By Justin Lokudu


South Sudan Cultural Diversity - A live performance brought together many performers included singers, poets and story tellers from tribes across South Sudan, and the audience was treated to traditional fables, elegies --(on the stage) Acholi dancers are part of South Sudan's rich cultural heritage (image credit: George Lasu)

South Sudan Cultural Diversity – A live performance brought together many performers included singers, poets and story tellers from tribes across South Sudan, and the audience was treated to traditional fables, elegies — Acholi dancers are part of South Sudan’s rich cultural heritage (image credit: George Lasu)

Sept 19, 2014(Nyamilepedia) — This article discusses the gradual process of crystallization of South Sudan ethnic identity through the prism of ethnophobias in the name nationalism is raising an eye brow as to where is our common interest and solidarity as a nation.

As a mass phenomenon encountering outnumbered groups of people, ethno- phobias to some extent influenced the complex processes of ethnic self-definition inside the “multiethnic” nation, acting together with many other factors. These factors seem just as significant for the completion of the act of self-identification as does the purely negative phenomenon that is the subject of the present paper.

South Sudan is the homeland of different ethnic groups with a variety of cultures and speaking different languages and dialects. Many writers consider it the house of sundry, religions, languages and cultures. Inter-ethnic conflicts and struggle for identity among the ethnic groups too are not new but a frequently occurring phenomenon. However, such conflicts have become more common and all pervading at present. It is to a great extent, due to over politicisation of the factors confounding the ethnic identities. Politicisation takes place at two levels- on one level, politicisation of people’s cultural, linguistic and most importantly ethnic sentiments resulting in ethnic conflicts and at another level, politicisation by the decision makers as part of their efforts to find a solution to their ethno-phobic feeling. The writer tries to focus on these two aspects of politicisation that is playing a fundamental role in making the identity crises and conflicts an enduring phenomenon in South Sudan.

Ethnicity and aspiration for identity

Ethnicity stands for a group’s way of conceptualising and relating to society. It welds together individuals who share a history, culture and community, who have an amalgam of language, religion and regional belonging in common and perhaps most critical of all, they feel that they come from the same stock (Wilson and Frederiksen 1991: 2) Though the term ethnicity is of recent origin, its idea has been present since long. It’s probable first use by David Reisman in 1953 only renamed an already existing and recognized phenomenon. People have identified themselves with particular cultures through processes like acculturation, integration and assimilation. Ethnic identity on the other hand is an attachment construct, where individuals view themselves and others view them as belonging to a particular cultural group (Trimble and Dickson: in press). The growth of the spirit of ethnicity or ethnic self-assertion among various groups leads to the aspiration for a distinct identity for themselves.

Ethnic identity has both objective and subjective connotations. Objectively it is “primordial affinities and attachments” and subjectively it is an activated primordial consciousness” (Subba 1996: 39). While Issacs (1975) and Greeley (1974) supported the objective concept, Geertz (1975) emphasized the latter and Van den Berghe argues in favour of combining the two (Subba 1996: 39). The ethnic groups with a small population and low exposure to development tend to suffer from an identity crisis to the point of extinction. The aspirations for an independent ethnic identity lead to the formation of a nation within a nation through various ways including ethnic struggles and violence.

Identity Crisis among the ethnic communities in South Sudan

South Sudan one of the 54 states of Africa is enclosed by Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, DRC and CAR. The population of South Sudan consists of the inhabitants who predominantly black African race and few of other racial origins who over time got integrated as a population and have given birth to the South Sudanese nation. Present day South Sudan roughly covers the area inhabited by the ‘native’ ethnic groups, the Acholi, Adio (Makaraka), Aja, Anyuak (Anyuaa), Avukaya, Azande,Bai, Baka, Balanda-Boor, Balanda-Bviri, Banda, Bari, Binga, Bongo, Didinga, Dinka (Jieng), Dongotona, Feroghe, Gollo, Ifoto, Imatong, Indri, Jiye,Jur (Beli & Modo) ,Jurchol (Luo), Kakwa,Kara, Keliku, Kuku, Lango, Larim (Boya), Logir, Lokoya, Lopit,Lotuka (Otuho), Lugbwara, Lulubo, Maban, Madi,Mananger, Mangayat, Moro, Moro Kodo, Mundari, Mundu, Murle, Ndogo, Ngulngule, Nuer (Naath), Nyangatom, Nyangwara,Pari, Pojullo, Sere,Shatt, Shilluk (chollo), Suri (kachipo),Tenet, Tid,Toposa,Woro and Yulu.(www.gurtong.org) and many more,who are not covered in this list like: Iyire.

Opinions writers on the South Sudanese people today range from those who subscribe to the view that there is no South Sudanese nationalism without full recognition of one’s ethnic groups’ identity.

The aspiration of a separate South Sudanese identity without one’s ethnic recognition has its origin in the colonial discriminatory treatment of the colonials and the Arab dominium. A feeling grew in South Sudan that it was treated as an appendage and a subordinate area of the then one Sudan.

Such discrimination continued also during the liberation struggle and after independence. The discriminatory attitude of the Centralization policy inherited becomes clear from the way SPLM/A use and turns its cadres against their communities in so myriad occasions.

In this regard, the social minorities within South Sudan felt discriminated against. They struggled against the Turkish, British colonialist and as well as the Sudan dominium in proportion to their size only.

The dominant classes in South Sudanese political power as well as in economy thought that this diversity of South Sudanese ethnic groups created a problem for the national formation and integration of centralized S. Sudan. A sense of incompatibility that has been intermittently grown into one of resentments against one ethnic group by hate elements in a government they called theirs on Dec 15/2013, and thereby motivating the sentiment of killings and a quest of all groups for a state were human rights and citizen dignity is respected. Thus, the prompting the question on nationalism without recognition of one’s ethnic identity that has been advocated by some politicians. Some small ethnic found themselves in an identity crisis, and thus marginalization.

To deal with this feeling of discrimination, the Constitution of South Sudan should be revised so that a special provision ethnic recognition is inserted- a clause for ethnic federalism as the sole solution to the current national decay is written and guaranteed legal protection.

The process of getting divided on the line of ethnicity didn’t create any problem by itself. But the suppression of aspiration for a respect of identity among the ethnic groups resulted in a number of movements demanding autonomy ranging from former rebels of David yau yau of Murle tribe to the CRF of collo kindom. As the only solution, I am proposing ethnically linked federal states. Otherwise, in South Sudan, there will be either many ethnic movements for federal states or separate nations on the part of different ethnic groups. These groups had come together during the South Sudan Movement 1955-2005 but the South Sudan ruling party has sadly spear headed a marginalization and targeted killing of people based on their ethnic groups.

Why did that happen? Its answer rests in the two-way politicization of the ethnicity elements and state role along with the element of deprivation and domination

Why Ethnicity?

An identity is born because of a variety of factors. Every ethnic group has its own distinct culture, language or dialect and traditional institutions. The fact of belonging to one group often gives rise to fellow feelings and sentiments. Factors like the desire to preserve one’s culture and traditional institutions, preventing them from being assimilated with the dominant culture, fear of being deprived of what is one’s due and exploitation of resources by outsiders make such sentiments stronger. For A. K. Baruah (2004: 19) “identity is directly related to the emergence of an educated elite in the concerned community.” In the absence of any other major social force such an elite comes to acquire a hegemonic position in the community, perpetuates its hegemony and mobilizes the community on communal lines. H. N. Das (2004: 70) finds factors such as a desire for self-expression, perceived discrimination and injustice, aspirations of small time politicians, better economic development of neighbouring small states responsible for the rise of sub-national and ethnic movements in South Sudan.

The stronger groups being unable or unwilling or both often do not take cognizance of even the legitimate needs and aspirations of weaker ethnic groups (Datta:1990:39). Such intolerance and imperviousness lead to the growth of a feeling of discrimination and alienation on the part of smaller group. The dominant group possesses a tendency to brand all group aspirations and demands as anti-national or secessionist without going into their merits or demerits. The smaller groups get lost in the process of forced assimilation in the name of accommodation and integration. This gives rise to the desire for self-expression and an identity separate from that of the dominant groups.

Ethnic Identity and Politicisation

Along with such factors of ethnic identity formation, a crisis is created by politicisation. The very crisis arising out of cultural, economic and linguistic deprivation grows and develops into a conflict through political interference. Politics is about the ‘transformative capacity’ of social agents, agencies and institutions while Politicisation implies inclusion of certain issues in its domain. As per Oxford Advanced Dictionary, Politicization implies the process of becoming politically conscious or organised. As the meaning of the term indicates, politicisation itself is not a negative concept. It helps the ethnic groups to grow conscious of their existence and rights. But over-interference of politics in the phenomenon of an identity crisis makes the situation worse. The present situation of identity crisis, social formation and rise of sub-nationalism is to a great extent due to political orientation in the wrong direction.

Politics plays a two-way role in ethnicity and rise of sub-nationalism. Firstly, politics of recognition and representation has encouraged the growth of the ethnic groups’ demand for a distinct set up which results in the formation of sub-nationalism or a nation within a nation. At this stage, it is important to recognize the distinctness of these groups. However, when it is perceived as a favour granted or a right acquired through a political struggle, the state policy of recognition of traditional institutions and representation of the ethnic groups in the decision-making bodies can nourish stronger sentiments and emotions of ethnicity among other groups. Its outcome can be noticed at various levels. At the institutional level, as Rajesh Dev, A.K. Baruah and Manorama Sarmah (Project Notes: Research in North East S. Sudan Liberal Democracy, Traditional Institutions & Politics Of Representation, Analysing the Nongkynrih Shnong Dorbar on behalf of NEIDS, Shillong.) opine, the ensuing politics of ‘recognition’ employed by the federal state have fashioned a multiplicity of institutions which contest with similar institutions of other groups and also with the structures of the state and autonomous institutions. In such circumstances, Benedict Anderson’s (1991) phrase ‘imagined community’ seems to become a reality. Ethnic sentiments, emotions related to their culture, language, symbols etc. and politics of recognition and representation come together to give birth to an image of their communion or nationhood which can also be described as sub-nationalism. In fact, there is a need to “imagine” a multi-ethnic, multicultural and multi-linguistic integrated South Sudanese society, but politicisation has turned this imagination into a conflict and crisis.

Secondly, the presence of political interference is again felt when this sub-nationalism grows to its full capacity causing a threat to the state. As Dov Ronen (1986: 1) suggests, “ethnicity is politicized into the ethnic factor when an ethnic group is in conflict with the political elite over such issues as the use of limited resources or the allocation of benefits. Stanley Tambiah (1989: 339) reiterates the same when he says that “central problems posed by our present phrase of ethnic conflicts are startlingly different arising out of an intensified ‘politicisation of ethnicity’ and ensuing in conflicts between member groups of a state and polity, which itself is thought to be in crisis (‘the crisis of the state’).” With this backdrop, it will not be unnatural or surprising to ask whether the aspiration for distinct ethnic identity is evolved over time or is created on behalf of the state, the politicians and the leaders of the ethnic groups. What are the benefits of such politicization?

Conflict resolution and politicization

South Sudan has to introduce an ethnic based federal system of government as a national level approach to intra-state conflict management. Homogenisation of cultures and languages by the current regimes could lead to the emergence of ethno-national movements and civil wars that could culminate in the national failure. Hence, the federal system that recognises ethnic groups‟ rights is the first step in transforming the structural causes of civil wars in South Sudan.


One comment

  • Hi,
    As for the article jotted,you are not for peace and development.Ethnic Federalism is for your personal view and achievement.Take a look for Greater Equatoria,what ethnicity will be when there have been living for thousand years without conflict.Never be paid to write such articles because Federalism is the Solution for the people of south Sudan.
    we need peace and good leader who do not have a tribe.

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