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John Ashworth: Malakal -Two Viewpoints

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Malakal – two viewpoints

John Ashworth
19th January 2009


There is general agreement on what happened. As traditional dancers
prepared to enter Malakal stadium in procession on the occasion of the
4th anniversary of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) on 9th
January 2009, a dispute broke out between two communities. Sticks and
spears were wielded, shots were fired by the police, tear gas was
deployed, there were deaths and injuries, the arrival of the president
and first vice-president was delayed while the security situation was
assessed, and the national ceremony finally went ahead but with a
subdued atmosphere.

There is also little disagreement that the following day, 10th
January, the village of Anakdiar (Nagdiar) was attacked. Several
people were killed and homes and property were destroyed. There are
also reports of other similar incidents nearby. People have been
displaced from their homes, possibly in their thousands.

And finally, there is acknowledgement that different ethnic groups
claim the same land in the area of Malakal and that the boundaries
need to be either reaffirmed or readjusted.

But from that point on, there are many differing viewpoints. Were
these spontaneous events, or part of a planned and orchestrated
campaign? Are they the result of local disputes, or part of a bigger
picture? Is tribalism rearing its ugly head in Malakal, and indeed in
the south as a whole? Who, if anybody, was behind them? And why?

These are the questions one can hear being discussed all over Malakal.
Many people have strong opinions, certainty even, which could lead to
hasty actions. Some are ready to take up arms and fight now. Below are
two composite views.

Viewpoint number 1

A dispute over who is to lead the procession of dancers is not a
trivial matter. Local custom requires that the owners of the land
lead. Thus for the Collo (Shilluk) to give way to Dinka dancers would
imply acceptance that the Dinka own the town of Malakal.

The Collo acknowledge that the Dinka have laid claim to parts of the
east bank inhabited by Collo. However they feel that the matter was
settled in their favour by the government of the then autonomous south
in the 1970s, and again when the matter was brought to the attention
of Dr John Garang in 2004.

There was some surprise that an event of such national importance
should be the vehicle for reaffirming these claims, but the attacks on
Anakdiar and other villages immediately afterwards led many to surmise
that it was a planned and orchestrated campaign. Leaflets and letters
had been circulating for some months. A warning of the attack on
Anakdiar was apparently received the day before, again leading to
suspicions that it was planned.

There is considerable disappointment with the inaction of the
government of Upper Nile State. A resolution passed at a conference
held by the Southern Sudan Peace Commission a year earlier in January
2008 that border issues must be resolved has not been implemented. No
action was taken to defuse the situation in advance, following the
leaflets and letters which had been circulating. No action was taken
after the warning about an attack on Anakdiar. The governor is not
being seen to take a strong lead on resolving the issue after the
event. Further confusion was sown when a government delegation was
apparently detained and harassed by security forces whilst attempting
to visit the affected areas on 15th January.

Some of those who believe that this was part of a premeditated
campaign would go further and suggest that it is orchestrated by
figures within the Dinka community outside of Malakal. Some would even
link it to a perceived Dinka domination of the Government of Southern
Sudan (GOSS), suggesting that local Dinka communities may have seen
their chance to lay claim to Collo land confident that they will enjoy
the support of their brothers in high places, whether in Malakal or
Juba. There are even suspicions that Sudan People’s Liberation Army
(SPLA) forces may have participated in the attacks. In this scenario,
it is noted that most of the senior officials in Malakal, including
the Commissioner of Malakal County, are Dinka. Although Governor
Gatluak Deng is Nuer, his ancestry is Dinka and, as the only National
Congress Party (NCP) governor in the south, it is assumed that he may
not wish to further alienate senior figures in the Sudan People’s
Liberation Movement (SPLM). Those who espouse this view would also
link it to wider dissatisfaction with SPLM and GOSS, particularly from
certain ethnic groups who feel disenfranchised by the Dinka (which
might include the governor’s Nuer). A statement by some Bari
politicians in Khartoum is being circulated along with a letter by
Collo members of the various legislative assemblies, in which this
group of Bari openly complain of tribalism and come close to
repudiating the CPA “if it is being used for isolating and excluding
the Bari Community from power and wealth”.

This then leads to a very worrying scenario where southerners are once
again divided, even to the extent of questioning the value of the CPA.
As one Collo leader put it, “Peace is supposed to mean no killing!”
While nobody has suggested that northern interests are behind the
current unrest in Malakal, the NCP has in the past demonstrated a
great ability to “divide and rule” in the south, and this would surely
present them with another ideal opportunity. If the two communities
were to seek arms to continue their dispute violently, it is not
beyond the realms of possibility that one would turn to the north and
one to the south.

Viewpoint number 2

Others would acknowledge that the fracas outside the stadium was
unfortunate, but would play down its significance. They would argue
that there is no orchestrated campaign, but that when news of the
incident reached the Dinka around Anakdiar, it acted as a catalyst to
simmering local resentments not only over land but over other
unresolved local issues. There is no widespread movement by the Dinka
to attack the Collo. Indeed around Atar and Melut local Dinka met with
the Collo community to reassure them that there was no danger.

Nevertheless, there is a land issue. For many Dinka it is clear that
the west bank of the Nile is Collo and the east bank is Dinka. Over
many generations that has become blurred, through intermarriage,
through local agreements and migrations, and because the Dinka tend to
spend more time inland while the Collo are very much people of the
riverbank. Using and sharing the land is not a problem; claiming
ownership of it is. At the same time ongoing uncertainty about the
north-south border demarcation may be a contributory factor amidst
fears that southern communities may lose land to the north. Local
Dinka leaders are as keen as Collo to have the boundary issues
resolved officially.

This viewpoint accepts that outside influences are at play here,
including politicians and former militia leaders. When the New Sudan
Council of Churches (NSCC) was facilitating the People to People Peace
and Reconciliation Process in the liberated territories during the
war, a point was reached when the Nuer and Dinka elders came together
and said, “We have now made peace. There is no problem between our
peoples. The problem lies with our sons, the military and political
leaders”. NSCC responded by convening the Kisumu meeting in which
chiefs and elders met with political leaders from the liberation
movements. Maybe there are echoes of this in today’s situation in
Malakal. Two ethnic groups which have lived closely together and
shared so much may nonetheless have issues ripe for exploitation by
politicians seeking to advance their own positions.

But machinations by politicians may be relatively local and do not
necessarily imply that there is tribal domination of the entire south
by one ethnic group.  In fact around Khorfulus there are disputes
between different groups of Dinka, which can also reportedly be linked
to politicians. Some would also point out the power struggles within
the Collo community, and would even go so far as to suggest that the
current conflict might be to the advantage of one party or the other
in their attempts to gain influence, and particularly in terms of
improving their standing vis a vis the Collo Reth (king).

There is again disappointment that the government of Upper Nile State
has not been more proactive, and particularly that it has not made use
of traditional chiefs and elders to try to resolve the issues.

Conclusion and recommendations

There are always two (or more) sides to any story. As mentioned above,
these are composite viewpoints, gleaned from discussions with members
of the different communities. The final analysis is mine, but I would
like to think it is based upon reality. Here in Malakal the strong
feelings are very evident, but so also are the complexity and the fact
that the current conflict is based in a cultural, historical and
political context. Complex problems do not succumb to simple nor
“quick fix” solutions.

There are a number of recommendations which would seem to be
acceptable to all viewpoints – at least to all those whose agendas
have been stated openly:

1.           Peace is better than violence; the situation must be calmed
immediately to allow solutions to be found.
2.           The land and boundary demarcation issues between Collo and
Dinka in
and around Malakal should be resolved urgently by the competent
3.           The government of Upper Nile State must be proactive and
even-handed in ensuring the security of all its citizens and in
resolving their disputes.
4.           Traditional leaders have a major role to play both in calming
immediate situation and resolving the underlying problems. They must
be encouraged to play a leading role to counterbalance politicians
from various communities who may have other agendas.
5.           Churches also have a major role to play as honest brokers and
builders of peace, particularly the Catholic and Episcopal churches
which are very active in the two communities.
6.           Southerners must not leave themselves vulnerable to a “divide
rule” strategy by those northern interests which may wish to undermine
the CPA. Even if all disputes cannot be solved, southern unity is
important at least until post-2011.

Finally, this problem exploits a perception amongst some communities
in the south of tribalism in the SPLM and GOSS. Whether that
perception is true or not depends on one’s viewpoint. However a
perception can be as dangerous as a reality, and indeed can become a
self-fulfilling prophecy.

One key informant asked me rhetorically, “Will we reach 2011?” If the
south is to reach 2011 successfully, if the fragile CPA is to be
maintained and implemented until then, and if “divide and rule”
tactics are to be avoided, then this perception of tribalism needs to
be addressed – urgently.


John Ashworth

+249 919 744 274 (Sudan)
+254 725 926 297 (Kenya)
+27 82 853 3556 (international roaming)
+88 216 4333 3401 (personal satphone – in the more remote parts of Sudan)
+88 216 6710 4316 (office satphone)

IKV Pax Christi
PO Box 53958 00200 Nairobi Kenya
+254 20 2340888

This is a personal e-mail address and the contents do not necessarily
reflect the views of IKV Pax Christi


Written by torit1955

January 19, 2009 at 7:46 am

One Response

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  1. Hey, cool tips. I’ll buy a glass of beer to that person from that chat who told me to visit your blog 🙂

    How to Get Six Pack Fast

    April 15, 2009 at 2:18 pm

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