“They opted to abandon politicians from their own ethnic groups in the name of peace and coexistence. Through their collaboration with the New Sudan Council of Churches (NSCC) Wunlit Peace Conference was convened and the “People-to-People” peace initiative was born.”
February 11, 2014[Nyamilepedia] –South Sudan traditional authorities (Chiefs, Kings and Queens) are an embodiment of peace and stability at the grass-roots. They are the glue that connects our citizens to the government and augurs ‘people –to- people’ relations across ethnic folds. Although artificially created by British colonial rule, institution of traditional authorities has served our people positively. Traditional leaders have been the bedrock for which our resistance against colonial powers and opposition against the Sudanese-Arab state were anchored. It is unfortunate that during peace, which they struggled to achieve, they are chucked aside and forgotten. It is sad that in crisis such as the ongoing one in our country, they are murdered in cold blood without any remorse.
On February 07, 2014 – Panyijiar County woke up to a surprise attack by elements of the army accompanied by armed civilians descending from the direction of Lakes State. In that attack 29 people were killed, amongst them were old persons, women and children. Scores were wounded and many remain missing. The belligerents burned down what could burn and made it away with unknown herds of livestock. In that incident most prominent retired Paramount Chiefs and very influential elders in Nyuong Community were among the dead.
The writer who has known the two Chiefs and who worked with them recently is saddened by this sad news. This opinion article highlights significance of our Chiefs and traditional leaders. Most importantly, it is homage to these Chiefs (Late Chiefs Keah Tut Ngoal and Kerubino Nyuon Yar Buol) of Panyijiar County – Unity State, who met their death on February 07, 2014.
It is to be recalled that during our liberation war with Sudan’s Islamic-Arab state, between 1983 and 2004, our Chiefs and traditional leaders were the source of food, recruits and other resources for the SPLA. I was conscripted to the SPLM/A as a child by a chief and so were many men across the country. In the villages, SPLA collected taxes and fines in terms of grains, livestock and poultry, but could not be successful doing it without the consent or influence of the Chiefs.
Additionally, when judicial vacuums in the liberation structures were spotted, Chiefs were co-opted and acted as judges in their localities. This was clarified during the SPLM/A convention in 1994 where Chiefs were mandated to serve as judges at local levels. As leaders in their communities, chiefs were a source of information on positions of the enemy. They were basically the maps we needed for navigation. We relied on them to path-find our ways through jungles and arid areas of our country when insecurity engulfed much of our society. They were charged with responsibility to accommodate SPLA in their homes, sometimes getting displaced for longer time.
When the army was out numbered in some battles with the enemy, Chiefs and elders mobilized their youths to fight alongside SPLA against the enemy. Many of them offered their daughters to poor SPLA as wives for free understanding that the army had no dowry to pay.
Chiefs Keah Tut and Kerubino Nyuon were amongst war-time contributors to our struggle. War veterans from Muormuor, Koryom, Kazuk, Zalzal and even Intifadha who were accommodated and passed through Nyuong Nuer territory would remember these men for their contributions. Even the sons of the Nuba and Blue Niles States who came down through Nyuong territory could testify to their support. These late Chiefs and those still alive are our heroes.
In peace, they were on ‘cross-fire’ mitigating conflicts between their own constituents as well as between their communities and SPLA when disputes arose. After the 1991 SPLM/A split, Nuer and Dinka Chiefs were keen to put the conflict to bed. Between June 1998 and February 1999, Chiefs from these two communities met in Lokichoggio and in Wunlit in Warrap State to condemn the ethnic militarization of the split. They opted to abandon politicians from their own ethnic groups in the name of peace and coexistence. Through their collaboration with the New Sudan Council of Churches (NSCC) Wunlit Peace Conference was convened and the “People-to-People” peace initiative was born.
Later, the conference was replicated across South Sudan. “People-to-People” peace process is today credited for creating conditions which culminated to the merger of SPLM/A warring factions in 2002 and for laying the foundation for unified communities to support the Naivasha peace process. Chiefs Keak Tut & Kerubino Nyuon were among the founders of the Wunlit Peace initiative. In fact one of the Wunlit Peace Council offices was built and is now located at Panyijiar County where they were killed on February 07, 2014.
After the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed on January 09, 2005, Chiefs continued their unwavering support to the SPLM and autonomous Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS). On May 2009 a Chiefs, Kings and Queens’ national conference was convened in Bentiu Unity State under the theme, “Together Toward our Destiny.” At the time, CPA was under scrutiny, a disputed national census concluded a year earlier, shaky and nerve wrecking elections were looming and somewhat uncertain in 2010, and a referendum on our right to self-determination was less than two years away, but our resolve to get there needed assurances from our grass-roots.
In the Chiefs, Kings and Queens’ Conference, the participants confirmed their commitment to Unity of our people and declared unanimous support to our government in Juba in getting us to our “destiny.” The elders pledged their undivided allegiance to the leadership to complete our liberation mission. Chief Keah Tut had retired from the active duty by that time, but Chief Kerubino Nyuon Yar was among the participants. I had the opportunity to attend the event, witnessed the enthusiasm, joy of grass-root unity and support to our nationhood as displayed by the leaders who were from all corners of South Sudan. Grass-roots support to the SPLM government in Juba continued through to the elections.
Chiefs Keah Tut and Kerubino Nyuon were die-hard supporters of the status quo against challengers, who happened to be other political parties or Independent candidates. It is needless to mention that these chiefs were alert about the risk of handing GOSS leadership to parties not signatory to the CPA. They knew what would jeopardize implementation of the agreement to the “letter and spirit,” mindful of the National Congress Party (NCP) behavior at that time.
The two Chiefs were at odds with many including their own relatives. I can recall Chief Kerubino Nyuon wearing a white T-shirt with picture of President Salva Kiir wearing his Cowboy hat on and marked “Vote for Gen. Salva Kiir Mayardit!” Their own lives and their sons who stood with them were threatened. Some politicians are still bitter and hold grudges against them for their support to the SPLM leaders and government in that election.
During the referendum for separation of South Sudan, these Chiefs mobilized Nyuong community to vote for independence of South Sudan. Based on statistics which are available in Referendum archives, there was only one (1) person out of the whole county population that voted for Unity of Sudan. The individual was later found to be an old person who had been confused by the signs on the ballot box.
We finally had our nation on July 09, 2011 and mission accomplished.
Again in April 2012 Sudan invaded our territories on the northern borders. The elders mobilized Nyuong Community to send in more than 75 cows, bags of mangos, sugarcanes, bundled dry fish in sacks, chickens and other items to support the army fighting in Panthou (Heglig), Panakuach, Jau and Techwin. Chief Kerubino Nyuon Yar was a crucial asset in that mobilization.
While on the Unity State and Lakes State relations, Chiefs Kerubino Nyuon worked closely with his counter-parts to bridge the ethnic divide, crackdown criminal activities of youths and inspire people to trade across state borders. Most often getting support from international NGOS working in peace building, conflict mitigation and community security control to get his people live in peace with neighbors.
The Two Chiefs are well known to Lakes State Caretaker Governor Matur Chut Dhuol and to Justice Advisor to the President, Mr. Telar Ring Deng Takpiny. With regards to their contributions to peace, this writer witnessed and participated in more than three conferences between 2010 and 2012 in Rumbek where Chief Kerubino Nyuon Yar was engaged in peace initiatives with his colleagues. Not to forget that no single cow stolen by Nyuong youths that was returned to Lakes State without hard work of Chief Kerubino Nyuon Yar.
Today, Tradition authorities, continue to deal with a lot of cases involving theft, murder, rape and other conflicts than the well paid lawyers in the State Capitals and National Courts in Juba. They are the machinery that operates the traditional customary law systems reaching people our elites have lost touch with.
Despite their unequivocal contributions during war and in the last nine years, these true leaders have not received anything better in return. During the war, Chiefs were punitively punished by the SPLA Commanders. They were gruesomely reprimanded for lack of efficiency in collecting food, gathering recruits and not satisfying other demands of the armed men. In the hands of their own communities, they were held accountable for recruits to the army and victimized for loses suffered in the hands of the SPLA.
After installation of GOSS, some of them lost their jobs. Those who retained it were forgotten kept in dark, only needed when their political support matters. Many of them today remain unpaid, often expected to find resources through court cases they preside over. Moreover, they have no pension-reward system plan.
Once done with services, they are expected to fend for themselves despite that their physical strength has left them. They are met by poverty right on their doors. Many of them can’t afford to send their children to schools or afford a health care assistance. Life has not changed for their children who continue to be plagued by malnutrition and vulnerability to diseases. Although cases they deal with are sensitive, Chiefs remain unprotected and vulnerable to murder by their own subjects. Other times, they get relieved from their positions without due cause only to watch their jobs assigned to relatives and confidents of the political elites.
At times, Chiefs come face to face with harassment by government authorities for speaking out against unbecoming treatment of their subjects or themselves. Their working conditions remain remote and most often not prioritized for improvement by governing elites. Many of them continue to operate under trees. Worse of all, we murder them in cold blood when our tribal demons are aroused. Chiefs are killed when our ethnic tensions flare as if they started such conflicts.
To conclude, if our Chiefs and elders were judged by their contributions to our liberation, peace and stability, they would deserve better treatment and protection from the government they nurtured. When they are killed and wiped out, we are denied grass-roots wisdom and influence needed to keep our societies together and strong.
Mistreatment of traditional authorities and their eventual disappearance from the society is regrettable and marks the melting away of the traditional glue that binds us together with government and across ethnic lines.
Obviously, in the view of current South Sudan crisis, Chiefs Keah Tut & Kerubino Nyuon Yar will have been resourceful in Wunlit Triangle Peace. They will be greatly missed in Nyuong Community. Their contributions to “People- to-People” peace across the borders with Lakes State remain one of their greatest achievements. Dear Chiefs Keah Tut and Kerubino Nyuon Yar, may your souls Rest In Peace (R.I.P).
The author is a South Sudanese and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org