Sandlines: The Ongoing Saga of Southern Sudan

Between northern Uganda and now Southern Sudan, heavily armed Nilotic pastoralists have been much on my plate these last two months. I wrote about Karamoja in November, a remote and volatile region of Uganda where life revolves around livestock, primarily the bovine variety. Tending and stealing cattle is how most Karamojong spend their time. I’m now in Southern Sudan where related Nilotic tribes live the same way, but in the context of a long civil war. Bullets fly and cattle reigns supreme.

Nuer_cattle_wealth_today_ In Karamoja, the Ugandan army is struggling to disarm the population and bring order and development to the region. Yet locals show little interest in Uganda the nation-state, or in being Ugandans at all. Life there is nasty, brutish and short, but the Karamojong don’t seem to want it any other way. Cattle raiding claims many innocent lives. Numerous others are killed during government disarmament exercises. The uniqueness of the region was slow to dawn on me, but when it did I laughed aloud at my pessimistic self, surprised to find joy in so raw and ruthless a place.

Make War, Save Culture

Few doubt that Karamojong culture is in crisis. Yet Karamojong insouciance is undaunted: people are usually stubborn and sometimes haughty, but always charming. Such healthy sentiments are rare in conflict zones where trauma, loss and destitution starve the spirit and erode the integrity of tradition and culture. Arms proliferation and constant violence is dividing old and young, but the performative aspects of Karamojong culture are far from dissipated.

Equally insouciant was their rejection of any identification with wider Uganda and of outsider efforts to sedentarize their lifestyle with schools, health clinics and cattle ranches (in lieu of nomadism). Within a regional context where civil war is common, the absence of any political agenda to their warlike lifestyle seemed quixotic, and therefore intriguing. If anything, their organized chaos prevents domination by any would-be master, allowing for an unmediated and merciless freedom. A wild ride, and definitely not safe for Starbucks.

This morning as my colleague and I sat under a tree waiting for a plane out of Rumbek, Sudan, our chat turned to why we were always returning to places like South Sudan and Karamoja. Work had brought us here, but who would actually want to come to such a place? A long silence of vacant staring followed. I noticed a desiccated frog skin lying in the dirt, suggesting oven-level air temperatures. My brain was not melting; it was cooking in its shell.

Finally, one of us managed to utter the obvious: “Life without [such places] would be too boring.” Sure, but why is this place a desirable destination? It wasn’t the adrenaline of ever-shifting lines in combat territory, the ephemeral alliances of armed groups and implication of neighbouring states, the threats to regional stability—bref, the play button of human existence stuck on fast forward. That part is seductive, but it’s also a ‘so what’—it happens in lots of countries. Infighting among the species is the Security Council’s daily bread.

Sudan and Karamoja surprise and fascinate because conflict conspires with a lack of infrastructure to produce a hermetically sealed human environment. As a counter example, Iraqi civilians are hostage to conflict just as much as the Karamojong. The difference is that Iraq was well-developed before the war, and basic infrastructure remains intact. Neither Southern Sudan nor Karamoja were ever developed: sun, moon, stars and earth are all you get here. Hunkered down and traumatized, Iraqis are still able to learn of goings-on in the wider world. Unlike people here, Iraqis know their crisis inside and out. They experience it firsthand, obviously. And access to media permits knowledge of how that experience is reported, interpreted and understood by the outside world.

The situation is entirely different here. There is no ‘reconstruction’ to speak of; everything must start from scratch. A handful of politicians and warlords aside, decades of conflict obstructs development and keeps Nilotic pastoralists inside a time capsule. Of course, IDPs and refugees may flee these crises, but often end up in some similarly isolated camp elsewhere in the region.

War and its tragedies definitely warp cultural institutions and destroy basic social bonds—here, Iraq, wherever armed conflict is sustained over time. But in the absence of modernity and its technoid trappings, many people in this part of Africa have nothing but the knowledge and practices they inherit from their immediate forbearers. Without the ‘friction’ of outside influence, these traditions move freely forward into the present, unencumbered by the challenge of difference and adaptation. This is not mystification or nostalgia. Like an experiment in social engineering left unattended for generations, ‘Karamoja’ is what happens when human existence is deprived of external stimuli to the point where ‘exterior’ is nowhere, a stealthy fiction.

Consternation in New Sudan

Life for many in Southern Sudan remains very traditional and appears undistorted by outside influences. This is not for lack of trying: the Khartoum government tried (unsuccessfully) to Islamicize the south for well over a decade, up to the ceasefire of 2005. The US and its allies supported the main southern rebel faction, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, throughout the North/South war that reignited in the early 1980s. Given the dominance of the Dinka tribe in the SPLA, splinter factions were inevitable, some of whom sided with the government at various times. 125pxflag_of_the_splam_svg

A Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was reached in 2005, built around equitable distribution of oil revenue with the North from its extraction facilities in southern territory. Since then aid money has flowed in from every direction, inundating the nascent civilian administration, comprised chiefly of SPLA leaders, following the loss of its central figure and founder, John Garang, five months after the CPA. The South can vote on whether it will secede or continue as one with the North in a referendum scheduled for 2011. A unified Sudan (‘New Sudan’) was Garang’s personal vision; most southerners do not trust the North and have no historical or cultural bond to it politics or people.

Dinka_ash_manI have worked in Sudan several times over the years, but have not been back in South since 1993, when I worked on the SPLA side of the war. Back then, Khartoum forces held key towns and SPLA controlled the bush. Cattle raiding went on, and the various tribes were in constant hostility.

The SPLA became increasingly homogenous, unrepresentative of the South’s diverse ethnic make-up. Yet the US, UK and the Scandinavians all supported Garang to the hilt; he was their ‘freedom fighter’ despite defending Mengistu’s Derg regime throughout all its atrocities and contrived famines in the 1980s. As head of the SPLA he was an autocrat whose administration ran Southern Sudan ‘out of his briefcase’, as we used to say, since he delegated to no one.

As a result, South Sudan today preaches democracy and tolerance but its government is neither democratic nor tolerant. ‘Be patient’, we are told, ‘the country is just starting’. On a personal level, there is something genuinely exciting about seeing the place liberated after two decades of fighting. The Sudanese conflict was the only one I worked in throughout the 1990s that made any sense to me. Somalia, Rwanda, Congo were all infused with ethnic grievance, not political vision.

Although it is near heresy to say this here, South Sudan stands a far greater chance at not repeating the same oppressive practices of the North now that Garang is dead. In the eyes of the US administration, he remains a deity; few see that their total investment in Garang the man created the conditions for the weak and ill-equipped administration in power today. Hundreds of millions of dollars of development aid does not a functional government make! It only fuels the dysfunction and clueless management so much in evidence here. Provided there is peace in the South (many internal conflicts remain), the road to a functional state will be very long.

Grease ‘em up and shoot!

We leave the South today and travel to the so-called Transitional Areas, whose fate as Northern or Southern states is pending national referendum in 2011. Literally on the border between North and South, these areas were arguably the most affected by the war, as their political affiliations were constantly suspect. Nuba is technically in Kordofan, a northern state, but its population are predominantly African, and SPLA support was strong during the war.

I last visited the area just as its ceasefire came into effect in 2002. North and South continued to fight, but the Nuba ceasefire laid the groundwork for the CPA that now covers the country (except Darfur).

Leni_loves_the_nubaThe Nuba people are Nubawrestlerswidely recognizable to outsiders thanks to the work of a single photographer, Leni Riefenstahl, who documented and glorified them in the late sixties and seventies. Khartoum regimes of the day used her coffee table books as diplomatic gifts, ostensibly to celebrate Sudanese diversity. In the subsequent turn toward sharia and Islamicization of the country under the National Islamic Front, the now-famous Nuba were targeted as backward and pagan, thus ripe for forced conversion and re-programming. 

Riefenstahl’s relationship with the Nuba is quite interesting, and is well covered in “The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl,” a 1993 German documentary. She manipulated their appearance for effect, which apparently they did not mind at the time. The Nuba do not grease themselves, for instance, either for beautification or for sport: their style of wrestling is still widely practiced both in Kordofan and in IDP camps in Khartoum where many fled the war. The Riefenstahl aesthetic was scrutinized in Susan Sontag’s “Fascinating Fascism” (1975).

We are running to the airstrip!