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By Daniel van Oudenaren - 2 Jan 2015

Opinion: Peace and slavery in South Sudan

The author of this article argues that South Sudan has failed to address the ‘born-to-rule’ legacy it inherited at independence. This idea of a ruling race, which can be traced to the region’s past as a slave exporter, could continue to stymie peace talks in Addis Ababa and perpetuate the country’s worsening humanitarian crisis.

Long before the current war in South Sudan, and before the trauma of the last war, the peoples of South Sudan suffered an even greater trauma. Throughout much of the 19th century, the southern Sudan suffered from slave raids.

Following the Turco-Egyptian conquest of the Sudan in the 1820s, merchant armies linked to the northern invaders penetrated the Sudd swamps of the southern Sudan. They built fortresses to serve as staging grounds for raids and as holding areas for keeping captives prior to sending them north.

Traces of this history can still be found today: the town Deim Zubeir, for example, takes its name from the legendary slaver Zubeir Pasha; present-day Juba lies near the old slaving port Gondokoro, situated at the farthest navigable point on the Nile; and the Sudanese Arabic term khawaja – ‘white person’ – actually derives from a Turkish word meaning ‘master’.

British forces in Egypt and the Red Sea finally quelled Sudanese slave exports in the late 19th century, partly to deny trade revenues to Mahdist revolutionaries who had overthrown the Turco-Egyptians in 1885 and partly because they had already made the practice illegal internationally. The British continued to suppress the slave trade after conquering the Sudan in 1899. But during their rule they also entrenched a culture of racial hierarchy rooted at least in part in the old master-slave paradigm.

The legacy, if not the practice, of slavery survived into the 20th century. For many South Sudanese, the 1983-2005 war revived ancient memories of slavery’s horrors. Villagers were abducted, war-displaced southerners working at petty jobs in the North were insulted as ‘abeed – ‘slaves’ – and widespread violence aggravated race relations and undermined the development of national and civic identity.

‘Born to rule’

Today an important political concept remains as a legacy of this history: the concept of a ruling race. Popularly understood, the ruler has always been a member of a privileged tribe or race: the Turks, the British, the Arabs. For many South Sudanese, this is an unfortunate concept to be left behind, one that should have been washed away by the nationalist wave that carried the country to independence in 2011. For others, it remains a concept of central importance.

Critics and proponents alike have given this idea a name: ‘born-to-rule’. For those who ascribe to the idea, there is no question of whether there should be a ruling race; there is simply a question of which it should be.

This political concept should not be conflated with mere tribalism. ‘Tribalism’ refers to sets of racial-cultural prejudices and practices relative to tribes. Tribalism is essentially as old as tribes. ‘Born-to-rule’, on the other hand, is a much newer political concept. It refers not just to relationships between one tribe and others, but to the relationship between tribes and the state.

The state is seen as the apparatus by which the ‘born-to-rule’ race maintains its position, while the trappings of state – titles, salaries, uniforms, vehicles, offices, seals, flags – are seen as the prize and reward for sacrifices made on the path to power. Crucially, the head of state is seen as a symbol of the dignity and power not only of the state itself but also of the group from which he hails.

‘Born-to-rule’ is not merely about the power of the dominant group. It is also implicitly about subjugation of other groups. This is because historically, in a slave society, there is only master or slave – rarely anything in between. It is an either/or proposition, a question of win or lose, rule or be ruled. 

In this context, a proposal for ‘power-sharing’ can only really be viewed cynically. The problem is not so much how the proposal is structured but rather how it is perceived. At best it will be seen as an offer of temporary truce. At worst, it could fuel further conflict; in fact, invariably there have been spikes in violence before each round of peace talks, as each side seeks to demonstrate its dominance.

Yet for nearly a year now power-sharing has been the main focus of South Sudan’s peace talks, with the aim of an agreement between Salva Kiir and Riek Machar. Such an agreement seeks to unite irreconcilable personalities and essentially irreconcilable principles. Meanwhile, alternative proposals – for a collegial presidency, a technocracy, a trusteeship, or a partial break-up of the central government’s monopoly on power and redistribution of power to federal regions – have all been largely ignored as unrealistic or unacceptable.

These alternatives are perhaps no more unrealistic than a proposal for power-sharing between two groups that both see power as a zero-sum game. And they gain increasing relevance as talks continue to deadlock. Even if the alternatives are ultimately discarded, such ideas should be considered and debated if only because doing so could help change the terms and scope of the discussion. Unless this happens, South Sudanese will continue to be faced with the same either/or proposition of which party is to be their master. 


The language of genocide has been increasingly used in South Sudan, in some few cases by proponents of genocide – as in the 2011 appeal to “wipe out the entire Murle tribe on the face of the earth” – more frequently in accusations by one warring party against the other. For instance, SPLM-IO supporters regularly claim that a genocide of Nuers took place in Juba in mid-December 2013; the movement’s military spokesman regularly refers to the enemy’s “genocidal forces”; and on the other side the mayor of Bor has accused Riek Machar’s forces of perpetrating a genocide in his town.

From survivor accounts and other evidence, most of the mass atrocities that have been committed in South Sudan since December 2013 have been perpetrated on the basis of ethnic targeting. However, neither party to the war in South Sudan ascribes overtly to exterminationism of any kind.

So why are their soldiers committing atrocities? To what end? If mass murder itself is not the purpose, then the killings must be a means to some other purpose. 

The explanation lies partly in the ‘born-to-rule’ mentality of many fighters and leaders on both sides. Perpetrators are driven to prove by acts of brutality their superiority over their victims. A deep insecurity haunts the perpetrators of these crimes: the fear of subjugation by a rival race. 

Acts of murder, massacre and cruelty are justifiable – indeed encouraged – not as an end in themselves but as a means to mastery. 

Famine and displacement 

South Sudan’s present war has resulted in widespread displacement and put millions of people at risk of hunger, according to the United Nations. In the language of the humanitarians, this crisis is a consequence of the violence; it is ‘man-made’, the result of ‘fighting’; citizens are unwittingly ‘caught up’ in the violence.

This kind of language obscures an important reality: the humanitarian crisis is not only a consequence of the violence, it is in fact the very intent of the violence.

By now there is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that fighters on both sides deliberately burn and loot the homes of villagers, maim and rape and kill to sow fear, deliberately obstruct and harass humanitarian relief efforts and deliberately raid cattle or destroy crops essential to livelihoods.

The Sudanese have an expression: ‘A hungry dog follows its master.’ 

This aptly sums up the racial ideology prevalent within the South Sudanese warring factions; while neither side aims to wholly exterminate the other, each is willing to commit – or at least tolerate – unspeakable atrocities (against the other side’s perceived civilian supporters) in order to demonstrate its own dominant position. 

Their brutalities have caused an unprecedented humanitarian disaster. In the coming months, aid agencies may once again begin to warn of a potential famine in South Sudan, particularly if the conflict remains unresolved and displacement levels remain high. 

Famine, however, is not the worst-case scenario for South Sudan. If fighters continue to be persuaded that the path of war is freedom and the path of peace is slavery, then we may see worse horrors yet.

File photo: South Sudanese fighters in Bentiu in January 2014 

The views expressed in ‘opinion’ articles published by Radio Tamazuj are solely those of the writer. The veracity of any claims made are the responsibility of the author, not Radio Tamazuj.