A violent ecosystem capable of generating endless new things to fight about without ever shedding any of the old ones

The British-Sudanese writer Jamal al-Mahjoub once said that to understand the Sudan you need a layered map like one of those cellophane diagrams of the human body that used to be in encyclopedias. As you peeled away the top piece of cellophane labelled “Sudan”, you would find a succession of maps lying underneath. A map of languages, for example, and under that a map of ethnic groups, and under that a map of ancient kingdoms, until, as Mahjoub wrote, “it becomes clear the country is not really a country at all, but many. A composite of layers, like a genetic fingerprint of memories that were once fluid but have since crystallized out from the crucible of possibility, encouraged by the catalyst of the European colonial adventure.” I have often thought that you need a similar kind of layered map to understand Sudan’s civil war. A surface map of political conflict, for example – the northern government versus the southern rebels; and under that a layer of religious conflict – Muslims versus Christian and pagan; and under that a map of all the sectarian divisions within those categories; and under that a layer of ethnic divisions – Arab and Arabized versus Nilotic and Equatorian – all of them containing a multitude of clan and tribal subdivisions; and under that a layer of linguistic conflicts; and under that a layer of economic divisions; and under that a layer of colonial divisions; and under that a layer of racial divisions related to slavery. And so on and so on until it would become clear that the war, like the country, was not one but many: a violent ecosystem capable of generating endless new things to fight about without ever shedding any of the old ones.’

From Deborah Scroggins’s 2004 book Emma’s War, a biography of Riek Machar’s English wife, Emma McCune, which turns out to be a cracking read. 

2 thoughts on “A violent ecosystem capable of generating endless new things to fight about without ever shedding any of the old ones”

  1. I have observed the same phenomenon in Mauritania, another composite country. Was that coup (whatever coup) the result of conflict between two tribal groups? between two development/economic ideologies? party A vs party B? the partisans of Big Man x vs Big Man y? Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

    By the way, “Mauritania” is the answer to one of my favorite trivia questions: What modern country once had its capital outside its borders? When Mauritania was carved out of French West Africa, the leaders could not agree on a capital. The mining center of Nouadibou in the north was too associated with the French. The coastal city of Rosso in the south was in the Black African area, and hence unacceptable to the “White Maurs,” who at that time still owned a good share of the Black Africans or controlled them and their land through what was essentially serfdom. No other town was remotely feasible as a capital. Consequently, the new city of Nouakchott was build in the Maur-dominated desert areas, Mauritania’s capital was the former colonial outpost of St. Louis. Which is in Senegal. Perhaps a sign that national unity needed some work?

  2. It makes one wonder how Kenya has survived so long and other places too. Which suggests sometimes it works. But why not elsewhere.

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