Three flags fly in a dirt lot outside the local administrator’s office in the South Sudanese town of Terekeka. The middle one is especially bright: a new green flag emblazoned with a rhinoceros, the word TEREKEKA printed in white block letters underneath. It was recently raised to replace an older flag using the same design but representing Central Equatorial State.
One of South Sudan’s 10 original states, Central Equatorial has been split into three: Terekeka, Jubek and Yei, each with its own flag, local commissioner, and institutions.
President Salva Kiir has done likewise across the country, reorganising South Sudan into 28 states, largely along ethnic lines. He announced the policy in October 2015 and implemented it in December 2015 despite objections from the UN, the international community, and, most importantly, the opposition – led by former vice president Riek Machar.
Machar’s return to Juba late April marked the end of a two-and-a-half-year civil war in which government and opposition forces alike committed mass atrocities against civilians, including murder, rape, and the use of child soldiers. Much of the brutality took place along ethnic lines, with Kiir’s Dinka soldiers targeting civilians of Machar’s Nuer people, and vice versa.
The two sides signed a peace agreement in Addis Ababa in 2015, and Machar’s return marked a step forward, at least enabling the formation of a transitional unity government. But other parts of the agreement seem forgotten or outright ignored – most obviously, Kiir has ploughed on with implementing his 28-states policy without waiting for an independent commission to evaluate the move.
Terekeka, on the banks of the Nile, is a three hours’ drive north up bumpy red dirt roads from Juba. The road was quiet, butterflies flitting in the spring breeze as cattle herders shooed bellowing white-horned cows across the road.
But violence had broken out just a few days previously in Mangala County, on the border between the new Terekeka and Jubek states. Mangala has historically been disputed territory, with the Mundari people of Terekeka and the Bari of today’s Jubek both claiming the area as their own.
Under a united Central Equatorial State, tensions had faded, especially as many Mundari and Bari inter-married. Now that there’s a border between the two, both sides want this piece of land, especially since it includes a profitable sugar factory and river port.
On 7 May, the newly-appointed commissioner of Mangala County, Elario Paulo Fataki, held an inauguration celebration in Mangala, tearing down the old flag and raising a Jubek flag instead.
Local Mundari youth resisted and fighting broke out between them and Fataki’s security detail. Three soldiers and one woman were killed in the clashes and 1,200 people fled their homes in fear.
“I was going to my place to raise my flag, and the Mundari youth attacked our celebration,” Fataki said in a phone interview. “The youths from Terekeka started the shooting.”
Mangala should belong to Jubek under the president’s decree, Fataki said, and he saw no reason to seek local approval to hold his ceremony there. “I don’t need to tell the other commissioner (of Terekeka) anything,” he said, defiantly.
In Terekeka, Minister of Information Modi Lomindi disagreed. “What happened was uncalled for. I condemn the action done by my colleagues in Jubek state,” he told IRIN.
“If an area is contested, you cannot take it by force,” Lomindi said. “You come to celebrate in someone’s home. You tear down their flag and put your own. [Does that make it] your house?”
Despite the clashes, Lomindi supported the 28-states initiative as he said having their own state would help Terekeka’s Mundari obtain better services at a grassroots level. “We wanted this federal system with more counties. This is a gift,” he said. “We know our own problems better than someone who is not a son of this place.”
Sowing ethnic division
But civil society leaders argue that the 28-states policy is a form of gerrymandering that will exacerbate South Sudan’s problem of tribalism over nationalism.
“A federal system is one where resources and power are not at the centre. There should be power for citizens to hold the leader accountable. Is that what this is?” asked Edmund Yakani, director of the Community Empowerment for Progress Organization (CEPO).
Yakani fears that splitting South Sudan further along ethnic lines will only heighten the country’s risk of conflict, as has already happened in Mangala.
“We are living in a state where you have ethnicity at the centre of political strength. Your ethnic identity is greater than your sense of nation or citizenship,” he said.
“The danger is this easily promotes secession and further splits. We used this identity game to split from Sudan, and now they’re using it within South Sudan. The likelihood of secession is rising, and if it fails, we’ll end up like Somalia.”
Ethic identity is not a problem in itself, said Winnie Gulliver, programme manager at the South Sudan Action Network on Small Arms. Rather, she suggested that it has been the politicisation of ethnic identity and the militarisation of politics – combined with the proliferation of small arms and lack of national civic education – that has devastated the country.
“[Politicians] used tribal identity in the same way they used sexual violence, as a weapon of war,” Gulliver explained. “That’s the problem.”
A problem of accountability
Mori Misak, a programme officer at CEPO, said that most South Sudanese lack understanding of the peace process, the 28-states issue, or even the roots of the conflict.
“The masses hardly know that the issue which sparked this conflict was distribution of power and party reforms,” he said. “We have corruption and no proper checks and balances. Money stays in the top layer of government and doesn’t reach the people.”
These were the real issues, not ethnic differences, Misak said. The process by which the 28 states were decreed – without consultation and in violation of the peace agreement – only demonstrate South Sudan’s lack of political inclusion or accountability, he added.
In Mangala, the fighting has stopped, but the border remains unclear, with Terekeka and Jubek both insisting the county belongs to them. On 1 June, Kiir and Machar announced the formation of a 15-member committee to review “the issue of the 28 states”.
However, when pressed on the details, Kiir’s press secretary Ateny Wek told Radio Tamazuj that the committee would only discuss the 28 states’ borders, not the number of states itself. “It’s impossible that it could be less than 28 states,” Wek said.
Meanwhile, spokespeople from Machar’s camp, and the minority leader in parliament, Onyoti Adigo, insisted that only 10 states are valid.
“We will not accept 28 states,” Adigo told Radio Tamazuj. “There is no room for 28 states or 13 states or 50 states, and we demand 10 states according to the agreement.”
Whether the political will and diplomatic skill is there to resolve this peacefully remains to be seen.