One of the more selfless acts by the United States in the past decade was to help negotiate an end to Sudan’s long civil war. The result? A rare case in which a colonial-era boundary in Africa was altered. South Sudan was created in 2011, ending a slaughter that had taken millions of lives.
Yet for this newest of nations, violence has erupted in recent days, threatening to split a country of nearly 10 million people, just as Sudan was divided into two. The US and others are wringing their hands over how – or whether – to intervene. “South Sudan stands at the precipice,” President Obama said in a statement on Thursday. “Recent fighting threatens to plunge South Sudan back into the dark days of its past.”
This time, the contest over national identity is different. And it is one just as detrimental for peace as the contest during Sudan’s 1983-2005 war. Since early June, South Sudan’s democratic government has split into belligerent factions along tribal lines. President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, blames his former vice president, Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer, for fomenting the violence since early December that threatens a civil war and mass atrocities. Each side, backed by armed groups, demands more of the country’s resources or a larger share of power.
During Sudan’s civil war, the clash of identities was between a largely Christian, animist, and black population in the south and the largely Muslim and Arab people in the north. Now the people of South Sudan are being forced to take sides in a battle between their leaders over smaller divisions.
South Sudan is a country of at least 60 tribes with numerous languages or dialects. When its people were suffering under the oppression of northern Sudan, they were largely united. With only two years of independence, South Sudan has yet to form an identity that rises above tribe. It does not see strength in diversity or harmony in tolerance and inclusiveness. With a territory the size of France, it has not formed enough of a shared history and culture around common ideals.
The modern form of nationalism, born in 17th-century Europe after centuries of religious strife on the continent, remains a difficult and entrenched force for conflict in the world, especially in Africa. The European Union itself, created after World War II to dampen historic tensions between nation-states, has even fallen back into economic nationalism. And some groups, such as the Scots, Flemings, and Catalonians, seek a form of sucession.
What helps groups of people find the best, most-peaceful identity for a democratic political entity?
In the EU, the US, and many parts of the world, unity has required some sort of shared sacrifice to achieve a greater good. But sacrifice what? One’s clan, tribe, or ethnicity? One’s economic “class”? Even more difficult, how can a diverse group of people in a new democracy, such as South Sudan, define their shared values in such a relatively short time?
It helps countries like South Sudan when countries that have gone through difficult times in shaping their values – think of America’s civil war and its sacrifices – then step up to offer assistance to others, either in diplomacy, aid, or even military intervention. The US and EU are not absolute paragons of virtue but they do have lessons to teach about how to rise above strife-prone identities and rally around values that help pacify and unify.
South Sudan is just the latest African country to struggle with this process of finding national identity. The turmoil in Central African Republic is another current crisis. The US, Europe, and others with well-formed democracies have a role to play in such cases. They know the sacrifice that was needed for their own unity. Now they must decide how much to sacrifice to help other peoples find their unity.