Given the low levels of internet penetration in South Sudan[i] and poor telecommunications infrastructure, it might be thought that the internet is of little relevance to the conflict there. However, it has become a key enabler of a system of interaction and communication amongst a South Sudanese population that has become ever more globalised after more than 50 years of conflict and forced displacement. This includes a significant and currently growing population of both refugees and more settled communities in the region, particularly in Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Sudan (what might be called the ‘near diaspora’) as well as communities further afield, predominantly in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom, many of whom were resettled in the 1990s and 2000s (the ‘far diaspora’). Statistics on all of these populations are poor, but collectively the total number of people is in the millions (with the population of South Sudan estimated in 2015 to have been 12.34 million[ii]). The extended nature of South Sudanese kinship systems mean that it is therefore likely that the vast majority of South Sudanese citizens have networks reaching into these locations. Current telecommunications technology enables these networks to operate in new and important ways.
Studies on diasporic engagement with conflict have been a feature of the conflict literature of the last 20 years, including in relation to Ethiopia and Somalia, but with a very limited focus on South Sudan. Since Collier and Hoeffler’s landmark finding in 2004, that “a large diaspora considerably increases the risk of repeat conflict”[iii], much of this research has emphasised the negative role played by diaspora communities. Typical stereotypes, both of which are prevalent in the South Sudan context, include:
- at one end of the spectrum, the “keyboard warrior”, inciting violence and hatred from safety thousands of miles away, perhaps even contributing financially to armed groups;
- and, on the other, those without much understanding of the realities on the ground but with an inflated sense of the role they can play thanks to qualifications and experiences they have gained in their new homes, and who return to the country with a patronising attitude and easy escape routes.
As with most stereotypes, there is a grain of truth in these characterisations, but they obscure both the complexity and the importance of diasporic engagement, and how it has evolved with technological advances.
The starting point, therefore, needs to be a more objective understanding of how this system actually operates and the opportunities and challenges it may present. While the psychological and geographical distance between individuals in, say, Australia, who may be struggling with unemployment and discrimination, and South Sudanese communities facing immediate threats of hunger and violence are indeed significant, regular communication starts to narrow this divide. Tools such as WhatsApp, Viber, and Skype enable this communication to happen in a much more regular way, and even where internet connections do not exist at the South Sudanese end, can be used to connect directly to phones. This starts to undermine the reliance on traditional gatekeepers with access to satellite phones: satphones (often military commanders) or international organisations’ VSat networks, and enables information to be shared more widely and rapidly. It means that the conversation taking place online, whether on social media (particularly Facebook) or via blogging websites such as www.PaanLuwelWel.com, is able reach those in rural areas. Disturbingly – and as has been documented elsewhere[iv] – this raises the prospect of ‘fake news’ and rumour being used to mobilise violence in specific locations, but it also presents significant opportunities. In a country where so much of the population is often inaccessible due to insecurity and logistical challenges, it provides a potential entry point for providing these communities with access to more reliable information, as well as giving them a more meaningful a voice about the future of the country.
This complex information network places an important responsibility on all those involved in providing information and analysis on South Sudan online to reflect seriously about the potential impact of what they produce – at all possible levels. One example provides an illustration of the challenge: Australian-based SBS (Special Broadcasting Service) Radio’s Dinka Service. SBS radio is an Australian institution focussed on providing access to diverse media to Australia’s many linguistic communities in the interests of community confidence and integration, and after the growth of the South Sudanese community there in the 2000s decided to add a Dinka programme to its roster. Being online has enabled this programme to become one of the most prominent and regular sources of news and information in Dinka worldwide. It is accessed by the community across the world (including in South Sudan where it can be distributed offline e.g. via MicroSD cards compatible with basic smart phones) and attracts high-profile interviews with leaders from the Dinka community. This is a very different proposition from that originally intended, largely outside the control of those who launched the initiative in Australia.
The network also creates new opportunities for financial transfers and remittances, which act as an important glue to the relationship between those inside and outside the country. Again, there is inadequate data available on the extent of remittance flows[v], but anecdotally they are clearly significant and will have only grown in importance as the value of the South Sudanese Pound has fallen. Direct transfers from abroad into remote areas of South Sudan are challenging due to the lack of access to banking facilities. Therefore, it appears that the ‘near diaspora’, many of whom are in countries such as Kenya and Uganda with access to mobile banking networks and who are able to more easily move back and forth into the country and access the informal networks that operate there, play an important bridging role. There is also consistent anecdotal evidence of financial support to armed groups operating along similar channels[vi]. The systems that enable these financial flows need to be understood far better if the war economy of the country is to be fully grasped.
It is also critical to recognise the fluidity that exists within this network, and which the term ‘diaspora’, suggesting a fixed group operating from outside the country, does not adequately capture. There are a large group of people able to operate in multiple locations at once, providing direct physical connections between different geographical locations. Most obvious are the elites who, as 2016’s Sentry report[vii] documented, tend to have their families spread over multiple locations for purposes of maximizing education and investment opportunities, and who move back and forth regularly. This enables, for example, Members of Parliament who are traveling while parliament is on recess to hold community consultations in Calgary or Phoenix.
Beyond that, there are individuals that work for companies or aid organisations with an international presence who move between multiple locations, prominent activists or opinion leaders who no longer feel safe in the country (Riek Machar is arguably currently the most high profile diaspora member worldwide), and individuals that have sought to return to South Sudan to bring their new skills and experiences to bear, both for personal profit and public service (and, in recent years, for the purposes of participating in armed violence). While regular travel from distant locations is beyond those without significant resources, the movements in and out of the country are extensive, particularly around the time of independence, and ensures that these webs of connections are more meaningful than is suggested by the stereotypes outlined above.
While the fact that conflicts are closely connected with dynamics and actors beyond their national borders is hardly new, the combination of accelerated global migration and modern communication technologies does mean that the communities affected by the conflict are more widely dispersed and interact more directly with events on the ground. The question for those seeking to have an impact on conflict dynamics is what risks and opportunities this presents.
There are undoubtedly challenges to seeking to engage with these networks. South Sudanese diaspora communities are often polarised and fragmented, with ethnic identity a primary organising principle and the on-going violence taking place in the country continues to damage trust and relationships on all sides. This fragmentation is one of the driving factors behind the high level of online hate speech, something that has become increasingly high profile in the last year thanks to the work of organisations such as Peace Tech Labs[viii] and #defyhatenow[ix], and has recently been highlighted by the UN Special Representative for the Prevention of Genocide[x]. Their work has illustrated the feasibility of using online monitoring as an early warning system for violence within South Sudan, as well as raising awareness amongst South Sudanese about bottom-up methodologies to combat hate speech online. Thinking is also emerging about ways in which those governments that host diaspora communities might be able to use domestic legislation to prosecute those responsible. These issues should also form part of the growing global debate around the responsibilities of the biggest social media companies in ensuring their sites are not used for criminal purposes.
Nonetheless, it is essential that this issue is not solely framed along negative lines, and the potential for these diaspora networks to enable positive change is fully explored and, where appropriate, supported. There are many individuals and groups within diaspora communities that recognise the opportunity they have to speak more freely than those inside the country, and who are seeking to break down tribal divides and promote alternative visions of South Sudan – they can be found blogging or setting up community development organisations or lobbying governments for action. Efforts are underway at the moment to develop a global diaspora network to increase the coherence and effectiveness of these efforts, and while the unity aspired to will undoubtedly be challenging to obtain, this represents important social capital that can be of benefit to South Sudan. If those involved can make the most of the web of interactions and relationships described above, helping give a voice to those who too often do not feature in discussions about South Sudan’s future, then such efforts could become a powerful tool to drive positive change in the country.
There may also be a limited time window for harnessing this energy, at least from the ‘far diaspora’, although this issue needs further study. Much of the migration out of the region took place in the 1990s and 2000s, and is unlikely to be repeated at scale given the current domestic attitude to immigration in many of the host countries. The door has therefore largely shut behind this community, and while many individuals still retain a strong connection back to the “homeland” this may start to weaken as time passes, particularly as the baton is handed to a generation that have never known South Sudan themselves.
There is therefore an onus on international policymakers seeking to improve the situation in the country to think harder about this system, particularly given the lack of leverage and influence that the international system currently appears to have in the country. The first step is to understand it better and to start to fill in the gaps in our collective evidence base. But if this can be done, then for the United States government, for example, the opportunities that should arise to engage directly with these communities, as well as to work with the American technology companies that are so deeply enmeshed with them, might provide valuable new threads of a more comprehensive strategy on South Sudan.
Freddie Carver is an independent Conflict & Peacebuilding Adviser, with a focus on South Sudan, currently working as a consultant. Freddie can be reached at Freddie.firstname.lastname@example.org or through his LinkedIn profile at https://www.linkedin.com/in/freddie-carver-4aa3423a/
[i] Internet World Stats (www.internetworldstats.com) provides an estimate of 16.6% penetration as of March 2017, well below the African average of 27.7%, although even this figure should be treated with caution given uncertainty over population figures in South Sudan.
[ii] UN World Population Prospects (2015)
[iii] Collier, Paul and Anke Hoeffler (2004), ‘Greed and Grievance in Civil War’, Oxford
Economic Papers, p. 575
[iv] See in particular recent articles on Public Radio International (https://www.pri.org/stories/2017-04-25/online-fake-news-and-hate-speech-are-fueling-tribal-genocide-south-sudan) and Buzzfeed (https://www.buzzfeed.com/jasonpatinkin/how-to-get-people-to-murder-each-other-through-fake-news-and?utm_term=.hqb5AlMQX#.qtBmBN0DJ), both accessed on accessed on 26/4/17
[v] The World Bank, the main source of such data, does not publish figures for South Sudan. A 2013 report (Mamer and Maher, 2013, “Remittances to South Sudan – an unrecognized source of aid” accessed on 26/4/17 at the website Right Now – Human Rights in Australia) gave a figure of USD 24.6m as the annual contribution from Australia.
[vi] Authors’ interviews, 2017
[vii] War Crimes Shouldn’t Pay, the Sentry (2016)