Which Way South Sudan? Cultural Diversity and the Fundamentals of Nation-Building
With the successful conduct of the referendum in January 2011, and the overwhelming vote in favor of separation, South Sudan edged a further step towards independence from a unified Sudan, a country that had been ailing from the woes of unity for over 50 years. The vote was part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended the second round of Sudan’s prolonged wars. The CPA was a fragile arrangement but one that had opened totally different page in that 50-year history of the southern struggle for freedom and the destructive northern counter-insurgency. The self-determination exercise was the centerpiece of the peace process. Throughout the negotiating process, there came a time when it became the single issue the south was unwilling to compromise on, ready to grant concessions and lose many things in exchange for it. The entire southern population had hung their hopes and aspirations for a better future on this exercise. But with the creation of a new state, will South Sudan transform itself into the nation Southerners expect it to be? In the wake of independence, this question is made all the more acute by the challenges that the new nation faces in attempting to address the aspirations of the people. A people who fought in a long and testing struggle, and finally voted overwhelmingly for its independence, expect an immediate independence dividend. Will independence prove to be the panacea for the problems that have confronted South Sudan for over half century? Or will the people’s expectations be so great as to result in disappointment and make the country ungovernable?
As a country that is coming into existence after long wars of liberation, inheriting poor infrastructure, volatile political climate, limited capacity for governance, weak state institutions, financial crises, violent ethnic divisions, and uncertain regional and international political atmosphere, the new state of South Sudan will practically be an artificial state for quite some time. It will be driven more by the euphoria of independence from North Sudan, the political pronouncements of its leadership, and by the history of an extremely violent conflict with the north, than by its practical abilities as a nation-state. It is ethnically diverse, with over seventy cultural and linguistic groups, whose idea of citizenship in the nation is only as strong as the optimist nationalists wish it to be. Instead, as it stands at the moment, South Sudan is only slightly more than a mere geographical expression. There is stronger sense of citizenship in the tribe than in the nation. The main glue that binds South Sudan’s multiple nationalities together is the history of their struggle for freedom, a history of collective opposition to the north. This struggle, long and hard under the leadership of the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement (SPLM), has been an experience that transcended ethnic boundaries, with emphasis on the unity of purpose during the war, and has accelerated the concept of and conviction about separate nationhood vis-í -vis the north, most especially in the period leading up to the 2011 referendum on self-determination, as the dream of independence was increasingly turning into reality. Despite violent discords within the SPLM and the creation of ethnic militias that fought bitter wars against the SPLA, the undeniable fact is that all Southerners remained focused on the need for unity of purpose and unity of ranks in the fight against the north. However, that unity remained undefined. Therefore, at independence, and despite the philosophical unity, South Sudan has found itself with only a hazy notion of a collective national identity, and given this history of political rivalries along ethnic lines, there have been predictions about possible disintegration. Due to the inability of the state to immediately provide the highly expected dividends of peace and independence, and because of the potential violence and insecurity that is likely to accompany the mechanics of separation, the viability of South Sudan is still currently a matter of speculation. There has also been presumption that ethnic squabbles within the south will increase over the allocation of state resources and services, which will have significant potential for unraveling national unity between the people of the new country. Such rivalry, if not managed in the most tolerable and inclusive manner possible, could easily thwart the nation-building project. In response to these predictions, the South Sudanese political leadership, while acknowledging the challenges of building a nation from the scratch, has discounted the talk of failure and collapse of South Sudan and has given assurances that it will deliver to the people their long-denied state services and that it will tackle the peoples’ expectations, corruption, insecurity, and establish a stable and unified country. However strong the conviction is about the ability to cater to its people, South Sudan will have an arduous journey to nationhood. Its development projects will need to be based on a strong foundation of security and stability, which the new state is currently short of. This road will be littered with difficulties, some from within and others involving external factors.
The challenges that the new country faces can be categorized into three.
“¢ The first are internal political dynamics, which include, but not limited to, a legacy of a prolonged war, which continues to manifest itself in the widespread distribution of firearms, beyond the armed forces, and the violence that continues to plague its already traumatized and impoverished population. They also include everyday security, law and justice, which are some of the peace dividends most highly anticipated, and yet the most difficult for the government to guarantee, given the low levels of confidence in government institutions to provide equal protection to all the citizens. This challenge is twinned with the ever more ubiquitous question of ethnic rivalries and inter-tribal warfare that, in 2008 and 2009, threatened the whole peace process and killed far more people than the more highly publicized Darfur crisis.
“¢ The second set of challenges are a number of complicated post-CPA north-south issues that will need to be negotiated and settled, some of which threaten to create instability, if not an all-out war between the Sudan’s two new countries. These include wealth-sharing, particularly the oil resources, border demarcation, contested border areas, security arrangements with regards to border control, Sudan’s staggering external debt of 36 billion dollars, international treaties, and the question of citizenship for Sudanese who hail from one side but find themselves on the other side at the time of separation.
“¢ The third set of challenges concerns the external factors. South Sudan is land-locked, lacks industries, has a long history of food deficits, and is surrounded by countries with their own problems of internal conflicts, economic problems and have a stake in whatever happens inside South Sudan’s borders, be it peace and stability or economic opportunities. Each of the east African countries, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Congo, has aspirations to promote South Sudan as a consumer market for its products and an employment market for its skilled but jobless young population; and depending on their approach to the interaction with the new state, could either lead to regional stability or insecurity.
But today, the focus is on the first, how to manage cultural diversity. Under normal circumstances, diversity must be celebrated as a source of strength and enrichment of the human endeavor; it is a discourse of hope and togetherness. But within a discourse of hegemony, exclusion, and assumptions of homogeneity, diversity becomes a liability and a hazard or a discourse of discord, and in the worse circumstances, it is a discourse of rejection. Hazardous diversity condemns difference because that is all it sees and celebrates otherness because it provides rationale for stigmatizing the other.
Now South Sudan will become a state in just over 3 months, it also needs to become a nation. The euphoria of independence will be accompanied by challenges of building a new nation, a project that will have to go beyond the usual temptation in new states to focus on material, infrastructural development, and delivery of basic social services. These are all important and expected dividends of independence, but as a new state, South Sudan also needs to become a nation. To be a nation means having a citizenry that takes pride in citizenship in “South Sudan” first and in tribal citizenship second. Such a nation can no longer assume that shared interests alone will continue to unite it. So far, the struggle to wrestle their freedom from the grips of the Khartoum-based successive governments has been the most unifying force for South Sudanese. Now that this struggle is bearing fruits, when there will be no more “north” to blame, what will unite Southerners is the desire to build a strong nation together, and such a nation will need a shared identity. Such a shared identity will need to be harnessed, it needs to be politically constructed, and it is the task of its leadership, government, civil society and private enterprise to forge it.
To this end, I envision a collective effort of all these entities to set a policy for constructing our nation’s identity.
A solution begins with the correct identification of the nature of the problem. The most significant enemy of South Sudan’s cohesion, national loyalty and the citizens’ pride in their nation will be a growing sense of exclusion from the national platform, media, government programs and access to services. Such exclusionary practices have in the past been based on ethnic differences. Any citizen who will feel excluded will never develop that important sense of pride in his/her nation. A starting point to addressing the feeling of exclusion is to state the obvious, that South Sudan belongs to all South Sudanese; it does not belong to any ethnic, religious or political group. This means that we must all address ourselves to identifying, documenting, preserving, displaying, promoting and celebrating the cultural practices that are common to all Southerners. The whole government must take South Sudan’s rich culture and its diversity as a source of strength, not a symbol for lack of unity. Our religious practices, dancing arts, marriage systems, our languages, our natural environment and unique ecological zones inhabited by tens of Southern ethnic nationalities, must be celebrated as the mix that makes South Sudan both unique and yet similar to the rest of black Africa.
The most significant impediment to South Sudan’s cohesion and citizens’ loyalty and pride in their nation will be a growing sense of exclusion from the national platform, from media, government programs and access to services. If exclusionary practices that are based on ethnic differences continue in a new South, they will have detrimental effect on its viability as a nation. Any citizen who will feel excluded will never develop that important sense of pride in his/her nation. South Sudan will need to demonstrate that it belongs to all South Sudanese; that it does not belong to any ethnic, religious or political group. This means that the whole government, civil society, the business community and ordinary citizen must address themselves to preserving, displaying and celebrating the cultural practices that are common to all Southerners. To join a community of independent nations, the country will also need to identify its own homegrown philosophy of development, democracy, and open participatory system of governance. To be strong and respected, it must build itself on pillars of internal peace promotion, political unity, a disciplined military, and equitable distribution of services, and building symbols of nationhood around which to rally the public.
Another major obstacle to realizing this dream of nationhood is ethnic conflict, and this is an obstacle that originates from the above-mentioned feeling of exclusion or domination of the state by some ethnic groups. Our people have been at conflict with each other for sometime, but the conflicts of the recent decades, became more gruesome due to a combination of feelings of exclusion, diminishing resources and the long hands of our detractors in the North. So a country seeking unity, collective national identity and stability must have a clear policy to combat this ethnic violence, now that external forces will no longer have the ability to pit us against one another. Even though our people have often competed for resources, especially among pastoral peoples, their conflicts have always been purely economic and easily reconcilable through traditional mechanisms. To foster these types of reconciliation practices and rebuild these relations of mutual interest, we must attempt to highlight significant events in our history that celebrate these mechanisms. For example, it would be important to chronicle, preserve and display how religious practices and rituals that were used by our spiritual leaders to stem unprovoked violence. One way to do this might be the establishment of a “museum of prophecy” to be erected near Ngun Deng’s Shrine in Upper Nile. This would be done in such a way that moves Ngun Deng’s ideas onto the center stage, by showing that they had much in common with Ariathdit in Bahr el-Ghazal, Lirpiu in Bor, the Oracle of the Zande etc, to show the power of spiritual leaders as moral compass for our communities, that these old practices are not inferior to Christianity, or any other religion. This program would of course require a study to come up with the best possible plan of action.
Another way might be to review and develop our educational curriculum for primary through secondary school, in which the teachings of Christianity or any other religion of “the book” is done side by side with the teachings of local spiritual ideas, so that the younger generation of our people don’t shun our spiritual believes as signs of backwardness, as some have already began to do. This could be a collaborative endeavor between the ministry of education, culture and heritage, local authorities and civil society groups. Our traditional spiritual believes are not in competition with other religions, but are tolerant and accommodating, and we can learn a great deal from them in our efforts to coexist. One has to know where he is coming from in order to know where he is going. A nation that does not commemorate and celebrate its past surely cannot know where it is headed. How historical memory shapes ethnic conflict is something that we have forgotten in the immediacy of the moment. Nation-building is not just about physical reconstruction, provision of services, or material wealth. It is, in equal measure, about using our shared customs to prevent further escalation of conflict. It is also about upholding values, customs, and traditional practices that can be enshrined in national identity. In other words, a nation is not the sum of its material possessions. Rather, people are the nation. Such practices and values need to be instilled in the individual. How each one of us behaves becomes the face and reflection of our nation’s character. I am often gratified when traveling abroad and meeting foreigners who have worked in the South, whether aid workers from the Western World or labourers from East Africa, speaking glowingly about what a generous people Southerners are. This is an image we cannot afford to lose. We cannot afford to relax our self-criticism and reflection. And the best way to hold ourselves to our own standards is to teach our values to younger people, to remind ourselves of who we are as a people. We should be our own best judge and critic. Our nation will be the sum of our individual attributes. If you have individuals without moral integrity, you have a nation that ignores its own moral standards. These standards have to be self-imposed. And such morality cannot be put in us through laws and constitutions alone. Laws and constitutions are great to have, but they will not teach people how not to violate them. These moral standards need to be internalized by each citizen. Such a moral outlook can only be cultivated through parental guidance, schoolteachers, through religious leaders, and above all, exemplary political leaders, who uphold teachings of equality and mutual respect.
So far, I have been an observer of the dynamics of government, and one thing that I have noticed is a divide between those who have physically fought in the liberation struggle, who seem to feel a sense of entitlement to government privileges, and the rest of people who have made equal contribution to the struggle in variety of other ways, many of whom now feel excluded on account that they did not fight. This is natural for a young nation that has gone through destruction unprecedented in the history of the world since World War II, a nation that has lost millions of precious lives in the course of two protracted wars. It is also to be expected for a people whose resources have often been controlled by their opponents, who have experienced abject poverty due to exclusionary policies of the centralized foreign authority, a people who have lived under colonialism of one kind or another for over 180 years. This is a history that has to be recorded, exhibited, celebrated and taught in schools. Above all, it is a history that we know will provoke competing viewpoints within our ranks. But one we cannot allow to derail our national project. The struggle has been long and hard, but claims of nationalism that cause a rift within our ranks can be reduced through a specific project that we can call “South Sudan History and Documentation Project.” This is a project that will record our recent past, the history of the struggle as witnessed by ordinary people. It is a history that has stamped itself on our bodies, and could be commemorated with symbols of these bodies. A war memorial at the bottom of Jebel Kujur or the face of Jebel Lado, or on the Island of Gondokoro might serve this purpose. It will celebrate the heroes and heroines of our struggle, through memorials and statues, street names, war museums to be erected in different states and towns across South Sudan, such as Dr. John Garang Memorial in Juba, which the Ministry should take leadership in developing into a national symbol of the best kind, to show the price we have paid for our freedom. To this end, we ought to recognize all our struggle leaders from Any-nya to Any-nya II to SPLA. We are told that there are 2 or 3 gentlemen from the 1955 Torit mutiny who are still alive. Would it not be the best gratitude our nation can express to them if we brought them out, dressed in uniform, and have them standing behind our president as he raises our flag on July 9th, 2011? It would be a symbol of pride for all of us if we erect a monument of, say Samuel Gaitut next to Majier Gai, Akuot Atem, and Joseph Oduhu, standing in front of a public building in Bor or Malakal or Torit? How emotionally gratifying it would be to see a similar statue of William Nyuon Bany, Kerubino Kuanyin Bol, General Tafeng, in Yambio or Juba.
The importance of cultural centers: One might be tempted to think that these are not really the priority in the face of growing poverty, lack of health care, child mortality, malnutrition and other such calamities. But some of the causes for this poverty situation are rooted in being a nation without deep collective psyche. One thing that is going to offer that opportunity to become a nation is to see our shared history, culture, and identity, all displayed side-by-side in cultural centers. To this end, two types of activities are of most immediate nature. The first is the construction of the national archive to be a center for preservation of our records, research and teaching about our past. It is a disgrace for our nation that the government of Central Equatoria state displaced the archive into a tent so that they can use the building as an office. Are the documents that are now in the tent and are being destroyed by exposure to the elements not our collective history, a foundation of our nation?
The second activity is the national museum. This would display everything central to our everyday cultural existence, from healing practices to religion, to dwellings and architecture, language, music and dance, marriage and bridewealth, cooking utensils and the types of food we consume, bedding and headrests, war and weapons, photographs displaying the different faces of Southern tribes, systems of traditional governance, clothing, trades and crafts. It might be called the Museum of Ethnography, or simply the National Museum of Culture.
Nations that are culturally diverse also confront the question of finding symbols to rally around, symbols that transcend their ethnic, linguistic and political differences. Right now, South Sudan seems most divided by the fact that we do not have an indigenous national language. This is something that the government might have to reflect upon, and do it soon. In my view, developing a national language, whether it would be a hybrid of a number of local languages, similar to the Indonesian model, or adoption of English as everyday language, for government business, and medium of instruction in schools, will require open dialogue with all Southern communities. Perhaps a good approach to finding a solution will require the commissioning of a study survey to solicit ideas from a cross-section of Southern communities. I do not mean to suggest that lack of a unifying language means that we cannot develop as a unified nation, but it would sure ease and speed up our evolution into such a nation. It would lessen feelings of exclusion, domination by one or few ethnic groups, not to speak of the ease with which our people can communicate across their ethnic boundaries, given that peoples’ ability to communicate means less conflict and far less suspicion of domination and favoritism.
There are many things that work against such a project. Obviously things are often easier said than done. An endeavor of this kind will depend on the commitment of all the entities I listed earlier, the whole government, and the resources that we avail for it. Ideas about possible external funding sources for such a project need to be fine-tuned, and with the input and advice from every one, we could embark right away this mission.
In conclusion, nations are made not born. Every nation worthy of the air it breathes has gone through prolonged periods of struggle to forge its sense of collective existence. Co-existence is not just a nice thing to say, a rhetoric of political correctness. Instead, it is a matter of survival for all of us. No one gains from exclusionary practices, from citizenship in and primary loyalty to our specific cultural groups. We all gain by promoting our sense of national belonging, by rallying around our national symbols, by building a citizenry devoted to the concept of citizenship in the nation, and practice of citizen-centered national policies.
This is the text of Prof. Jok Madut Jok’s Justice Africa lecture in Juba, presented on 25 March 2011.