Unreported

12.30.13

The South Sudan Clashes Are No Tribal War

The new nation is being torn apart again—this time in the name of democracy. But the new fighting isn’t about ethnic rivalries but a power grab.

I am South Sudanese and I am an American. I am a citizen of these two unique countries, one the world’s youngest nation and the other the oldest democracy in the world.

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ROBERTO SCHMIDT/Getty

My autobiography is What Is the What, which I wrote with the help of my American friend Dave Eggers. But that book was an origin story, only the beginning of the start of my fight for the heart of my native home. Through my foundation, I have committed to providing access to quality education to the youngest minds in South Sudan. I also am working to bring infrastructure to South Sudan, with the aim of creating market opportunities for many South Sudanese and others in the region.

It is shocking to me that South Sudan is now being torn apart in the name of democracy. Some of the very leaders who were instrumental in bringing freedom to South Sudan have taken up arms to destroy my infant country.

Being in Juba on the day of the attempted coup was frightening. Hearing shots across the city brought back painful memories of our past conflicts.

Bunkered down in my room at the Quality Hotel, I began to read the outpouring of reports from traditional news sources and social media. While anxious about my safety and that of my family and friends, and aware of the real casualties in the region, including to my family members, I grew more and more frustrated.

Because media outlets are not portraying a complete picture of our country right now.

In South Sudan, we have many people who have fought for years for peace and reconciliation. And yet the benefits of peace and stability remain beyond their grasp because a few desire power over democracy.

Let’s be clear: The military confrontation that overwhelmed Juba on December 15 was nothing less than an attempted coup. Coordinated attacks took place simultaneously at two points a considerable distance away from each other in Juba. These attacks targeted key military barracks inside and outside the capital.

The government’s response—arresting the perpetrators—is aimed directly at those trying to seize power through the attacks. Stating that those perpetrators are of one tribe or another is incorrect. Yet that is what I am reading.

The media are portraying the coup attempt as tribal war. They are not reporting that several of those arrested are of President Salva Kiir’s Dinka tribe. They are not reporting that the army chief of the general staff, who is in charge of the country’s security, is a member of the Nuer tribe. They are not reporting that Gen. Peter Gatdet, who opportunistically seized the town of Bor, has been a longtime antagonist of many tribes and parties in South Sudan. They are not reporting on the repeated targeted killings being carried out in the states of Jonglei, Unity, and Upper Nile. They are not reporting what people on the ground in South Sudan feel. The result is coverage that can create what it describes by inciting ethnic rivalries.

The perpetrators of political turmoil in Juba are not Dinka or Nuer, nor any other ethnic people who make up South Sudan.

The South Sudanese are not a people who want war. We are tired of war. South Sudan is a beacon of optimism in the most contentious region in the world. Yes, we lack basic infrastructure, such as paved roads, electricity, railways, and dams; the vital building blocks necessary to grow an economy. The absence of this basic infrastructure was among the many reasons we fought to free ourselves from the extremism of our neighbors to the north.

But it was not so long ago that we worked collectively toward a united South Sudan. We voted together for a country that belongs to all of us. We began the difficult work that we hoped would lead us to a democracy. We worked toward peace.

We are not a country looking for an excuse to break into a civil war drawn along tribal lines. That is not the South Sudan I know. Nor do I believe that was what the president was instigating.

Kiir was constantly criticized for not stamping out the perpetrators of and participants in corruption in our country. He started doing that on July 13, when he reshuffled his Cabinet and formed a leaner federal government with the aim of speeding reforms and development.

When Kiir dismissed the Cabinet in July, the people of Juba saw it as a window of opportunity for progress. Not all the Cabinet members who lost their positions following the reshuffle were corrupt, but some of them had placed their personal concerns ahead of those of the citizens of the country. Some even went to the streets of Juba to cheer.

But many media outlets and international governments condemned the action as an attempt by Kiir to consolidate power, as an undemocratic act. I just don’t understand that. The South Sudan constitution permits the president to take such actions. Furthermore, Kiir then submitted the new Cabinet members to Parliament for vetting, just as the constitution requires. One of the proposed ministers rejected by Parliament has been the most ardent voice against corruption in South Sudan. Yet when he was rejected, some in the media reported it as a win for democracy.

The perpetrators of political turmoil in Juba are not Dinka or Nuer, nor any other ethnic people who make up South Sudan. They are drawn from various ethnicities throughout South Sudan. They are not representative of their tribes or how we feel. Rather they are people who want power, and that has unfortunately caused a temporary degeneration of our country back to her bitter days of agony.

Perspective is the biggest challenge in any democracy. Just because your brother or sister does not agree with your opinion does not mean that he or she is a bad person. The American leaders Thomas Jefferson and John Adams could not have agreed on lunch during their bitterly contentious years at the outset of the 1800s. But they built the world’s strongest democracy through healthy debate, through contradictory ideas, and through peaceful exchange.

The Arab Spring has proved how strong traditional and social media are—but we also saw examples of how dangerous they can be. The media have a responsibility to report on the environment on the ground. I do not see that happening. Some outlets appear fixated on portraying a president turning into a dictator in a country deeply divided by ethnic differences.

That is not the South Sudan I see. I am a native of a country where people love the freedom we have attained, love the possibilities and opportunities for our country, and are struggling to make that a success.

I have boundless hope for my country. I have hope for the future. And I hope most for the children of South Sudan. I am a South Sudanese and I am an American. I am a citizen of two countries that attained their independence through hard-won fights for self-determination. And while one country is still an infant in the family of nations, the other is mature enough to help mentor the young democracy through troubled times.