Confronting realities of identity politics as the effective means to solving problems in S. Sudan?

By: Daniel Juol Nhomngek, Kampala Uganda, MAY/29/2016, SSN;

Identifying problems and dealing with them as they are without pretending that they are not there is the best way of ending unending problems.
In South Sudan, leaders and some of the “educated citizens” are living in self-denial that the country and politics is not defined by tribes, which is not true. In actual sense, all intellectuals and leaders’ actions are defined by tribal influences.

However, there is hypocrisy as these bunches of intellectuals considered nationalists only in speaking. This is why they condemn leaders speaking their own mother tongues in public or on National TV or when they closely associate with their own tribe-mates.

I came to realize this hypocrisy when President Kiir spoke in Dinka language in Rumbek in 2014 or so. He was telling the truth as to why people continued to kill each other yet there was a war going on.

Kiir told those in Rumbek that it was bad to kill each other yet there was a major problem facing the country and if they wanted to fight then they should pick up their guns and join the army to fight against rebels in Unity.

On hearing this statement from the president, many people who considered themselves nationalists starting condemning him that he spoke in mother tongue on national TV (SSTV) and also that he incited Dinka Population to attack Nuer people.

The interpretation attached to what the president said and the language he spoke was unfortunate. It showed that those who interpreted what the president said were living in self-denial and do not want to confront the realities of South Sudan as they are.

The realities of South Sudan are that: South Sudan is made up of tribes, because of that the identity politics based on tribes will never go away.
In addition, most of South Sudanese at the moment have distinct identities that can make them to be identified whether they have talked or not.
Thus, speaking in mother tongue on national TV cannot make people to conclude that he is discriminating people or he has become tribalistic. Such understanding was a simple way of looking at things.

Moreover, the president was telling the truth. There was rebellion and also people were killing each other on daily basis. Therefore, instead of killing each other why should they not join the army to defeat rebels and that was the reasoning of the president.

However, those individuals who are more nationalists to the extent of not knowing what the nation wants took the comment of the president out of context just to reap their parochial political interests.

What defines their reasoning is the prejudicial way of looking at things. In South Sudan, politics is the part of daily lives and this explains the way people interpret things the way they do.

In fact, the statement of President Bashir of Sudan is also applicable in South Sudan. President Bashir once said, “Sudanese people are highly political”. In the same way, South Sudanese are highly political as they mix tribes with politics and at the same time deny the fact of tribal influence.

Most presumed South Sudanese nationalists do not believe in the existence of tribal identity politics. Yet the tribal influence always makes them look at things as intended against them. This makes it hard for the government to come up with neutral agenda which can be supported by the majority of citizens in the country.

However, government like some of the citizens does not identify the element of identity politics. They are always in self-denial by putting blame on government for having failed in nation building.

Nonetheless, the whole matter goes back to the fact that whether we blame each other or the government, we have failed to realize the role of identity politics in our lives which determines the way we look at things.

The failure to see the reality of tribes makes us fail to deal with realities of South Sudan, and instead, we always apply the policy of ostrich. Ostrich policy is expression used to refer to the tendency of ignoring obvious dangers or problems and pretend that they do not exist.

Ostrich has a habit of putting its head in the sand instead of facing the problems squarely to get a real solution. In the same way, South Sudanese, especially educated ones do not analyze the problems instead they deal with effect of the cause.

The bottom line of our failure to realize the negative impact of tribal influence is the failure in the first place to acknowledge that we distinctively belong to tribes which influence our way of thinking.

Based on the assertion above, it is logical to conclude that the problems facing us today in South Sudan will never go away unless we confront the realities of tribes and their influence on us.

For instance, corruption is at extreme level in South Sudan but if someone from different tribes criticizes the government because of corruption and because the president is from Dinka, most of the Dinka people will not take that criticism in good faith or as a patriotic move, but they will look at it as an attack on Dinka power in South Sudan. This clouds the real issues and keeps problems under the cover of tribal protection where they keep on escalating to dangerous levels.

In South Sudan, intellectuals and leaders are all confused. They are living in self-denial as they keep on attacking identity politics. Without in fact understanding that they are also involved in identity politics and by attacking it they are also attacking themselves indirectly.

The “nationalists” of South Sudan look at politics based on tribes as a divisive assault on civilization traditions. Those South Sudanese who look at politics in this way are theoretical in their approach to practical issues involve in nation building.

To show that these politicians and intellectuals are theoretical, the way they react when face with “tribal politics” explains this. When face with the problems of identity politics based on social movements or tribal movements as many politicians call them, they are quick to attack these movements that they are against the national unity. Yet, in the country like South Sudan there had never been any unity in the pure sense in the first place.

Now, with outbreak of civil war in South Sudan and the way the war was fought the politicians and some intellectuals are proved wrong. There is no doubt any longer that South Sudan tribal or identity politics that has been narrowly defined by leaders and other South Sudanese intellectuals and aggressively maintained by the leaders has a very devastating impact on national unity and more inclusive solidarities.

Thus, 2013 tragedy that took place in Juba were thousands of people had been killed as a result, was caused by identity politics. The fact that Riek Machar was from Nuer and Salva Kiir was from Dinka was enough to fit two tribes against each other with devastating force.

Thus, tribes are a reality in our politics and social setting and failure to acknowledge this fact will always act like a blood cancer in our politics and development of South Sudan.

In fact, intellectuals of South Sudan have failed to see the effect of tribal tendency on their lives. As it is visibly clear, these intellectuals who shun tribes are at the same tribal instigators, accomplices and the mobilizers of tribe-mates to fight for their political interests. They are also recipients of the spoils of tribal mischief.

In fact, all of us are tribal corruptors and harlot who act together to demean our country and ourselves. The truth will come one day to realize ourselves that there is a need to mold ourselves into midwives of national building.

The identity politics and its consequences are the realities of South Sudan that define our lives and the question is: how should South Sudan respond to identity politics?

The first thing to do is to identify and acknowledge that tribes exist in South Sudan and they are influencing our national building and sharing of resources. Thus, there is a need for streamlining the imbalances caused by uncontrolled needs of other tribes, which may help to ensure that all members of different tribes are not marginalized.

It is in relation to the above I strongly support the establishment of twenty eight (28) States in South Sudan. Though the creation of 28 States might have been done with political motive, it is one of political accidents that may help South Sudan to redefine identity politics that will help South Sudan to build strong political community in future.

The establishment of ten (10) States was a great mistake and if South Sudan would continue with the same arrangement, there would have been risks of different tribes exterminating themselves under inefficient and corrupt governors.

Therefore, though many complain against the establishment of 28 States, it is necessity as well as a matter of survival for other communities in South Sudan. Gok State is one of those States, which communities see its establishment as a matter of necessity rather than politics.

In my view, establishment of 28 States is one of the opportunities that South Sudanese have deserved and it will contribute to the stability and peace in South Sudan.
The only thing that needs to be done now is to ensure that a committee is set up to determine claims of other people who complain that their land has been grabbed and if this claim is proved then their rights should be given to them through creating of other more states.

In relation to the creation of more States, many so-called intellectuals and nationalists of South Sudan have expressed the concern that resources are limited and establishing more states will undermine development. This argument shows that these nationalists have failed to understand that resources will never be enough and what matters is the political will to equitably distribute the resources.

For example, there are countries like South Sudan in terms of size and resources but have more states than South Sudan. The examples of these countries are Nigeria which has 36 States, Mexico which has 31 States and India which has 29 States. All these countries are like South Sudan in size and resources or even smaller with lesser resources, which means that resources are not problems but how such resources are distributed is the question.

Contrary to the argument of these self-proclaim intellectuals, identity politics is a neutral thing and its response is conditioned by the national policies. If the country has bad policies, then the people will be divided through discrimination, and as a result, the identity politics may be negative. But if the goal of a country is to build more egalitarian society, then, the people will be transformed into a strong nation by putting their identity politics together into national identity politics.

The criteria to be used in determining their claims should be based on history before Sudan divided South Sudan. This will help to settle the conflicts that were created by Sudan in dividing Southern Sudan into provinces.

Finally, it should be noted that identity politics is important if correctly determined and used by the State as it helps to redress injustice against minority groups and deepens democracy in the country.

It is, therefore, the role of public institutions to formulate policies that encourage healthy identity politics. Thus, public institutions are important in this regard.

Whether identity politics has negative effects depends on whether those in charge of public institutions are aware of these potential effects and whether they have the desire and capacity to mitigate them.

Of course, it has be borne in mind that public institutions may be shaped by their own internal power dynamics as they have their own diverse motives, which need to be considered when predicting the effects of identity politics.

To avoid negative identity politics, the States must provide space for forms of political consideration, public deliberation and legal reasoning that allow for identity based class making, and that compel public institutions to develop procedures and guidelines that ensure the observance of constitutional principles of rule of law and respect for human rights.

In summary, confronting realities as they are, is important as it is the part of solution to the problems of South Sudan. Building strong State where justice, liberty and prosperity are achieved means promoting interests of all South Sudanese which can only be realized when identity politics is identified and protected.

South Sudan is nothing but aggregate of tribes who have various interests that South Sudanese government must protect. A unity achieved by just throwing citizens into groups where they suffer indefinite is not unity desired in South Sudan.

NB/: the author is South Sudanese lawyer in Uganda and can be reached through: +256783579256;


  1. Tangata Riri says:

    I disagree. Instead of dealing with the national & state level mismanagement that led to this crisis, you’re advocating for more of the same. Almost tripling the number of states only makes a chronic disease more acute. Doubling up on institutions is not the way to increase efficiency, only to increase costs. Replacing locally elected representatives with appointed officials removes any sense of accountability to constituents & shifts it back to the centre in Juba. Never mind the constitutional damage done by the way it was forced through parliament.

    Institutionalization of tribalism will go well beyond simply recognising that it exists. Contrary to it being a ‘neutral’ force, we will make it a more influential agent in national & local affairs. We will also effectively deny the smaller tribes (who now find themselves numerically overwhelmed by Jieng in shared states) any voice.

    This rushed policy is poorly thought out and destined for failure. Simply wanting it to succeed without any semblance of popular consultation or feasibility study is reckless. We don’t even have the means to fund 28 states and no one has been able to provide a properly costed proposal. Its not good enough to say “I think they will be more efficient”. You must be able to demonstrate how with facts and figures.

    There is no shame in abandoning 28 states and going back to drawing board so we can work out a better solution to the specific problems raised by the author in this article. It is up to communities who are advocating most for 28 states to consider the national benefit & work in dialogue with other communities for a more sustainable solution.

  2. Wan Ran says:

    28 states is the only way to peaceful south sudan and those that dont understand its benefits need serious prayer and fasting for divine intervention for better interpretation for them and a big thank u to the author

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