Insects and liberation
Not even a year since its birth, South Sudan is now inching ever closer towards war with the North. Since last weekend’s confrontation at the Heglig oil fields, the African Union has been scrambling to assemble any negotiation or peace deal it can muster. South Sudanese president and SPLM chairman, Salva Kiir, has cancelled a visit to China on the grounds that his neighbors have effectively “declared war” against the nascent country. Omar al-Bashir has stepped up aerial bombardments along the contended, oil-rich border states, all but destroying the fragile relationship with his southern neighbors. Wednesday brought good news in the form of an Egyptian-brokered arrangement to release 14 Sudanese soldiers, in the hopes of easing the animosity.
Bashir refuses, on a matter of principle, to engage in any dialogue with Juba, further enabling all-out war. His willfulness is rationalized by, what he claims, is the South’s inability to understand any diplomacy beside that of the gun. Most disconcerting is the language the indicted president has used when speaking of his rivals. He prefers the term “insects” for the governing body of South Sudan, insisting that the nation needs to be “liberated” from its current ruling class.
These words may not be subtle, but could easily be overlooked if we don’t consider the past uses of dehumanizing labels such as this. A little over 18 years ago, the word inyenzi, or “cockroach” was spoken profusely throughout Rwanda in the build-up to its genocide, stripping the Tutsi of their humanity. The simultaneous ethnic cleansing in Bosnia was fueled by the notion of liberation, a key weapon in Slobodan Milosevic’s arsenal for extricating Bosnian Serbs from the incumbent Muslim administration.
The SPLM and the rest of South Sudan’s government are dominated by ethnic Dinka, which could potentially serve as the rationale for a more widespread campaign of violence against the population. Bashir has consistently categorized political belligerents together with the ethnic groups whom they claim to represent. Such assumptions were responsible for the genocide in Darfur, and could prove to be hazardous for the south if violence were to escalate. The AU needs to be aware of the ethnic implications of this impending, yet not inevitable, war.