GUNS have again erupted in South Sudan’s capital Juba, with at least 270 people killed in the sudden and serious violence that broke out over the weekend between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and First Vice President Riek Machar.
It is a conflict that has been raging since December 2013, and the latest fighting coincides with the country’s five-year independence anniversary, which was marked Saturday, July 9 – to the sound of mortar shells.
It took just two and a half years for South Sudan to return to war after gaining independence from its northern neighbour in July 2011; the war continues to rage, punctuated by whisky-fuelled peace talks and tense ceasefires.
South Sudan’s descent into war is tragic, but not entirely unusual, if we are to take a hard-nosed view of conflict trends in Africa. The data shows that at least nine countries in Africa have erupted into civil war, political conflict or insurgencies five years or less after gaining independence.
In four of these – Sudan, Kenya, Angola and Democratic Republic of Congo – the conflict broke out less than a year after independence, or was actually concurrent with it.
What these places have in common is that they tend to be countries that had an armed struggle for independence from the colonialists (in South Sudan’s case, it fought long and hard for secession from Sudan).
Far from the commonly held idea that Africa “fought” for its independence, more often than not, independence “arrived by post”, to use a popular expression, without a single shot fired – mostly because the European colonial powers were devastated by World War II and could no longer realistically afford to keep the colonies.
It is no coincidence, then, that the independence days of nearly all of France’s colonies in Africa were within two or three days of each other in 1960, obviously to fit in the travel schedule of the French government team travelling to Africa to “give” independence to the colonies: Benin (Aug 1), Niger (Aug 3), Burkina Faso (Aug 5), Cote d’Ivoire (Aug 7), Chad (Aug 11), Central African Republic (Aug 13), Congo-Brazzaville (Aug 15) and Gabon (Aug 17). A quick, bureaucratic affair over a fortnight, then back to Paris.
Out of the 54 African nations, just 11 had an actual armed struggle for independence, and half of these were in conflict or battling insurgency again less than five years after chasing away the colonialists.
It suggests that the nationalists quickly turned against each other in battling for the spoils of independence, and once a country has tasted war, it becomes a valid and accessible means for solving the “problem” of political competition.
The other thing that they have in common is that they are arid, pastoralist countries; or (like in Kenya’s case with the Shifta War) the insurgency happens in arid, marginalised and forgotten corners of the country. Living a nomadic life reduces the “cost”, or entry barrier of violence: it is easier to raid people if you have no fixed base that they can mount a counter-attack on.
And in post-colonial Africa, the marginalised corners suffer lingering discontent from the (sometimes deliberate) neglect and lack of state services. That creates grievance and resentment, and an incentive for violence or secessionist movements.