Recent violence in South Sudan has highlighted the precarious nature of the coalitions which formed after the 2011 referendum for independence. The two largest ethnic groups in South Sudan are the Dinka (36%) of which President Salva Kiir Mayardit is a member, and the Nuer (16%)1, of which former Vice President Riek Machar is a member. The initial coalitions formed by President Kiir sought to include representatives from various ethnic groups in the newly formed government. Kiir’s dismissal of his cabinet, including Vice President Machar, was viewed by many as an affront to that coalition building. Although details about the cause of the December 15 incident which sparked this recent violence are still under much debate, it is clear that continued clashes in the wake of this event has been fueled by and enacted along ethnic lines.
South Sudan officially became independent from Sudan on July 9, 2011. D3 Systems has sponsored and implemented two waves of quantitative research in South Sudan to explore citizen’s attitudes in this fledgling country. The first wave of research was fielded four months after independence in November 2011 and the second wave was fielded 14 months later in January 2013. The aggregated results suggest that:
- Prejudice towards ethnic groups is not a major cross-cutting cleavage
- Both Kiir and Machar enjoy high levels of favorability
- However, when we disaggregate the data by Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups, we observe notable differences in favorability which have increased over time
- Primarily in Dinka favorability ratings of Machar
- To a lesser extent in Nuer favorability ratings of Kiir
In general, South Sudanese respondents express high levels of acceptance for people from other tribal or ethnic groups, indicating that ethnic divides do not play a significant role in the daily lives of respondents. Respondents in 2013 were also more likely than those in 2011 to express acceptance of people from other ethnic groups in all four types of relationships: acquaintances, neighbors, close friends and kinship by marriage.
The aggregated attitudes at the national level, as shown in figure 1, are relatively consistent when we consider the subsets of respondents from the Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups. The results suggest that neither the Dinka nor Nuer ethnic groups express a predisposition towards rejecting people from outside their tribal or ethnic group.
However, when asked about views on the two key political figures in the current conflict, a different picture starts to emerge amongst these two ethnic groups. While both Kiir and Machar enjoy high levels of favorability in both of D3’s surveys, there are notable differences when respondent attitudes are analyzed by ethnicity.
While respondents from both ethnic groups have been extremely unlikely to hold an unfavorable opinion of their president, 97% of Nuer respondents held a ‘very favorable’ opinion of Kiir in wave 1 while only 42% continued to hold that same opinion in the second wave of research. The honeymoon was over. Favorability measures for Kiir among Dinka respondents, however, remained relatively stable between waves.
Divergent attitudes along ethnic lines are even more starkly seen when analyzing former Vice President Machar’s favorability. Nuer respondents consistently express favorable opinions of Machar, however Dinka respondents are much more likely to express unfavorable opinions of him and that willingness increased between November 2011 and January 2013.
Whereas no Nuer respondents expressed an unfavorable opinion of Machar in 2011 or 2013, 16% of Dinka respondents in 2011 viewed him either ‘very’ (5%) or ‘somewhat’ (11%) unfavorably. And these negative views among Dinkas increased in 2013 with a full 27% saying they have a ‘very’ (13%) or ‘somewhat’ (14%) unfavorable view of their then vice president.
These data suggest that by 2013, while direct measures of acceptance for other ethnicities have improved, ethnicity is a salient factor in defining attitudes amongst the South Sudanese regarding political leaders. Accusations of Kiir’s showing favoritism toward Dinka communities and claims by those outside the Dinka community of Kiir’s attempts to consolidate power are likely contributing factors to these attitudinal shifts. Although the evidence is not conclusive and other factors such as the recent wave of violence and specific policy objectives supported by these politicians are not considered in these data, there is some evidence that favorability towards political figures has shifted in a predictable fashion amongst the leading ethnic groups.