The crackdown in Equatoria threatens not only the civilians caught up in the violence but also the promise of a sustainable peace in South Sudan.
When the guns fell silent and the world emerged blinking and traumatised following four devastating years of industrial scale slaughter at the end of what was then called the ‘war to end all wars’, a pacifist movement took root.
World War I, which plunged Europe into the bitter existential struggle of total war, raged for four years between 1914 and 1918. The European powers, lulled into a false sense of security by the easy victories of their aggressive imperialist expansionism – where they pitted rifle and cannon against arrow and spear – were unprepared to meet an equally equipped and trained enemy.
Imperial powers and their dominions were sucked into a bloodbath, where 17 million military personnel and civilians perished. The staggering horror of 11,600 deaths each day of the war, made more cruel and nightmarish by the application of technological advancement such as chemical weapons, stunned Europeans into intense introspection.
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori. – Lt. Wilfred Owen, Poet (KIA 1918)
‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ translated from the Latin means ‘It is sweet and glorious to die for one’s country’.
It was militarism that started the war; the ideology that might was right. The adopted solution to militarism was pacifism; the rejection of warfare as an inherently immoral act that could never be condoned. It is the doctrine that there can be no just war and that there is no bad peace. Pacifist movements and groups grew widespread and anti-war sentiment took root in the popular culture of the time.
But, a little over two decades after the end of World War I and despite the rise of pacifism, Europe and the many parts of the world were once again consumed by total war. World War II forced many who had once raised the pacifist banner to abandon their ideals and zealously support the war effort. Ideas like Relative Pacifism and Conditional Pacifism entered the popular vocabulary as those directly affected by the war determined to justify their active involvement in it. Why was this?
Among Equatorians, a rich seam of pacifism exists. It is realised in a commitment to dialogue and constitutionalism. As South Sudan’s first civil war escalated, blazing a path from Juba to ignite Upper Nile in a conflagration of intercommunal violence of a ferocity undreamt of in the South Sudanese collective consciousness, Equatoria determined to be apart from the violence. After all, as the narrative goes, it was on Equatorian soil that the two wars of liberation were predominantly fought and Equatoria paid a heavy price for it. Equatorians would never again let war ravage the region or take away what precious little had been gained from development since the signing of the CPA and the advent of our nation’s independence. More so that the civil war (rightly or wrongly) was perceived as threatening to embroil the nation and the organs of state in a tribal war that released decades of pent up ethnic animosity in an orgy of violence.
You have known that the two big tribes there are fighting among themselves and hatred has developed and it is difficult to attain peace. It is the only chance that for the people of Equatoria coming together so as to bring an end to this war between Dinka and Nuer. Who you are going to fight, are you going to fight with Dinka or [Nuer]? Equatorians should remain neutral so as to be able to bring peace. Equatorians should stand for peace. – Clement Wani Konga, Former Governor of Central Equatoria State
Fast forward to the present, and this seam of pacifism is quickly being exhausted. The voices urging dialogue, due process and restraint are being crowded out by a more emotive and seductive narrative – that of resistance against injustice.
South Sudan is undoubtedly a violent nation. Militarism continues to define the nation’s political discourse and informs its approach to most crises. Intimidation and coercion have been more readily applied than public debate and persuasion. Violence, whether criminal or state sponsored, is endemic and serves as a sad reminder that a people exposed to half a century of conflict can’t help but be traumatised by the experience and feel compelled to act out that terrible trauma on their fellow men and women. But even to the woeful standards of post-independence South Sudan’s humanitarian record, the current crackdown on Equatoria has raised concerns internationally and outright revulsion locally.
The crackdown takes many forms.
The political, and therefore improper, dismissal of two Equatorian governors who were popular among their constituents for their principled stance on Equatorian affairs – a stance which often put them at odds with central government, has unsettled the Equatorian caucus.
The involuntary disappearances, some made public – such as the disappearance and presumed murder of the veteran politician Peter Abdelrahman Sule and the journalist Clement Lochio Lomornana – and many others kept out of the public light by families made fearful of reprisal and journalists scared into self-censorship by threats against their persons and the murder of their peers. These have served to spread terror within society and generate a feeling of growing insecurity among Equatorian communities.
And the heavy handed and vindictive attitude of SPLA commando units, seemingly hell bent on terrorising Equatorians has caused thousands of civilians to flee their homes. The latest incident in Wonduruba paints a vivid image of acts committed throughout Equatoria; in Magwi, in Mundri, in Maridi, in Yambio, in Kapoeta East and other counties.
It is totally disastrous. Number one, what we have seen, what you could feel is the fear. The other thing, we have seen the level of looting… you cannot imagine. The very army, looting their institutions, the police, the prison, the coordinator’s office. You can see even the flag of Central Equatoria State has been brought down, has been torn. This is a total destruction. I don’t know what kind of heart do we have as South Sudanese. – Episcopal Bishop Paul Yugusuk
According to Alex de Waal, South Sudan analyst and director of the World Peace Foundation, a political crackdown is to be expected given the difficult political position the government finds itself. I had hoped that South Sudan could rise above the zero-sum politics of the old Sudan.
I would argue that what is quietly happening now in Equatoria is incredibly counterproductive. Those behind it fail to understand that the action only serves to undermine nationalism and add fuel to a rising tide of regionalism sweeping Equatoria – one that could have profound and lasting consequences for the nature of our republic. The more aggressive the action, the more acute will be felt the injustice of undeserved repression. The pacifism that Equatoria embraced at the end of the second war of liberation held the promise of a politics without violence. It held the promise that the rule of law and constitutionalism could finally end the stranglehold of militarism and the uncertainty of the ‘doctrine of necessity’. It is a damning indictment that this admirable pacifism, so needed by our fragile and uncertain nation, has now been so dangerously eroded for the sake of political survival.