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Forgotten Refugees of South Sudan

By Catherine Nalule

21st February 2017

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Photo by Charles Atiki Lomodong

South Sudan is currently the source of Africa’s largest refugee crisis. Since the beginning of the civil war in 2013, over 1.5 million people have been forced to flee their homes. Why has there not been sufficient media coverage of this crisis?

Surely, the circulation of dead black bodies and warfare in Africa, is something the Western media has never failed to perpetuate. So why are so many people unaware of what is happening in South Sudan, and even more so, the severity of it?

Gaining its independence in July 2011, South Sudan is the world’s newest country. Before their succession, Sudan as a whole suffered civil wars lasting decades, most notably; 1955-72 and 1983-2005. With the latter civil war being a continuation of the former, it stands as the longest running civil conflict in history. Caused by political and ethnic tensions; the current civil war in South Sudan is not so different. In 2016, almost 350,000 people fled South Sudan into neighbouring Uganda alone. A total of 200,000 people fled Syria in the same year. Without demeaning one country’s refugee crisis for another, the crisis in Sudan is dire and must not be overlooked. Daily, an estimated 2,500 people from South Sudan are becoming refugees, often with stories of the turmoil. Perhaps by focusing on the more specific causes of the past civil wars in Sudan, we can gain a more profound understanding of the current crisis in South Sudan.

 

Political Manoeuvres: the War of the Educated

Ethnic tensions have remained the forefront for reasons behind the violence within the Sudanese region. At least for the civilians. However, J.H. Jok et al. write about this wave of realisation among ordinary citizens; that this new form of warfare has “transgressed all the ethical limits on violence.” In short, up until 1991 when the SPLA (Sudan’s People’s Liberation Army – the army of South Sudan) split, the conflict was less aggressively centred around patterns of cattle raiding. However, once SPLA-Nasir formed (the split faction of SPLA), there was an increase of militarisation in South Sudan. This cultivated a rise of military assaults; intentionally killing women, children and the elderly.

The SPLA-Nasir, led by Riek Machar (former Vice President of South Sudan), and SPLA, led by John Garang (former Vice President of Sudan and former President of South Sudan), had been fighting a proxy war. Aside from any ethnic, economic or religious tensions, the fighting that has been ongoing since the outbreak of the second civil war has been politically motivated, by the politicians themselves. Jok writes about former SPLA Dinka soldier who explained how political differences were confined to the educated elites. They struggled for political backing, so by converting Dinka / Nuer conflicts from the above tensions to a political conflict, was in interests of the politicians.

Mixing political differences with economic competition, and emphasis to each group the danger presented by the other is the only way Riek and Garang can get us to fight their wars for them.”

Today, Riek leads the Nuer dominated SPLA/M-IO (Sudan People’s Liberation Army / Movement – In Opposition) after being dismissed as Vice President of South Sudan in 2013, following coup allegations by current President Salvar Kiir Myarditt.

As a Dinka, Myarditt’s decision to dismiss key figures of the ruling party, who were mostly Nuer, saw to an imbalance of representation and increase in retaliatory, targeted, ethnic attacks in villages. A repeat of past events, with rival politicians causing those loyal to them to wage war, has resulted in the displacement of over 1.5 million refugees.

Uganda has welcomed almost half a million refugees since the outbreak of violence in 2013. Built in just six months, Uganda boasts the largest single refugee settlement globally, the Bidi Bidi. However, it’s the rapid growth of this camp that depicts the severity of the conflict in South Sudan.

 

Ethnic Tensions or Ethnic Cleansing?

While the conflict has proven to be driven by political and (later) ethnic tensions, the growing number of refugees indicates that South Sudan may actually be facing a genocide. Displacement is targeted along ethnic lines. This is carried out through killings, abductions, rape, arson on homes and looting. By 2016, almost a quarter of South Sudan’s population had left their homes. A third of the country’s teachers have fled.

For a country that was only established six years ago, its crisis appears almost irrevocable. A lot more media attention is required to raise awareness of the region. While countries like Uganda are acting in accordance with their humanitarian duties, they don’t have the resources and capabilities to continue such an intake in the near future. The Bidi Bidi camp is now full, and another camp is already under construction in order to meet the pressing inflow of more refugees.

With neither international interest, nor adequate media coverage, one can go as far as to say that the brutality in South Sudan is being interpreted as permissible. The current feud between the political government and the armed opposition requires intervention from the international community. It has become unresolvable domestically. An entire race’s existence is at stake. Urgent help is needed as the number of refugees and deaths continues to multiply daily.

What is really going on in Ethiopia? 

By Catherine Nalule

4th November 2016

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Photo by Buda Mendes (2016)
When it comes to crossing the finish line in Olympic Games, many competitors have their unique celebratory gestures; from Usain Bolt’s lightning pose to Mo Farah’s “M” sign.

However, Ethiopian Olympic medallist, Feyisa Lilesa’s gesture, was far from celebratory. In Ethiopia, having your arms crossed above your head is a sign of suffering under the government and its institutions. It is traditionally used by Ethiopia’s Oromo people who have suffered from police brutality. Lilesa took it upon himself to finish the race by forming this anti-government gesture to stand in solidarity with his fellow Oromo tribespeople. A gesture which potentially put both his life and career at risk.

The Oromo people make up a third of Ethiopia’s population as the largest ethnic group in the country. Despite this, they have felt marginalized and underrepresented. Their largest and legal political party Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), currently holds no seats in Parliament. Many have felt that their human and constitutional rights have been and continue to be infringed upon. This has resulted in protesting and unrest throughout the country since April 2014. The initial trigger for these protests was the proposal for the expansion of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, into Oromo territory. Although this proposal has since been dropped after an unforgivable death toll of approximately 150 people, there has been a continuation of protests from the Oromo people as well as Amhara. This therefore highlights an underlying sentiment of marginalisation. The Amhara are the second largest ethnic group in Ethiopia and have joined in protest against the ruling Tigrayans; for greater autonomy and ownership of their own land. The Tigrayans, one of the smaller ethnic groups in Ethiopia, make up just over 6% of the population but hold the most power.

A few responses from people on social media living in Ethiopia, on the current political state of the country:

“We are under occupation for 25 years by the tgrien [Tigrayan] elite mafia government. We live 25 years under state of dictator so there is no new thing happen. We need freedom.”

“We the Oromo people had enough of what’s going on in Ethiopia and so are others ethnic groups. The Ethiopian government all they care about is money and giving / selling away the Oromo lands to the foreigners. The government thinks that by shutting down the internet in Ethiopia and burning people alive while they’re in jail for a crime they never committed just because they’re Oromo, doesn’t mean that we will step down! Enough is enough, we the Oromo people want freedom and our land!”

“They [the government] are accusing Egypt and Eritrea, when they know they don’t give freedom to their people politically and economically. This government is fully corrupted.”

The death toll has since risen to over 500 people and having almost 60% of the country’s population in protest; Ethiopia has thus declared itself to be in a state of emergency – its first in 25 years. Recent events have seen the government act overwhelmingly brutal against what they deemed to be anti-peace demonstrations and have even accused the protesters of acting together with terrorist groups. Are the government’s actions just a tactic to curtail their dissenters? Are the historical scars of the Oromo people, fuelling their current frustrations to go beyond peaceful protesting?

Ethiopia’s current political dynamic is uncertain. While the central government remains a close ally to the West and has total control over its security and intelligence, its social capital continues to deteriorate. The future of the state’s stability lies in the hands of ethnic disparities and provocations. Although not as economically and politically strong as the Tigrayans, the population size along with the determination of the Amhara and Oromo cannot be overlooked. The government’s authoritarian and ethnic minority style dictatorship appears to retain its legitimacy through rather illegitimate means.

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Cartoon by Alex Tefera (Alemayehu Tefera)

Titled “Democrazy” with a z instead a c, the above cartoonist depicts how voters are forced to vote for the current government by literally placing their political freedom into corrupt pockets. The writing in the cartoon is Amharic for “ballot box”. It is represented by a pair of shorts, similar to the ones worn by members of the current government when they fought against the previous regime.

Oftentimes authoritarian regimes tend to present themselves as a democracy by simply holding elections. However, in the case of Ethiopia, these elections are heavily restrictive and recently excluded international observers from Western countries in 2015. This is not to say that Western observation necessarily equates to a fair election – they are after all in alliance with the central government. What must be flagged however, is the landslide victory for the ruling party (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front), who attained 100% of the parliamentary seats. EPRDF is dominated by Tigrayans, who hold the most important government posts. Choosing people to manage key institutions based on ethnicity and loyalty to the Tigrayans elites, has seen to an emergence of a patron-client system. This is what is perpetuating the current protests.

Ethiopian writer and blogger, Befekadu Hailu, deems the treatment of the Oromo and Amhara people to be evidently unfair; with the ethnicization of Ethiopia’s politics showing clear underrepresentation of the larger population.

“We never had political freedom in our history. In this regime, however we have a constitution that guarantees the basic political rights, it is not respected by the government. There are hundreds of political party members, journalists and activists jailed in notorious prisons of the country. I perceive that the government is not viewed as legitimately assigned to office by the majority. Despite the occurrence of violence and protesting, the government will take any measure to elongate its stay in power for unlimited number of years. The ‘State of Emergency’ is important for the group in government; it helps silence protesters but does not actually bring peace. It was a necessity for the government’s short sighted control of power, but dangerous for the long term stability and peace of the country, as well as the region.”

When asked about the severity of the restriction on people’s freedom of speech and expression, Hailu gave a personal account:

“As an author, I was jailed from April 2014 to October 2015 for writing. I was charged with my colleagues who were blogging for ‘Zone 9 Bloggers Collective’, as well as another three journalists. Every time I write on something political, I must censor myself. What happened to my colleagues and I before, during and after our arrest is evidence enough of the restriction of people’s freedom of speech. What had begun as blogging in enthusiasm to influence the government with our opinions, landed us in jail. Although we were able to challenge the charges in court and be freed; we lost our jobs, banned from travelling abroad and now live a life of fear that we may be arrested again.”

What may appear to be a democracy in Ethiopia, is gradually emerging to be a brutal authoritarian regime; with censorship, civilian control and death toll increasing.

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