Introduction: South Sudan At Tribal and National identity juncture (1 of 3)


By Philip Thon Aleu

In 2001 while in a camp for internally displaced persons (IDP) and an early adulthood – a stage of development young people attempt to engage in community issues, I chatted with a longtime childhood friend over the choice of local chief. Two individuals were contesting. Most South Sudanese tribes choose their leaders based on linkage; from blood relation and geographical area. It is not about the ‘what’ (issues at stake) but the ‘who’ (individuals representing or attempting to address the challenges).

In the lead up to local election, our conversation centered on ‘the who and the what’? Who is the best choice without the predicament of blood connection? What are the issues at hand? My friend said one guy was very good at winning issues for his community – the people closely related to him. Every time he makes decision, he considers his blood. The other candidate was a rare breed. His decisions are mostly based on facts – not any connection – whatsoever. As students of CRE (Christian Religious Education) by then, the later should be the leader. Leadership is about issues. My friend even furthered by explaining how awful a bias leader could be! He said if you elect a person because he or she is related to you – and your expectations are that he will always advocate for his relatives, you will lose it all. He said a divisive leader would segregate other communities – which should be an excellent outcome for his community. Down the road, he explained, that person will also segregate further and so on and so forth. He suggested that those individuals even treat their children differently. Puzzled, what is the way out then? He referred to the CRE chapters on leadership and lined up qualities of a good leader: lead, educated (or knowledgeable for that matter), able, determined, energetic etc.. And what about his community, people who are related to him? His answer was simple: you can have an exclusive or an inclusive leader but not both and expect different results. This conversation affected my choice in that leadership contest.

When South Sudan became independent from Sudan six years ago and having governed ourselves since 2005, hopes have been rising that one day, a South Sudanese national identity would be forged – shabby and slim as chances maybe! A combination of euphoria to secede from authoritarian, exclusive Arab Sudan and petrodollar oiled a false political unity from 2005 to 2012. Tribal feuds in Jonglei, Lakes and elsewhere in Southern Sudan were dismissed as “normal” but those were the true indicators of pending troubles. There was a South Sudanese identity, at least in towns amongst the elites and university students, which everyone was proud of.

A combination of shrinking oil revenues and bad political gimmicks took toll in 2012 and the accepted myth of a new national identity diminished, and finally descended into a civil war in December 2013. Most leaders took to the trenches in tribal enclaves – and some politicians hypocritically tried to stand out of the theater of conflict – presumably to remain ‘good.’ University students, fresh graduates and the entire elite community of South Sudan were exposed just ethnocentric like their leaders.

In practice, every tribe, or people pretending to speak for that tribe, think that the other tribe is bad. In trying to literally eliminate each rival tribe, we are risking losing the country altogether. So the words of my friend 16 years ago are reverberating in mind. Where did South Sudanese make the wrong choice?

Well, we had one election only in 2010. The SPLM has done little over it 34 years of existence as an institution to govern a free people much as to give chance for the people to choose their leaders.


The hope has been the youth – most of them were educated in fairly democratic societies – in multi-ethnic,multiracial schools. But we, the South Sudanese between the age brackets of 18 – 45 years old and considered as youth, have little to be proud of. Perhaps a hyena gave birth to a hyena as the saying goes! What is even disappointing is the failure to accept our existence as a country – and shamelessly trying to squeeze ourselves into neighboring countries and beyond – as ‘second homes,’ without morphing a better future for our children.

Now at this juncture of trying to serve our tribes and our nation, individuals must make difficult choice. It begins with everyone – from the top leadership to a schoolchild reading this message on her/his smartphone. There is no tribe without the country and no country without a tribe. However, leadership must prevail. That leadership means respecting individual’s community setting(s) and shape it through examples, fair analysis of the situation and good judgement without premeditated biasness.

Having taken you through this introduction, I will turn to underlining issues. Understanding that a country should be proud of it diversity, I will now turn to issues between pastoralist and crop farmers in South Sudan. Why is rearing cattle and growing crops a cause of conflict?

Dinka Cattle in Equatoria Region is next. Stay tuned!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s