03/02/2015
Llyr Attala

The Militarization of Societies and the Manipulation of Identity

Over the past few decades in South Sudan the frequency and intensity of violence has increased in terms of both local and political contests. The civil war (1983-2005) and post-war period saw the brutal targeting of elders, women, and children, and the destruction of property and livelihoods. The new civil war between SPLA-In-Opposition and the government has further seen terrible war crimes against civilians committed by both parties. How did South Sudan reach this level of violence and militarization?

Increasing types and levels of violence, particularly among pastoralists in the margins, is a problem found throughout the region, and is not exclusive to South Sudan. South Sudan’s shared border regions with Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Sudan have all seen similar inter-communal conflicts and cyclical raiding in recent decades. While the root causes are incredibly complex and the context varies from country to country and region to region, a few common factors behind the increasing violence can be identified. The failure by states to ensure security and rule of law in the periphery, the cultural responsibilities of youth to protect their community, the shifting of social norms regulating violence, and the high proliferation of modern weapons have all been behind drastically increasing levels of conflict in the region, particularly among pastoralists. Finally, one of the most significant factors has been the manipulation of identity and ethnicity by politicians as a means of increasing support in elections and as a means of mobilization within the context of political contests. This has pulled civilians into the political sphere, where the traditional rules of engagement and ethics of warfare no longer apply when contests turn violent. While this has been seen in many countries this is especially apt in the South Sudan context. The contests between Southern political elites during the civil war and again today have drastically increased the involvement of civilians in political wars. A major consequence has been an acceptance of civilians as legitimate targets of war and a polarization of local communities on ethnic lines. Hence, while the brutality of local violence has commonly been described as a new phenomenon, it needs to be seen in relation to decades of warfare and large-scale violence.