The Peril of Ethnic Federalism in the Republic of South Sudan

"There is also a naïve perception that true democracy can be attained only through federal constitutional making."

By Stephen Par Kuol
(Gurtong)-United by common struggle against common oppression, the people of Southern Sudan’s three provinces of Bar-El -Gahzal, Equtoria and Upper Nile had been clamoring for federalism since the sudanization period. They had been exacting that with protracted tenacity until a sort of quasi federalism was introduced with the signing of the Addis Ababa Accord in March 1972 granting the three provinces regional political autonomy. Although such a federal arrangement temporarily resolved the South- North Conflict, it ushered in another conflict (South – South Conflict) transpiring into Kokora.

The Kokora (re-division) as we knew it then meant different thing to different political factions of Southern Sudan. To its proponents, it was meant to introduce a more meaningful federal system with equitable sharing of power, resources and employment opportunities. To its opponents, it was a malicious project to politically fragment the South as one geopolitical entity.

Whether the Kokorists meant well or not, the unfortunate truth was that it brought about vicious infighting resulting in the eventual loss of the very hard won regional autonomy in 1983. Uncle James Agor, one of the veteran politicians and intellectuals of that generation described it in one of the recent discussions on SPLM-Diaspora Network as a politics of greed and tribalism. Both General Joseph Lagu and Mr. Abel Alier, the key players of that game also confessed it in writings and public pronouncements as a lifetime political blunder.

The only progressive experience out of that federal arrangement (regional autonomy) in my own view was that it helped shaping the Southern region into a separate and distinct sub-national entity within the Greater Sudan setting the stage for the next round of the national liberation struggle that culminated in CPA and Independence on July 9, 2011 .Other than that, the politics of the High Executive Council set in motion an extremely divisive political tribalism which eventually brought to the fore the intra-Southern factional politics that manifested itself during the last round of our national liberation struggle spearheaded by the SPLM/A.

Despite all the political infightings and divisions, the SPLM leadership upheld the historical aspiration for self- rule. Ironically, the NCP system of federalism that divided the southern region into ten states was confirmed. In practice, this federal arrangement for the most part created ethnic based states and counties calling for ethnic boundaries. This federal system is characterized by highly localized politics that tends to take bitter sectional divisions from boma level up. Along this direction, the tribes, clans and sections have been demanding more counties and ethnocentric states. Every section demands its own small administrative entity in the name of federalism and devolution of powers to the grass roots.

As the history repeats itself, the Juba politics of the day is dreadfully gathering regional and ethnic streams. Regional conferences have been convened not only to express ethnic and regional solidarities but also to table ethnic political demands in a very divisive tone. In those regional and ethnic platforms, national fraternities are clearly subordinated. Prominent national political figures take the stage to stoop low and sound like tribal demagogues. Evidently, the raw tones of those forums have created a negative sentiment that tends to further polarization of the national politics along ethnic and regional lines. Cheap unity of purpose to promote localism has thus prevailed over timely issues such as food security, human resources capacity building and national security.

The political science scholars who contend that every politics is local have gotten it more than right in the case of South Sudan. Presently, local political voices call the shot even in affairs that are supposed to be exclusively national. Every political affair is openly influenced by the tribal chiefs and the so-called community leaders. “It is our turn to eat” is the name of the game. Merits matter less in such matrixes as the voices of the communities override them. Public posts, whether at civil service or constitutional levels, are allocated to tribes, not qualified and competent individuals.

Federalism is scientifically defined as a system of government in which political powers are decentralized and devolved to the peripheries. This way, the peripheries become autonomous centers of political powers in their own right. I lived the beautiful experience of that in the United States and enjoyed the benefits that come with such system. The peril in our case is the ethnic nationalism behind the drive for it as things stand now.

What is even more perilous at the core of this system is the politics of ethnic boundaries which has been violent by the day since the year 2005. Any astute observer of the current political affairs in South Sudan can easily agree with the author that the prevailing intra-tribal boundary politics is a ticking time bomb clock hanging over us at the time of this writing.

In blatant violation of their constitutional right to move, settle and own properties anywhere in their vast country, South Sudanese are treated like illegal aliens in their own land by their own fellow citizens as citizenship rights are politically confined to ethnic enclaves.

Borders conflicts have then been raging every since. The last eight years in South Sudan have witnessed a war of man against every man over the land issues in the entire country. It has been tribe against tribe, county against county, clan against clan. Thousands of people have been killed or displaced as results of those intera-tribal or inter clans’ conflicts.

In Upper Nile State, it was Dinka of Baliet versus Shilluk of Panyikang counties over Malakal, Nakdier and Lul Payams. Lou Nuer of Akobo County in Jonglei State and Jikany Nuer of Ulang and Nasir Counties over Barmach and Wanding Payam.

In Jonglei State: Uror county and Duk County over Pajut Payam. Shilluk of Panyikang versuss Dinka of Piji/ Korfolus counties over Piji area. Shilluk and Lou Nuer over Obel Payam. Even in one ethnic community of Twic East County a conflict erupted between Ayuaal and Dachuek clans over Wangeli Payam. In Greater Fangak, it is the prevailing border dispute between Piji and Fangak counties on one hand and Ayod and Piji on the other over Kolanyang and Bielewiech respectively. There is also Ker or Aker conflict between Ayod and Duk counties.

In Central Equatoria, it was Mundari and Bari community at Jebel Lado Payam. Dinka Bor of Pariak and Mundari of Jamaza Payams. In Juba Bari community has been fighting constantly against unlawful land grabbers.

In Eastern Equatoria, the counties of Parajok, Budi, Numle and Kapeota have also been experiencing several fighting over land issues between the communities of Acholi, Madi, Didinga and Taposa and Dinka Bor settlers.

In Lakes State, different Dinka clans have been fighting among themselves over land issues, which resulted in lootings of livestock and death of people on both sides. Rumbek County in Lakes State and Morobo County in Western Equatoria over land issue in which several people died.

Most recently, it was Balanda Community against the Government of Western Bar Elghazal over Wau town.

These mini intera-communal conflicts are not storms in a tea cup. They can quickly plunge this country into the state of Somalia. It is very unfortunate that our people have misconceived federalism as a creation of independent tribal states and that is where comes what I call peril of ethnic federalism in South Sudan. It is a menace that could sinks the ship of the new republic if not treated with the diligence and vigilance it deserves.

True, federalism is globally the accepted trend but my own humble observation is that South Sudan has had a false start with federalism from the word go! It is not creation of ten states and 79 counties that bring about true federalism. It is rather the practical application of democratic federalism that goes to the bottom of issues, not quasi federalism whose constitution contradicts the very basic tenet of federalism (decentralization).

You can call it anything but in my book; it is ethnic federalism which is not only divisive but also expensive to run. A traumatized and young nation like ours should have started small with democratic unitary system with strong central government that regulates land issues to serve the best interest of the national public security, not loose empowerment of tribal chiefs to run the countryside like their private backyards. Exercising their absolute domain over the land, the ethnic groups have gone as far as interfering with town surveys and allocation of plots for development in several capitals throughout South Sudan. The decay of the whole thing is best illustrated by the apparent fact that the same people who blame Bari Community for not allowing other South Sudanese ethnic groups to settle in Juba are practicing the same thing in their home state capitals.

Depending on what we want to achieve with this loose ethnic federalism, we will ripe what we have sawn so far. Experiences elsewhere have proven that “Ethnic Federalism has not dampened conflict, but rather increased competition among ethnic groups over the land, natural resources, administrative boundaries and government budgets.

The case in point is the experiment of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), led by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi which transformed the previously centralized state into the Federal Democratic Republic in the 1990s, redefining citizenship, politics and identity on ethnic grounds. The stated intent was to create a more prosperous, just and representative state for all citizens. The economic aspect of that project might have been achieved as planned but it has resulted in deep polarization of the national politics.

That is exactly what is unfolding now in South Sudan. Take a deep look into the trend of regional alliances of today in South Sudan to see where we are heading to.

Too often, analysts in South Sudanese media confuse democratic federalism with ethnic federalism. There is also a naïve perception that true democracy can be attained only through federal constitutional making. Writing from a practical experience, I respectfully differ. A very personal journey in my previous career as a diplomat took me to the United Republic of Tanzania which happened to be the most democratic and politically stable unitary state in this region. It is also the only country without tribal chiefs in the continent.

So democratic federalism does not have to be ethnic to perfect or maximize its benefits. It can still work even better if we all share Juba, Malakal and Wau as multi-ethnic counties. Hence, as we move inexorably towards a permanent national constitution, South Sudanese must reflect again on the federal character enshrined in the existing transitional constitution.

It is important to note that although the country is structurally federal at the moment, the sentiments and passions behind the drive for it has a tribal character that needs to be remedied through a creative and accommodative political mechanism, which must include encouraging multi ethnic-states and counties for the best interest of peace, security and national integration. Otherwise, we can continue with the course charted so far, but at a very high peril.

The author is the current State Minister of Education in Jonglei State. However, the views expressed in this article do not represent the official view of Jonglei State Government but his own as citizen of South Sudan trying to contribute to the ongoing constitutional making..
Posted in: Opinions
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