Overcoming Tribalism in South Sudan (Part I)

BY: Tongun Lo Loyuong, SOUTH SUDANESE, MAY/24/2013, SSN;

Current attempts and efforts being made by various South Sudanese political, religious and civil society actors at overcoming tribalism in South Sudan are encouraging and commendable. But much is left to be desired if the Republic is to be liberated from the mental slavery of tribalism, for the sake of peace and restoration of ethnic harmony in mutual co-existence. In order to structurally and effectively overcome tribalism in South Sudanese politics, it is important to situate the discourse within a broader socio-economic and historical context.

The efforts and collective South Sudanese resolve to be free from the shackles of tribalism must in this way be guided and informed by a theoretical framework within which tribalism must be conceptualized. Alternatively phrased, South Sudanese collective will and desire to overcome tribal instrumentalism can be enhanced by deliberate appreciation of the historical origins of tribalism in its present divisive manifestation in South Sudan, and the African continent.

On this score, key players who traditionally used divisive tribal politics as a ploy to incite tribal hatred in order to exploit local resources must also be seriously accounted for. The imperative question to be answered in this context, with a view to aid the efforts aimed at discouraging tribalism in the land is: what role can be attributed to regional and international actors pertaining to tribal politics in South Sudan? And what are the lessons learned for South Sudanese to avoid the trap of tribalism? What follows is a series of pieces to address these questions.

There are several well-established theoretical frameworks and schools of thought that implicitly address these questions and explain the perceived fanatic inclination to antagonistic tribalism and its implications in Africa, including in South Sudan. Two of these outlooks are pertinent and will guide the deliberations in this sequence of pieces.

The first salient explanation favored by many a conflict expert and social scientists, outlines hostile tribalism in the African continent as deeply embedded in some ontologically designed state of anarchic affairs. The second school argues that tribalism as played today was a colonial construct employed to consolidate power. This is examined in part two of this discussion.

As regards to the first school, the persistent influence of this view in global politics can be credibly ascribed to the dominant political theory coined by the 17th century political philosopher, Thomas Hobbs. In his classic volume, “The Leviathan,” Hobbes perceives the human condition as anarchic and brutish by nature, where logic of war of all against all perpetually prevails and defines people’s interactions (Hobbs, 1968).

This view seems to have later metamorphosed into what is today commonly known as “realpolitik” or “political realism,” which predominantly guides geopolitics and international relations between states, and influences the global system, including the politics of global bodies, such as the United Nations Charter and other influential regional political organs. In political realism understanding of the global system, states are perceived to have no friends except interests, and are therefore, driven by “raison d’être,” literally translated as reason for existence.

This notion is also commonly known as “national interest,” however defined, but often equally referred to as “national security.” The interest-driven foreign policy maxim of interest but friendship is seen to underpin current foreign policies of the powerful nations in the world from Great Britain to the United States of America, and has been perfected by the Russians and the Chinese.

Current tragic realities unfolding in Syria, where thousands of innocent lives have perished, and bodies of fallen enemies in the battlefield are mutilated and human hearts reaped out and eaten by fellow human beings with continued impunity, underscores the importance of this political typology, and the current global state of bankruptcy in moral universalism.

It is amply evident in this context that the global system is flawed, and rotten to the core. The prevailing international oblivion in the face of continued innocent death and abject civilian suffering in places like Jonglei State in South Sudan is left for bemusement to go figure. In short, the point being and as the example of Syrian crisis demonstrates, South Sudan should not wait to meet similar fate in full force in order to come to its senses.

For it should not be mistaken that God forbid, if all out ethnic violence becomes an eventuality in the land, South Sudan will be on its own. Oh would that this country had statesmen who can foresee the perils of tribal politics that will inevitably put South Sudan on the road to Damascus. Is it not enough that more than two million precious South Sudanese lives perished during the protracted liberation struggles, with numerous others continue to be wasted even as we speak, for South Sudan to come to its senses and desist from tribal politics?

Is the blood of the martyrs not sufficient enough for us to learn that we must urgently steer away from divisive ethnic particularism and identity politics to mitigate inter-communal violence and avert an impending humanitarian disaster across ethnic lines in South Sudan? History must speak.

Granted the primordialists’ projection of African hostile tribalism as pre-determined and perpetually fixed (a view widely imagined by outsiders about African tribalism), suggest that the “law of the jungle,” is the norm rather than the exception in this part of the world, South Sudan included. Put simply, ethnic violent conflicts in Africa are perceived to be emanating from some kind of a primitive fountain of an “ancient ethnic hatred.”

In an article entitled “Race, Tribe, and Power in the Heart of Africa,” one Bill Berkeley concluded that “many Americans still imagine that Africa’s seemingly chronic carnage flows from some mysterious, exotic savagery. Much of American media coverage of Africa conveys an impression of ‘age-old hatreds” (Berkeley, Spring 2001). Berkeley’s conclusion was later vindicated by a high profile American diplomat, the former US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, who in a speech delivered to a group of students in Khartoum in 2005, described the conflict in Darfur, for example as a “tribal war” aggravated by other factors. He recommended that foreign actors turn the other way from such a “tribal war of Sudanese” (Keen, 2008).

And lo and behold, ten years later endless massacres continue to be committed in Darfur and elsewhere in Sudan and the region with blanketed global impunity and shush. The resolution of the Abyei status remains the stuff of fantasy and daydreaming, as Ngok paramount chiefs are gunned down for game!

The notion in the West of projecting African conflicts as ancient barbarism is accurately captured by one African American fellow. Having witnessed first-hand the horrors of the Rwandan genocide, and how people of all age and genders were indiscriminately decapitated with machetes and brutally killed by pangas as a result of tribalism, concluded that this must be some kind of a primitive omen. “Evolved human beings in the 20th Century don’t do things like that,” he is quoted as affirming (Berkeley, 2001).

Thus, the conclusion drawn from African tribalism by outsiders as metastasized in indiscriminate violent savagery and blood-letting portrays Africans as backward and sub-humans. Little wonder, therefore that international impunity related to atrocities committed in most parts of this geographic region and elsewhere prevails. The well documented case of Liberia’s brutal civil war, has received an explicit label by outsiders as a “new-age of primitivism” embedded in “superstitions” (Berkeley, 2001).

Others conclude that African tribal violence is a breed resulting from an intercourse between poverty and lack of Western enlightenment — where violence becomes the only means to gratify a false sense of dignity. They argue that “only when people attain a certain economic, educational and cultural standards is this trait tranquilized” (Berkeley, 2001).

In brief, the declinists are persuaded by their own lie that African intractable violent ethnic conflicts spring from deep-seated ancient ethnic hatred. In the event that intervention becomes necessary to safeguard some overseas national interest, the most that can be done to managing such intractable primitive conflicts is by territorial separation of the belligerent ethnic groups.

As Anthony Oberschall aptly held, the ancient hatred model is “pessimistic about ethnic conflict management and about establishing lasting peace. Only separation will ensure lasting ethnic peace. Mixing or remixing (after ethnic cleansing) the ethnic groups in the same territory invites renewed violent conflict” (Oberschall, 2007). But separation or self-determination remains utterly discouraged by most powerful global political actors. In that sense South Sudan must count itself fortunate to attain separation, a separation its leaders seem to take for granted.

However, while it cannot be contested that the African continent has known little but ruthless violence and wars often across ethnic divides, yet the whole ancient ethnic hatred discourse is but a myth. It is a leeway to provide global impunity in the face of heinous war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansings and genocides, at the expense of moral humanitarian intervention, if only that.

But if it is insisted that no intervention is needed to pre-empt atrocities across ethnic lines in the continent on the grounds that these are manifestations of ancient ethnic hatred meant to continue to perpetuity, it is worth mentioning that just over half a century ago, ugly, and brutal atrocities also took place in the West and East alike.

“Hitler killed 6 million Jews. Stalin killed 20 million Soviets. Japanese imperial troops machined-gunned, bayoneted, raped and beheaded some 300,000 Chinese civilians in just six weeks in the Rape of Nanking” (Berkeley, Spring 2001). In the African Congo, the most egregious mass murder in the African continent estimated to have claimed the lives of between 5 million to 10 million people, was committed by the special forces of the imperial King Leopold in 1885-1912 (Berkeley, Spring 2001). As many homeless Congolese currently roaming the streets of Juba will testify, Congo has plunged even deeper into violent carnage with no seeming end to their plight in sight.

Cumulatively, it is estimated that more than “seventy million human beings had been uprooted, enslaved, or killed in twentieth century alone.” Appalling yet, 169 million people, war casualties excluded, have been slaughtered by governments in the twentieth century according to political scientist R. J. Rummel, who coined the term “democide” to describe these mass atrocities. These figures have warranted the modern human history to be branded “a slaughter-bench” (Roth, 2001).

Now is it desirable to conclude that these primitive-like atrocities emanated from a deep-seated ancient ethnic hatred in the case of Europe and the West or even the East? And when infanticide, beheading and subordination of some members of the society the practice of which has regained momentum in the post-September 11th, 21st century, are distinctive cultural features of some societies, is it desirable to conclude that these primitive-like savagery stem from ancient ethnic hatred?

The answer is emphatic no. These atrocities were committed as a result of power politics in some perceived anarchic world, and authored by actors, who have lost their moral campus, and vision for the common good of humanity. In such a world, innocent human life becomes a theatre upon which power struggle is played.

Similarly, the claim that ethnic violence occurs in Africa because of poverty, illiteracy and lack of cultural moral standards on sanctity of life is null and void, if it is to provide an excuse to turn the other way when massacres are being committed. As Berkeley smartly points out, most of the so-called African “primitive” heinous atrocities were authored by leaders, who attained the highest level of Western education and enlightenment in the form of doctoral degrees from Europe and the United States (Berkeley, Spring 2001).

If this is the case, it is clear then that Western education does not necessarily lead to the acquisition of moral and cultural values or civility for that reason, for there are many uncivilized people even in the West. Indeed as South Sudanese conventional wisdom has it, the culpability of the tragic massacres that befell both the Dinka and the Nuer communities in early 1990s, were presided over by Western enlightened doctors.

It was the “war of educated,” as one primitive and uneducated Nuer tribal chief came to wisely realize. “They used to tell us that the reason why Nuer and Dinka fight each other was because we are ignorant. We don’t know anything because we are not educated. But now look at all this killing! This war between Nuer and Dinka is much worse than anything we experienced in the past. And it is the war of educated [elite] — It is not our war at all” (Jok and Hutchinson, 1999).

From this emphatic statement by a Nuer elder, it is clear that at best the purported primordially designed ethnic hatred is a myth, and an alien construct devised to justify inaction in the face of innocent massacres. Moreover, tribalism in its current divisive and antagonistic face has been constructed to drive a wedge between relatively peaceful ethnic groups for exploitation of resources and ascension or retention of political, economic and geographic power.

The instrumentalism of tribalism to serve egotistic parochial gain or interest, which continues to be practised in South Sudan to the present day, will be discussed in some detail in part two of this exercise as part of the second school of thought of understanding tribalism in Africa.

In concluding this first part, the implication for South Sudan from the preceding discussion is that we must structurally wage an organized campaign to sensitize our people against tribalism and tribal politics in this country. Current prophetic voices against tribalism and tribal regionalization of South Sudanese issues are few and far in between. But policy recommendations are in order by the end these articles.

However, as the ample empirical evidence cited above indicates, when the carnage of tribal violence unravels in South Sudan as a result of our current myopic inclination to tribal politics for power pursuits, we would have self-annihilated ourselves, before the international community makes up its mind whether it is in its best interest to intervene or not.

The selective interventions by the international community in Libya, but not in Syria are glaring examples of interest driven interventions and the global thorn in the flesh. After knowing what we know, is it really necessary for us in South Sudan to go down that road? Or can we learn a lesson or two from the historical precedents detailed above?

Contrary to how some of our brothers would like us to believe in some notion of relying on divine intervention to heal tribalism in South Sudan, I am of the view that this is another declinist approach.

If God were to personally intervene, God would have intervened in previous human atrocities already, from Soviet Union to Nazi Germany and from Congo to Liberia through Rwanda! Doing the right thing is our divine intervention, and the ball is still in our court to do that by refraining from tribalism.


  1. Alumi Bongomin "Ben Francis" Bokilo says:

    This is a well researched and written article. The issue of tribalism in the public as well as intellectual discourse is not being critically assessed. International Relations theory fails miserably to address this, due in part to a perception that international politics is to be viewed through the scope of Euro centrism. Hence, the Realist notions of power and interest guiding the behaviour of States. May I add that Realism has undergone several transformations to include both defensive and offensive position within the wider context of Structural Realism popularized first by Kenneth Waltz and latter John Mearsheimer respectfully. The former arguing that the international system is anarchic in nature and that States are essentially defensive. For example, the concept of nuclear deterrent. Whereas the latter, holds the view that state behaviour is offensive each muscling and jostling to be the biggest and baddest hegemonic power. USA’s current foreign policy- “pivot to Asia” and China’s respond

    This dominant discourse can be used to explain some historical conflicts in the world and ones that may develop as eluded above however in the context of Africa where wars have largely been intrastate rather than interstate, it somewhat fails. States’ in Africa as argued by various people have “chronic problems” ranging from lack of strong and independent institutions, poverty, educations, political control of vast large areas, and population per state.

    Still, these arguments fails to explain why tribalism is ostensibly embedded in the political psyche. It is my view, that tribalism is not fully grasped by the people in Africa and South Sudan generally. Can the tribe be compatible with state formation? and if not why not? What is the price of eliminating the tribe in Africa? Why do the majority of the world’s populations, who to make a generalisation, confess to belong to a tribe/ethnic group continue to push towards the idea of a state knowing that it too can be divisive given the tribal make up of a state?
    Lastly in the 21 Century, is the state doomed, and are we witnessing an evolution or reaffirmation of the state given the rise of non-state actors in recent times?

    • Diu J.Kuek says:

      To Mr Tongun Lo Luyong

      According to your article, it seems to concern for the future of our nation that may be caused by ethnic violence in the upcoming election let us take it like that but for my personal view our problem is not tribes because no nation can be formed without ethnic groups wherever you go. In our nation we can live South Sudan peacefully with our all community if our government is genuine to unite its own people.
      Tongun you missed the serious and so important concern this so called regionalism you should talk and make your article based on it if you are really concerned for future of our nation because this was very old fashion of 1970s has been abolished by our stronger unity toward our struggle. now it be recall by the SPLM party it become a new fashion for their political success as it was quoted by one writer this regionalism be support by those who supposed it truly recently Greater Bahr el Ghazal adopted so called Greater Bahr el Ghazal conference which came out with binding act to support President Kiir in 2015 election and Bahr el Ghazal and Upper Nile amongst those which criticized this so called regionalism of 1970s which Equatoria region introduced something call Kokora against their own brothers and sisters.
      This regionalism is killing our democratic principle and unity in our nation in order to uphold the constitution which we give to ourselves with guiding principle stated that justice which refer to social ,economic and political. Liberty which refer to thought ,expression belief faith and worship .and prosperous which refer for having or characterized by good fortune and success. we should not over look our constitution we have to be keen for our unity if independence of the Country to be maintained and if the democracy is to be successful than there is need to maintain unity and integrity of the nation not to divide ourselves based on regional indications. these ignorance politicians who introduced this so called regionalism they are hopeless with short sight who can not see the future consequence .
      This act its like when the parliament introduced the bill or enacted the law it need enforcement from the executive same to this their regional ideology need enforcement from the ordinary people means that Equatoria people have to enforce their regional stand and Bahr el Ghazal people have to enforce their regional stand also to Upper Nile if want to adopt such regional move have to the same.
      Now where is the unity and integrity of our nation here?
      Hon. James Wani Igga and some illiterate Governors should rethink their political games but I put my blame on Wani Igga because he is well educated person to compare him with rest of these illiterate Governors our Country Leaders can not be elected based on regional prospective.

  2. Gatkuoth says:

    Tongun Lo
    you have lectured enough but those who’re supposed to read this article may ignore it or may not read it because he/she is illiterate. Tribalism in Africa needs hard work especially in South Sudan where majority of people are still voting for the relatives or people they know personally rather than issues of common interest. People are not well informed about government policies or the objectives of contesting candidate and this confused and mislead our people.
    We know majority of South Sudanese are illiterate and they are approached by prominent politician only if there is election. therefore, they must support this person because he is the only educated person from their region, county, or payam. However, when people lack government services they blame president not the person they have elected to represent their interest. The result will be the tribe president came from and politicians will take advantage of that situation turning citizens against each other.
    To eliminate tribalism and hatred in Southern Sudan we need to volunteer in our communities and give them good orientation. This is the only option which can change this confused community especially for those who don’t read and write as well as those who have basic education. It is not everybody who have internet or computer in his house in south Sudan, so lecturing is good but we need practical work.

  3. Choromke Jas says:

    Brother, you really give a lot of your waking time to the issues of the South. I hope this is a part of your effort to inform the entire world by publishing this article (and next one ) in peer-reviewed international journals. I am very optimistic about our future now, because I know that there are people like you in our midst.

    The tragedy of the South is that most of our leaders are functionally illiterate. They do not read, even if they have access to material like this. Secondly, most of them do not have the requisite intellectual ability to grasp what is being discussed like in this highly researched and well articulated piece. But, they are superficial in doing “cut and paste” adoption of tribal politics from our neighboring countries. In Uganda, Museveni is peddling the view that northern Ugandans are “primitive”. He managed to convince largely Bantu southern Ugandans on this, in the past. But as events now shows this has been proven to be nothing but a ruse by a cryptic dictator to advance his own interest and that of his family.

    In Kenya, the Kikuyus have taken oath not to ever relinquish power to any other tribe like they did at Kenyatta’s succession, which brought in Moi, a Kalenjin. They are ready to rig elections, bribe and kill people in pursuit of this. Some lazy people in the GOSS think it is profitable to adopt both the Museveni and the Kikuyu approaches in growing a nation state. Hence, the insipid and “primitive” tribalism now germinating in South Sudan. But because they lack historical precedence due to ignorance, the neo-tribalists in the South Sudan are unaware that the monster they’re about to unleash can also devour them. Ultimately Please attempt to have this article published in the “Juba Monitor” or some local dailies in South Sudan. God bless you through doing the right thing.

  4. Chol Awek Wek says:

    Dear ALL
    It is really a patriotism heart for Tongun to devote his time to write this useful article and I wish him healthy life to continue contributing to the development and reformation of South Sudan.

    One point I want to add, is the correlate between Kenya politics and South Sudan politics although it is clear from the eye of everybody in Juba that Equatorians will contribute and be divided like other small tribes in Kenya by Nuer and Dinka and thus will lead the country to mess with very simple reason to justify this if one wanted me to justify to him/her.

    Of course Dinka are the ruling and Nuer are the second in command and both have the psychotic and negative perception exerted by tribalism toward each other which both face the consequences, but this might not prevent Dinka to rig the election and Nuer to make genocide. most of Nuer and Dinka used to ignore this matter until the time when the President showed his strength against his deputy telling the public that he has all the power to remove and give the same time.

    angry reaction was seen by the whole world and the sign and imminence of war between the two rival tribes were all seen that day. the move didn’t only shake civilian but also the national army as well.

  5. Gabriel says:

    I don,t really understand when Educated people like you are still talking about the tribe. keep in mind very well that, discrimination of one tribe brings unity to that tribe. We have to sit togather and find solution to the current situation and avoid throwing blame to a tribe

  6. Manyok Chuol says:

    I sometimes feel so shamed that much work has to be done to demonstrate the real danger tribalism presents to our nation; this danger is not just an apparent one but it’s that which is manifestly CLEAR for all to see.

    Thankfully, people like Tongun Lo Loyuong are blessed with seeing that not all see, even when signs are perceptibly ominous for all. The author’s article is a commendable effort and it saddens me that we’ve allowed him to put this much effort into something that we should have known all along and one that benefits us all; shouldn’t this have been too obvious for all of us?

    For your public service, I really appreciate your efforts in educating all of us in becoming better South Sudanese citizens. Therefore, I say thank you so much Tongun Lo Loyuong.

  7. andrew poth says:

    i think that is not current issue in south sudan we all born with it and it should be addressed earlier not now. im really concerned about the directions in which this government is aheading to at moment. what happened to national recouncililation?

  8. unless we can work hard in order to make our community to educate them potentially

  9. Viola says:

    Forward !
    The way Forward is what We need.
    Now that we Know what’s the problem, Lets find a solution or solutions.
    Then We whisper it in every South Sudanese’s Ear
    We write it on the walls
    Shout it from the roof top

    And be ready to scarifice ourselves for the betterment of our Country.

Leave a Reply to andrew poth Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.