candidates not aligned with the party have attempted to fake an alliance by flying the Southern flag and speaking favorably on behalf of the SPLM publicly. SPLM soldiers and political candidates are treated as local celebrities. The people look to these individuals as the hope for a better Sudan. The locals all too conveniently seem to forget, or perhaps choose to ignore, the fact that their beloved SPLM party sometimes committed some of the same atrocities that they bash the other regimes for. SPLM soldiers took food from locals by force and also relied on child soldiers, recruited falsely under the pretense that they were being taken away to an academic school, not a military training program.

The safety of the country during election time is very uncertain. Many NGOs have left temporarily, as a precaution, in case fighting breaks out. For the locals, fighting is such a common part of life that fleeing seems completely unnecessary. Instead, they are registering to vote and preparing to do the little they can to contribute to the destiny of their struggling country.

Allison Moody lives in Kajo Keji, Sudan as part of Project Sudan, which works with local groups to improve community health and education.

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