Accommodating Deep Ethnic Differences: What’s done wrong & what’d be done right?

BY: Jacob D. Chol, JUBA, JAN/27/2014, SSN;

The December 15th 2013 political violence that led to the deaths of above 10,000 people in the nascent state has polarized the ethnic identities and relations.

It is not a secret any more that many people who lost loved ones in this political fiasco feel that the loss was an attribution of ethnic thawing which was not managed well during the state making and nation building.

But can South Sudanese live in this deeply divided society? What will the ethnic hatred and polarization help in this new Republic? What was done wrong in regard to the management of ethnic-relations that flared up to this taxing enraged? What can be done to reduce ethnic centrifugal?

This opinionated piece set to analyze the much-neglected ethnic cleavage that fanned the highly mobilized political differences expressed on December 15th 2013 political demagoguery. It then proceeds to provide pragmatic solutions to accommodate the deep ethnic differences.

Ethnic identity is a salient cleavage that is highly mobilized in political conflicts in the developing world. From Asia to Caribbean to Middle east and to Africa, ethnic cards are played in achieving political goals.

Interestingly in South Sudan, ethnic differences are ignored and taken, as sacrosanct and thus ethnic groups would play them under the carpet. This secrecy built up explodes once other ethnic groups felt disadvantaged in a way, leading to deadly wars and skirmishes.

The dramatic events in Juba on the 15th December that spread over to Bor, Bentiu and Malakal were exasperated by neglected deep ethnic differences accumulated since South Sudanese struggle for freedom and justice till the Independence of South Sudan.

The deep ethnic differences are expressed through swift and spontaneous anger. For example, why would a Dinka kill a poor Nuer in Mangaten-Mia Saba? And why would a Nuer Kill a poor Dinka in Bor or Bentiu or Malakal? Why would a soldier from either of the ethnic groups cock his AK 47 and shoot to death his fellow citizen?

These are deep and soul-searching questions that required South Sudanese to reflect and take matters of ethnicity as un-finished business in the new Republic.

Un-resolving ethnic issues during long and taxing struggle for the Independence would necessitate a quick reaction of either a Dinka or Nuer to kill each other without proper understanding the matter they are fighting over so long such an opportunity arise.

Upon signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005, National Healing and Reconciliation Commission was supposed to be immediately established to reconcile all South Sudanese ethnic groups and to create a corridor for justice for the victims of any ethnic cleansing, massacres or sort of historical war related injustices.

It was not to be a matter, which model worked well for South Sudan; it was either to be a South African, Rwandan, Bosnian or South Sudanese unique model. However, this Commission was later set up in May 2013 as a committee without legislation to make it properly execute its mandate.

The Committee is marred with capacity, legal, ideological and integrity deficits to jump-start the widely awaited Healing and Reconciliation of South Sudanese Communities.

To be sure, it is important to recognize government’s effort in accommodating dangerous individuals in South Sudan state making and nation building as recipe for peace, notably various militias that joined the SPLA after the liberation wars.

However, this political accommodation; a normative brainchild of prominent Dutch political engineer Arend Lijphart is an important strategy for ethnic thawing given that its reduces centripetal politics. Yet, Lipjhart’s theory of Consociationalism that would have served as the treatment of this deeply divided society was misunderstood and wrongly applied by the new Republic.

His thinking was not a political accommodation of the individuals but the representation of all cross-cutting cleavages of the South Sudanese society such as ethnic groups, political parties, elites, minorities’ autonomies in the governance.

Lijphart institutional design model offer accommodation with legal redress and social justice and thus the new Republic concentrated on the mere political and military accommodation of individuals without addressing crimes committed by the accommodated individuals in the first place.

This led to the impunity; rebellions and re-rebellions of the individuals tweaked on rewards and amnesties and thus this compromised social justice.

Associated with lack of social justice was the personal rule that planted institutional fragility. Indeed, institutional fragility had born corruption, skewed distribution of resources, poor delivery of services, human rights violations, lack of vision for the state and ethnic suspicion amongst South Sudanese Society.

Ethnic suspicion has been expressed out-rightly and has been a matter of debate on the streets of South Sudan. For example, a poor Dinka who has independently struggled to set up business or run a professional job and drive a car would be viewed by a member of another ethnic group to have acquired such from corrupted money.

This tendency, perpetuated through ethnic association is a resultant of mismanagement of state affairs where ethnic issues appear sharper than the ideological paradigm.

The ethnic suspicion discussed at homes and at ethnic social backyards explains the hatred between Salva Kiir and Riek Machar leading to the lost of lives and properties in the recent political viciousness.

What can be done right in this deeply divided society is to rethink the consociational model captured in the Transitional Constitution 2011 as decentralization and devolution policy.

The consociational model should be pragmatic in that distribution and share in the national cake should be done equally across territorial and ethnic cleavages.

“We the People of South Sudan” as the Transitional Constitution 2011 proclaimed in the preamble should be operationalized. For instance, recruitment of members of SPLA and members of the organized forces particularly Elite Presidential Guards should be apportioned to the ten states.

After the recruitment and training, the forces should be indoctrinated and ideologized to remain distinct and defend the peoples’ constitution whatsoever the circumstance.

Jobs placement in the public service and Judiciary should done in the eye of diversity and looking at territorial and ethnic strands.

Concepts of Ethnic Peace and Unity should be taught to children in primary and secondary schools emphasizing the core ethnic tolerance and love. In the Colleges and Universities, Ethnicity and Nationalism courses should be taught to the students so that once these students graduate they would serve the country with nationalistic values.

This shall improve the State-Society Relation so that in the event of political ferocity associated with a senior politician from either ethnic groups then members of his/her ethnic group should stick to serve the state interest instead of pulling back to their communities.

Matters of constitutionalism, respect to rule of law, accountability, lack of redistribution and hate speeches which are viewed to be the root causes of this political savagery must not be held secret again but must be subjected to public debates and participation.

Democracy should not be pronounced as ubiquitous concept to attract the Western support but should be honestly entrenched in the lives and governance of the people of South Sudan.

Argued as principle of affected interests, which asserts that every-one who is affected by the decisions of a government has a prima facie right to equal participation in those decisions, the government must ensure that citizens take Centre-stage in issues that effect their lives in peculiar development, governance and management of ethnic-relations.

Though ethnic matters remain disastrous and highly sharp in South Sudan, ethnic issues do not have to remain centripetal and suspicious. Chronic confrontation is not inevitable or immutable, and compromise and coexistence remain eminently feasible objectives.

The challenge is immense, but the dividends are so great, and the alternatives so grim, that the struggle for peace and unity is worth every ounce of sweat and toil.

Mr. Chol is a Comparative Political Scientist, a founder and Executive Director for the Centre for Democracy and International Analysis (CDIA). A research and an academic think-tank based in Juba. He can be reached at
His main research interests include; democratic transitions and consolidations, institutional design in divided societies (political engineering), ethnic politics, war, violence & peace, hybrid regimes, secessions, developing nations in international systems and Political Integrations.

1 Comment

  1. Kidepo says:

    Brother Chol-

    I appreciate your article very much. It is well written and balance.

    To be very precise the problem with our country is dinka. Period!

    On the issue of reconciliation commission Salva Kiir instead of appointing Bishop Paride Taban or any other person other than dinka to lead the ipeace and reconciliation institution Kiir went with his madness and appoint his jienge Bishop Daniel Deng knowing very well that dinka is a big part and partial of South Sudan problems because the dinkas have fought all communities of the RSS since immemorial and up to now they are still doing this. Kiir knows very well that no non dinka communities will ever dire to waste time listening to any dinka led peace initiative because the dinkas are the architects of killings, intimidations, land grabbing, corruption, rapes on non dinka women, and all bad news in the. Due to this fact no one would like to corporate with Deng and the commission got stack!

    Evidently Bishop Daniel Deng’s first move was to go to Nimule and preach to the Madi and IDPS-dinka bor to stay together instead of advising the IDPs to repatriate back to their luaks or rather bor town as the real everlasting peaceful solution to the local madi people………you see.

    My brother your suggestions and arguments are very good but as much as dinkas are in control of power nothing good will ever come from them because no one can implement your marvelous ideas. The country will continue bleeding, for us in Equatoria we had enough from dinkas beginning from the time of Abel Alier, late Garang and now Salva Kiir all have been disastrous to us in Equatoria and to other non dinka ethnic communities including wau, chollo, murle, etc.
    Dinkas only value dinkas. I suggest they should have their own dinka nation alone where Salva or any jienge can be a forever canonized king because they like each other and can easily stay alone while other 62 communities can stay alone because they can live with each other minus dinka peacefully

    Strange enough the dinka killers who are killing civilians on one hand are the ones propagating about the need to have peace on the other hand …………what a contradiction?. How can you be killer and a judge?. When we ask for International community to intervene for investigations they jumped up and start politicking that because USA and West is this and that, the very western countries who stood with South Sudan at the time we needed friends and when SPLA had nothing accept except the right to struggle. Where the NPAs for are instances, our SPLA donors. Why are Kiir and dinkas having honey moons with Russians, France and Chinese in the RSS, the country the very Chinese, France, Russians, and Arabs enemies did not want to be born during bad time?

    Kiir and the dinkas have disappointed us very much indeed

    South Sudan Struggle continue……………………………………….

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