South Sudan: Rethinking citizenship, sovereignty and self-determination

Published on Pambazuka News, by Mahmood Mamdani, May 4, 2011.

Reflecting on the context behind South Sudan’s exercise in self-determination and the potential sources of political violence following the country’s independence, Mahmood Mamdani explores Sudan’s longer-term historical experience – the role of imposed administrative identities under the colonial system, migration, religion, slavery and the emergence of a politicised Islam – and the contemporary challenges around rethinking political citizenship.

Whatever your point of view, it would be difficult to deny that the referendum on South Sudan – unity or independence – was a historic moment. Self‐determination marks the founding of a new political order … //


What would democratisation mean in the present context? Is there a link between democratisation and violence? If so, what is that link?

I want to begin with two observations, one on political order, and the other on political violence. The first has to do with the link between organisation of the state and maintenance of civil peace in a post-civil war situation.

Think of Uganda, 1986. We had just come out of a civil war. The terrain was marked by multiple armed militias, the best known being the UFM (Uganda Freedom Movement) and Fedemo (Federal Democratic Movement of Uganda). The Ugandan solution to this problem was known as the broad base. It was an invitation to rival militias to join the new political order, but on two conditions: first, whether monarchist or militarist, you can keep your political objectives provided you give up your arms; second, you can have a share in political power – a governmental position – provided you give up control over your militia.

South Sudan too is attempting to create a broad base. But in South Sudan, different members of the broad base have kept not only their arms but also command over their respective militias. Every important political leader in the SPLM has his own militia, so much so that one has to ask: what happens if a leader loses his position within the SPLM? Or loses an election? The obvious answer is: that commander leaves with his militia.

Take the example of General George Athor, who went into rebellion after losing last April’s election to be governor of Jonglei State. He led his militia into rebellion – attacking Malakal in the oil-producing state of Upper Nile recently. It is a sign of the times. General Athor had contested the election as an independent candidate. But one is tempted to ask: what is to prevent a general who contests as SPLM and loses the election from withdrawing with his militia?

Most discussion on the question of violence in South Sudan today focuses on the spectre of North–South violence. There is hardly any discussion on violence within the South. Even when internal violence in the South is discussed, it is seen as a consequence of North–South tensions.

I suggest that we need to look at both internal and external violence, violence within state boundaries and violence between states. Let us begin with some general observations. Political violence in African states is not between states, but within states. The exception is where one state was created from within the womb of another – like Eritrea out of Ethiopia, or Pakistan out of India – or where one political class was nurtured in the womb of another, like the relationship between the EPLF and TPLF (Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front), the Eritrean and Ethiopian armed movements, or the RPA (Rwandan Patriotic Army) in Rwanda and the RNRA in Uganda.

The first kind of violence abounds in post-colonial Africa: the Rift Valley in Kenya, Darfur, Ivory Coast, eastern Congo. It is common to refer to all types of internal violence as ‘ethnic violence’. What is the common factor?

All these cases have one thing in common. All have reformed the central state by introducing elections and a multi-party system. But elections seem to lead to violence rather than stability. Why? For a clue, I suggest we look at another similarity between these cases of internal violence. None have managed to reform the local state – the local authority – the district authority that the British used to call the native authority.

As a form of power, the native authority is of colonial origin. Colonialism spread a fiction: that Africans have a herd mentality and that they tend to stay in one place, so Africans have always lived in tribal homelands. This was their justification for why every colony was administered as a patchwork of tribal homelands.

In actual fact, colonial administrations created homelands and Native Authorities. My research suggests that colonialism began with a programme of ethnic cleansing. Take the case of Buganda where all the Catholics were moved from the centre to Masaka, and Mengo was considered a Protestant homeland. Administrative counties were designated as Protestant or Catholic or, in a few cases, Muslim. The tribe or religion of the chief designated the nature of the homeland he administered. The ethnic cleansing in Buganda was religious; it was tribal elsewhere.

The Native Authority made an administrative distinction between those who were born or lived in the administrative area and those who were descended from its so-called original inhabitants. The distinction, in today’s political language, was between natives and Bafuruki. Then it systematically privileged natives over all others.

The colonial tribe not the same as a pre-colonial ethnic group. The pre-colonial ethnic group was not an administrative but a cultural group. You could become a Muganda or a Munyankole or a Langi or a Dinka in the pre-colonial period. But you could not change your tribe officially in the colonial administration. Colonialism transformed tribe from a cultural identity to an administrative identity that claimed to be based on descent, not just culture. It became a blood identity. Tribe became a sub-set of race

Wherever the colonial notion of Native Authority has remained, there authorities define the population on the basis of descent, not residence.

Colonialism was based on two sets of discriminations: one based on race, the other on tribe. Race divided natives from non-natives in urban areas. Tribe divided natives from Bafuruki in the rural areas, inside each tribal homeland. The difference was that whereas natives in urban areas were discriminated against racially, natives in the tribal homelands were privileged.

This administrative structure inevitably generated inter-tribal conflicts. To begin with, every administrative area multi-ethnic. Yet, in every multi-ethnic area, official administration discriminated against ethnic minorities, especially when it come to access to land, and the appointment of chiefs, that is, participation in local governance.

As the market system developed, more and more people migrated, either in search of jobs or land, and every administrative area became more and more multi-ethnic. In a situation where the population was multi-ethnic and power mono-ethnic, the result was that more and more people were disenfranchised as not being native to the area, even if they were born in the area. Ethnic conflict was the inevitable outcome.

Africa is littered with examples of this kind of conflict. It is the dynamic that drives ongoing civil wars around the continent: Darfur, Nigeria since the post-civil war constitution, eastern Congo, Ivory Coast, the Rift Valley in Kenya.

Will South Sudan be an exception? Will South Sudan create a new kind of state or will it reproduce a reformed colonial state?

To have some idea, we can look at the period before the CPA was signed in 2005. At the time, there were liberated areas. Since the CPA was signed in 2005, the whole of South Sudan became a liberated area. The fact is that South Sudan became independent six years ago, in 2005.

Make a comparison between liberated SPLA-held areas in Sudan with Sudan government-held areas, also in South Sudan before 2005. Early returns are not encouraging. Structures of power in both areas are the same. Both areas are ruled by administrative chiefs that implement customary law as defined in the colonial period, as a law that systematically privileges natives or Bafuruki, men over women, and old over young. From this point of view, there is no difference between how local power is organised in the North and in the South. Because the local power discriminates actively and legally between different kinds of citizens of South Sudan, it is bound to generate tensions and conflict over time.

The second type of violence, that between states, is specific to cases like Ethiopia and Eritrea, and Uganda and Rwanda. Will South and North Sudan be an exception?

For a start, we need to identify the sources of North–South tensions. First, there are the border states which lie within the North or the South but have populations that historically came from both. This is the case in Blue Nile, Nuba Mountains and Southern Kordofan. The border states were politically the most receptive to Garang’s call for a new Sudan. The border states also felt betrayed by the decision to create an independent South Sudan. At the same time, the political class in the border states is exposed to retaliation from the Northern political elite, which is one reason why it may turn to the SPLA for protection.

The second source of tension is the population of IDPs (internally displaced persons), the population of refugees from the southern war who lived in the North. How many still continue to live in the North? We do not know, but the count ranges from hundreds of thousands upwards. Are they citizens of where they live, Sudan, or of the new state from which they have historically moved, South Sudan? Like Eritreans in Ethiopia, they will be the most likely victims of a failure to think through the citizenship question.

The third source of tension is in Abyei, where the Misseriya of Darfur and the Ngok Dinka have shared livelihoods and political struggles for over a thousand years. Historically, African societies had no fixed borders; the borders were porous, flexible and mobile. But the new borders are fixed and hard; you either belong or you do not. You cannot belong to both sides of the border. Will the new political arrangement with fixed borders pit the Misseriya and the Ngok Dinka against one another?

Should the populations of border regions, pastoralists who criss-cross the North–South border annually in search of water in the dry season, the IDPs who have settled in their new homes – should they have dual citizenship?

In sum then, there are two major sources of political violence after independence. Possible violence between North and South has three likely sources: border populations, IDPs and peasants and pastoralists with shared livelihoods.

The second possible source of violence is within the South. It arises from the persistence of the Native Authority as the form of local power that turns cultural difference into a source of political and legal discrimination.

The solution for the first problem is dual nationality for border and migrant populations in the near future, which could possibly lead to a confederation in the distant future.

The solution for the second problem is to reform the Native Authority. If South Sudan is organised as a federation, how will citizenship be defined in each state in the federation: as ethnic or territorial? A territorial federation gives equal rights to all citizens who live within a state, whereas an ethnic federation distinguishes legally and politically between different kinds of residents, depending on their ethnic origin.

The basic question that faces South Sudan is not very different from the one that faces most African countries. Will South Sudan learn from the African experience – of ongoing civil war and ethnic conflict – and rethink political citizenship and the political state in order to create a new political order?

The future of South Sudan and its people rides on the answer to this question. (full long long text).

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