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South Sudan: History Was Always Against Us


We are going to switch gears now and go to a place where fighting over racial and ethnic differences is about more than hurt feelings and lost opportunities. Secretary of State John Kerry is heading to Africa this week on a weeklong trip where he hopes to highlight advances in democratic and economic development and U.S. partnerships on the continent.

South Sudan is not on his official itinerary, but that country has to be very much on his mind after hundreds of civilians were massacred there earlier this month. It seems to have been a fight between two internal factions of this very young country.

We wanted to know more about what this was about and what this means for the country's future. So we've called Mading Ngor. He's a freelance journalist based in Juba, South Sudan. Mading, thanks so much for joining us once again.

MADING NGOR: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Also joining us for additional perspective is James Copnall. He's the BBC's former Sudan correspondent and author of a forthcoming book about the region, "A Poisonous Thorn In Our Hearts." James, welcome to you. Thank you for joining us as well.

JAMES COPNALL: My pleasure.

MARTIN: Mading, I'm going to start with you because you're there on the scene. What happened? How did this start?

NGOR: There was a political debate within the ruling party between the number two in the party and the chairman of the party. And then there was a wing that felt marginalized, a wing that was pressing for democratization of the party. And then in December, it became violent.

MARTIN: Right now, as you are speaking, what is the sense there?

NGOR: Well, South Sudan's future has become bleaker, and the optimism that I felt two years ago is fading out. The reasons are quite obvious.

In 2012, when I last spoke to you, our neighbor Khartoum was the number one existential threat to South Sudan. Now we have ourselves to blame for the mess that's going on presently. So there's a lot of bloody mess.

MARTIN: James, is there something you want to add about this? And just - I want to mention that you were in Sudan and South Sudan when the countries first divided - or when South Sudan first gained independence, as people say, in 2011. Do you want to add something to this about what do you think led to this most recent conflagration?

COPNALL: Well, yeah. I think Mading is absolutely right that the tensions within the governing party were at the very heart of this. But it also of course comes from a longer process as well - the fact that before South Sudan became independent, it fought two very long, very bitter wars with Khartoum, with the capital of what was then the united Sudan. Millions of people died. Many more were displaced. There was huge problems of lack of development.

And so when the South Sudanese leaders took on the mantle of governing an independent country, they had an incredibly difficult situation to deal with. But on top of that, they also themselves, in many cases, came as rebel leaders. And the party's own Luka Biong has talked about the liberation curse.

That's the idea that the qualities you have as a revolutionary leader, as a rebel leader fighting for your freedom, as they and the South Sudanese people saw it, are not necessarily the right ones to build a democratic consensual nation so all the political energy of the country was concentrated within the SPLM, the party that had taken the country to independence. But the institutions weren't strong enough and political ambitions were too big. And the people in power very often did a very bad job of governing the country. And that all led to the frustration and the growing political tension that eventually ended up with what is now a civil war.

MARTIN: And, James, often it seems that political difference seems to track along with some other visible difference that people latch on to, right? Or, you know, it kind of works both ways, like an ethnic difference then becomes kind of a vehicle to air political differences. And, you know, is there some kind of visible difference that allows these rivalries to fester or become easier to play off of, if you get my meaning? You know?

COPNALL: Yeah. Well, look, South Sudan is a very diverse country. There are more than 60 ethnic groups. And all Southern Sudanese - or almost - voted for independence. Ninety-nine percent voted for independence in the referendum. But that masked a lack of unity among the people.

So in the first year or two after separation, there were lots of interethnic conflicts, often based around cattle raiding and revenge for those initial attacks that cost hundreds or even thousands of lives. And that showed, a little bit, the ethnic tensions. And so although this conflict at the beginning did come, as Mading said, from a political rivalry, politicians very often have ethnic power bases.

And so this has become, not an ethnic war, I don't think, but an ethnicized war in which ethnicity has played an increasingly large part, including in some of the massacres we've been hearing about over the last few weeks.

MARTIN: Mading, I'm thinking about when we spoke you back in 2012 about returning to South Sudan to celebrate its independence. I just want to play short clip from our conversation then.

NGOR: The day of independence was like a wedding night, but nobody was asking the critical questions. Like after a honeymoon, you know, came bitter moon. So the honeymoon was short. It took a few days, and then people realized that we are actually back where we were.

MARTIN: I mean, it sounds to me as though there were people who were concerned about this at the very beginning, concerned that kind of the foundations for civil governance were not laid at the beginning. Is that right?

NGOR: That's correct. There's one unmistakable reality about our situation. History was always against us. What has happened has been the heart of failure of governance. The majority of the populations have been seeing the fruits of independence. So at some point, there was going to be some kind of unrest. We didn't know what form it was going to take.

So the present leadership and the elite have not charted a positive vision for the people. Now we see the fruits of parochialism tearing down the country. So indeed, there were always challenges. And the leadership did not tackle the challenges seriously.

MARTIN: So, Mading, is anyone being held accountable for this massacre? Is there any sense of remorse? Is there any accountability being taken by anyone or anybody demanding accountability? And does anyone have the authority to do so at this moment?

NGOR: Nobody can talk about accountability when war is going on. I have traveled around the country since the violence first hit in December, and what I have seen is disheartening.

In Bor Hospital in late January, I saw an old man with a crutch, lying face-down, dead. I was horrified to also see an old woman shot outside her hut, with her bloody supporting stick sitting next to her and countless other abuses, you know - burning in an army base in Pibor, human flesh burned like chicken. In Malakal Hospital, where I was a week ago, I was disturbed to see someone print his name in human blood.

You cannot talk about accountability in a situation that is still hard, and there's still tension, there's still fighting even as we speak.

MARTIN: James, can we have a final thought from you? Are there any efforts being taken internationally to try to bring some stability to this situation - eventually, accountability, but at least in the near-term just some sustained peace?

COPNALL: Well, the region - the East African region moved quite quickly to try and get negotiations going. And they have been taking place. But they haven't really achieved much. There was a cease-fire deal signed but hasn't been respected at all.

And I think there's a growing international concern about the scale of the violence in South Sudan. So you've seen both the United States and the United Nations threatening sanctions. And we'll have to see whether those actually come in to force and who they would target.

But I would say that the first thing that absolutely has to be done is to find a way of stopping the fighting. And so what that would require is a much-reinforced, monitoring, verification team - essentially military observers and if possible troops on the ground who could get in between the warring parties and if not stop them fighting, at least observe who is responsible for atrocities or breaking the cease-fire and make sure there are consequences for that because until the fighting stops, until people stop dying in some of the really horrifying ways Mading was just talking about, there's no real prospect of getting to the serious negotiations that would eventually enable South Sudan to move forward to a more prosperous future.

MARTIN: That was former BBC Sudan correspondent James Copnall. He is author of the forthcoming book about the region. The full name of the book is "A Poisonous Thorn In Our Hearts: Sudan And South Sudan's Bitter And Incomplete Divorce." He was with us from London. From Juba, freelance journalist Mading Ngor. Thank you both so much for joining us. We'll stay on top of this.

COPNALL: Thank you very much.

NGOR: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.