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Inside the Growing Conflict in South Sudan -- Blood, Oil and Cattle

The war in South Sudan is about ethnic identity and wealth, but the wealth is in two totally different forms: oil and cattle.

This article first appeared in PandoDaily.

The first thing you usually hear about the fighting in South Sudan is that it’s “tribal.”

It’s true enough that there’s a big tribal, or ethnic dimension, to the slow, simmering war there, but that doesn’t tell you much. Wars are always tribal, even wars supposedly fought over religion, like the Thirty Years War.

When Europe tore itself apart at the start of the 17th century, religion was the pretext but tribe was the working principle, the organizing principle. The war broke down on ethnic lines, because no matter what well-meaning liberals try to tell you, religion is almost always adopted by an entire tribe, and used to distinguish “our” group from “their” group. Cultures aren’t in the business of promoting diversity. Maybe they can be in the future, but they never were in the past.

Even the U.S. Civil War was tribal, on one level, in the sense that it was a war between two very different ethnic groups, with very different religions—Yankee/Anglican/immigrant North and Ulster/Calvinist/Scot South. Those two tribes fought over the fate of a third group, the African-American slaves. Both world wars were tribal; as soon as the guns boomed in 1914, working-class solidarity was forgotten and socialists signed up for the tribal army that was recruiting in their neighborhood.

So most wars are tribal—among other things. Rather than avoiding that colonial-sounding word when talking about Africa, it makes more sense to realize that it works just as well in non-African contexts. Africa is tribal because the world is tribal. What happened on the Malaysian Peninsula in the mid-twentieth century, for example, was bitterly tribal: The Malay and the Chinese who’d briefly coexisted under the rule of an alien tribal empire, Britain, reacted to independence with a bloody apartheid, ending up with two ethnic hegemonies, a Malay one call Malaysia and a Chinese enclave, Singapore. You could multiply examples like this from recent history just by opening an atlas and jabbing your finger at any random spot. Like the man said about turtles, it’s tribal all the way down.

Still, it’s a very tricky word to use, “tribal.” Very easy to twist to a nasty purpose. A lot of diehard colonials, who’d have been mortally insulted if you’d called them a “tribe” in their glory days, have done a little post-colonial word-judo by wrapping their oligarchies in the word “tribe” as if it gave them a backdated title to whatever scrap of land they grabbed. It gives them a soppy, sentimental claim to pity, like when pro-Unionists call Ian Paisley’s folks “ The Faithful Tribe.”

That’s what you get after generations of victim-rhetoric: Colonials claiming to be tribal, and trust-fund kids shining up their hard-luck stories to impress the admissions committee.

Most wars are also about money, though that part isn’t always as easy to see as the ethnic angle. The war in South Sudan is about ethnic identity and wealth, but the wealth is in two totally different forms: oil and cattle. It’s easy for us to understand that oil equals money, but a little harder to understand that in South Sudan, cattle are money too, and a lot more than money—something very close to religion. Until oil came along, cattle were the only way you could maintain, show, and trade wealth in this landlocked, isolated swampland.  A man was only as good as his herd.

There’s something weirdly Texan about the cattle culture of South Sudan. The president of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, always shows up wearing his  trademark cowboy hat, looking like an African J.R. from Dallas, ready to wheel and deal for grazing, oil, or the odd assassination.

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