Sunday, January 10, 2021

The Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MTA) and Ethnic Differences in South Sudan


I have written about the creation of this ministry somewhere, but I will go into it in more detail. It is, I think, a feasible suggestion. But you’re welcome to disagree and discourse with me rationally.

Ethnic groups, or to use the dreaded anthropological term, ‘tribe’, are the basic sociopolitical units in South Sudan. This makes them the center around which the South Sudanese society operates. Unfortunately, some South Sudanese have bought into the failed Western idea that tribes can be wished away, and our societies live in a de-tribalized environment. This is an extremely dangerous myth. It makes us overlook the problems engendered by tribal affiliations and belonging and wish for a utopian world where ethnic groups do not exist; a cosmopolitan world of Kwame Anthony Appiah where our universal similarities are overplayed and our ethnic differences downplayed. But as Walter Rodney, in his classic, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, has noted, ethnic differences are not the problem. The problem is how we operationalize our ethnic differences.

While states like the United States and the United Kingdom have historical infrastructure and luxury to make de-ethnicization of society central to identity discourse, a state like South Sudan does not. Even the United States melting pot ideology has refused to melt. As Isajiw Wsevolod has argued, ‘in any search for identity, one’s identity becomes relevant because through its ancestral time dimension one can, at least symbolically, experience belonging.’ Therefore, we should not simply wish our differences away nor do we have the luxury to downplay how some people still strongly attach to their tribal customs and traditions. So, what should a state like South Sudan do?

The creation of Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MTA)

Creating this ministry would ensure that those engaged in encouraging coexistence have the resources and the legal (not merely moral) power to go about their duties. Ethnic groups affect politics, economics and the general social life so they should be treated with the seriousness with which they affect our lives.

Tribal elders, local chiefs, local and federal members of parliament, state governors and religious leaders would play a great role in this ministry at state and federal levels. Solving ethnic feuds should not be left to people who do not have permanent resources and a legal status. Putting an important social institution under a ministry with other roles is to downplay the problems of ethnic groups and their potential importance in our political culture.

Within this ministry, tribal elders and local chiefs would feel acknowledged and resourced materially to fight troublemakers within their own ethnic groups. They will have the resources of the state and the advantage of knowing their own people. It is better to be told about the importance of other tribes by one’s elder than to be told by a political leader far removed from the daily experiences of the tribe.

Well-resourced and framed Inter-tribal understanding

Various groups still make unfounded assumptions about one another and this fuels mistrust and foments conflicts. Since the ministry would have annual budget and personnel, it would have the resources and human power to engage in grassroots outreaches and education for inter-ethnic understanding. It is the Bari that is in the best position to educate Shilluk children about the custom of Bari through face-to-face education or through pedagogical materials financed by the ministry of tribal affairs in collaboration with the Ministry of Education. It is the Jieeng that are in the best position to educate Zande children about Jieeng ways of solving disputes in collaboration with security forces.

Children need to be exposed to the idea that one needs to understand others before one judges them because inter-ethnic judgements based on falsehoods or exaggerated assumptions  are compromising coexistence in South Sudan. It is therefore dangerous for us to assume that South Sudanese ethnic group will magically understand one another because we so wish them to. Efficacious, people-centered work must be put in place beyond leaders’ verbal pronouncements.

Peace Initiatives among tribes as an ongoing, grassroots process

Because tribal feuds are an ongoing social and security problem in the country, it is a mistake that leaders only react to ethnic feuds. Modalities need to be put in place and ongoing campaigns about coexistence made continuous. Ethnic conflicts have become very ubiquitous and regular so peace and togetherness consciousness should be made a continuous social consciousness in South Sudan. But this cannot be achieved if the federal leadership and religious leaders only wait to solve disputes after people have killed one another.  With a ministry and resources, MTA officials would be able to travel the country and train local peace campaigners to keep the conversation ongoing.

Recently, President Kiir advised the security forces to end armed conflicts and road ambushes. This is a short-term solution, if not utterly misguided. While some of these road ambushes may be motivated by economic reasons, there is the security of one’s ethnic groups that gives people the audacity to steal or kill without fear of being given up to the authorities.

Additionally, some tribal feuds (such as cattle wrestling) are encouraged by the way tribes feel about one another and their cultural upbringing. These problems are deep-rooted and cannot be solved by sending the security forces to tribal groups. There must be long-term, consistent programs to tackle ethnic dispute. Mr. Tut Gatluak, President Kiir’s national security advisor, recently argued that ‘We call upon the state authorities, especially the governors, to work on the protection of the lives of the people of South Sudan.’ This is a problem that needs more than a ‘call.’

What is needed is a permanent and long-term program. The conventional methods of ending conflicts are inappropriate here. Some tribes need to be disabused of some of their dangerous cultural ideals. But this cannot be done by intimidation or crude security raids. It needs to be done in a way that would ensure the ethnic group in question does not feel threatened. And this cannot be done without the cooperation of chiefs and elders.

Even now, in some parts of Africa, Albinos are hunted and killed for their parts because of some wild tribal beliefs about the magical value of their body parts. In West Africa, children are still ostracized when accused of witchcraft. In Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo was forced by custom to kill a Ekemefuna even when he did not want to. Okonkwo was also exiled to his mother’s people for seven years when he accidentally killed a young man during a cultural event. Letting go of cultural beliefs and customs is difficult.

Sometimes tribal folks become doctrinaires when it comes to their own tribal customs and it takes education and social change rather than force to disabuse people of what they believe about their own people and others.

In the end, we cannot wish our tribal differences away, but we should not also assume that they are good or bad without putting down concrete and well-financed processes that would ensure inter-ethnic coexistence. MTA can incentivize youth, women and elders that try to make their own ethnic groups peace minded. It’s a folly to castigate other ethnic groups of being violent while condoning violence within one’s own ethnic group.

Kuir ë Garang is the editor of 'The Philosophical Refugee.'  Follow him on twitter @kuirthiy


South Sudanese Youth Complicity in their Systemic Marginality

Top: Dr. Peter Biar Ajak (left) and President Salva Kiir (right) Below: Minister of Petroleum, Mr. Puot K. Chol (left) and late Mr. Kerubino...