South Sudan poses considerable, but not insurmountable, challenges for journalists and their readers. The country’s relative youth—it’s only been five years since the South gained its independence from the rest of Sudan—and the feuding ethnic groups that define its politics can make it difficult for foreigners to understand the actual dynamics of the conflict there. However, detail-oriented journalism and visual aids like maps can go a long way to helping make readers and policymakers more informed. The AP’s recent explainer on the conflict in South Sudan is a case in point of what good conflict analysis journalism looks like. It begins with an update on the current situation:
South Sudan, the world’s newest country, is in political limbo after rebel leader and former vice president Riek Machar fled earlier this week. His whereabouts remained unclear Saturday after a spokesman for Machar and the United Nations both said he was in neighboring Congo but Congo’s government said it had no knowledge of him being there. His departure puts South Sudan’s peace deal, reached a year ago under international pressure, into disarray while the country’s humanitarian crisis worsens.
We’d written earlier about the palace coup in South Sudan, when President Salva Kiir—a member of the Dinka ethnic group—dismissed his onetime rival and then-vice president, Riek Machar. Machar, a leader of the Nuer ethnic group, and long a leading rebel commander of Nuer militias, is a rebel once more. Machar first fought the Sudanese government in Khartoum, later the Dinka-dominated South Sudanese government in Juba—and now he appears to be readying his forces to fight the government in Juba once more.
At the time of the AP’s reporting, Machar was thought to be hiding where rebels go to do rebellious things in this region: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where porous borders and a lack of governance allow some 70 militia groups to run amok in the eastern provinces. But later this week, the press shop in (North) Sudan revealed that Machar had been receiving “medical treatment” in Khartoum. The North has been accused of backing Machar’s militias in the past in order to exploit divisions within the South and thus strengthen the North’s own hand.
The AP piece continues with a detailed explanation of the ethnic politics at work. It also brings up a new geographical wrinkle that has materialized in the conflict map as the fighting spread:
Most South Sudanese who are Dinka, the largest ethnic group of South Sudan’s 12.5 million people, support their tribesman, President Kiir. Most ethnic Nuer, the second largest group, support Machar’s opposition party, with some notable exceptions. There has been sporadic fighting in parts of the country since Machar and his forces fled, especially in the south. Local and opposition officials in the Yei region say clashes have taken place there. The region had little violence during the country’s civil war, which began in December 2013. The fighting in Yei indicates that violence has shifted to a new front following Machar’s disappearance.
The AP explainer does a good job covering the ethnic loyalties that undergird politics in South Sudan. But what could make their coverage even better? Maps.
Maps help readers and policymakers better understand conflicts by, among other things, showing the geographical bases of particular factions, the hotspots where battles occur between different forces, and the revenue-generating resource centers like oil wells that groups seek to control. In this case, including a color-coded map of South Sudan with a carve-out of or bolded line around the Yei region would supplement the coverage nicely, providing a visual reinforcement of the written analysis. We’re adding more and better maps to our wish list for better Africa coverage.
But for you intrepid readers who want better maps of South Sudan now, it’s worth pointing you to some good ones. The BBC has a simple map showing the geographic distribution of ethnic groups, based on this more detailed map from a program out of Columbia University. This excellent map from an advocacy group has several layers, displaying the geographic distribution of ethnic groups and oil resources at the same time. The good news about maps like these is that they are relatively easy to make—they are based on data out of the UN and universities, which is generally open-source or otherwise easy to obtain—so it isn’t too much to ask for media outlets to harness their heuristic power in coverage of places like South Sudan.