South Sudan trajectory exposes the colonial project


There are too many terms by which South Sudan’s conflict is described. It’s a tribal warfare, it’s Nuer against Dinka, others yet in bewilderment conclude it’s not an understandable conflict. It’s so many things including the conflict of primitive people. But South Sudan is actually exposing the colonial project of creating a nation state out of diverse communities.

Ontologically, South Sudan is a construct of recent days. What existed prior were the communities in South Sudan, which were autonomous until the Turko-Egyptian invasion.

As many people know, the Anglo-Egyptian occupation came after the Turko-Egyptian period. And there was enough central power that could force the ethnic communities into submission. That was once called pacification process so that diverse communities were brought under one administration of the colonial system. But the colonial government did not rule by democracy or consensus.

For that you have Mahmood Mamdani with his book “Citizens and Subject.” What worked was a central coercive power symbolized by the machine gun. That was what kept people together in most cases in Africa. It is the same in Uganda, Nigeria, Kenya and elsewhere.

At independence, this artificial construct was consolidated by the so-called educated Africans to preside over a nation. Actually the coercive power became worse. You can have the words of Baba G. Gallow for it was him who clearly stated that it was at the time of African leadership that people started to disappear without traces.

The Brits and the French did co-opt local leaders but they did not act the way the African elites did. What was similar between the colonial and the African elite was looting from the nation.

The colonial had imperial policy so that the officers had to capture resources from the colony and transfer it to their homelands. That was a policy well known. But then the African elite when they took power from their colonial powers, they did the same thing to loot from the nation and transfer it to personal account.

It is not correct that they transfer it to their tribe. As a matter of fact the tribe is too big and no leaders actually distributed resources to their tribes. The tribe was and is only used by leaders for their personal interest.

So, whereas during the colonial system it was an imperial strategy to transfer resources to the headquarters, but with African leaders it was kleptomaniacism. That means there is both similarity and difference.

A colonial officer transferred resources to the Crown or to France with records. Somebody may question this, but I want to mention the British Overseas Trading Company that worked in all these places up to India. In places like Kampala, Uganda, it was the Trading Overseas Company that brought the British Contingency to Uganda.

But the African leader looted the resources and opened an account in Switzerland. Mobutu is one of the epitomes of African leaders who did exactly that.

And now the leaders in South Sudan have perfected this kleptocracy at institutional level. It is unbelievable, that the money used to renovate the whole of Europe after Second World War just disappeared in South Sudan within one year. And South Sudan remained in the condition it is right now.

And when one reflects on how South Sudan came to be, it is almost impossible to believe that a people who went through the pains like South Sudanese could turn around and do what they are now doing.

South Sudan’s case is a huge embarrassment to the international community, especially the USA. The sympathy and support South Sudan got is so big that even at the UN level its was recognized very fast. This was a country that would be the human rights champion for the rest of the other nations.

The pain it went through should have taught it to even produce the second Bible, next to the Jewish Bible, which is also pinned down to the Egyptian slavery experience.

Those who know a bit of Biblical theology will agree that the whole of Jewish Bible is centered on Exodus. That was the experience of suffering and injustice, which became an epitome of human liberation. Unfortunately for the Jews, the Second World War Holocaust was also waiting. But the Holocaust was interpreted and understood within the framework of the Egyptian slavery.

So the template of interpreting history for many people became Exodus. South Sudanese are next to the Jews by that standard. But what happened afterwards?

Indeed many people regretted why they helped South Sudan. But that is not the point. I want to go back to where I started. The ontological reality of South Sudan is that every community is autonomous.

These people are called tribes. And a tribe has a negative connotation. But that negative connotation came from the time of European occupation of Africa. Because by that time in Europe there were no tribes but nations and the process of nation creation that happened in Europe is not a standard for all people.

It was historically contingent and may not repeat itself. The idea of nation state in Africa remained weak and fragile everywhere. For that you can check Basil Davidson with his book ‘The Black Man’s Burden.’ He pointed out that the social revolution that happened in Europe did not happen in Africa. I agree with him.

In most African countries, Uganda inclusive, one can clearly see where the loyalty of people belongs. A Muganda’s loyalty is with his ‘Kabaka.’ He can pay tax to the ‘Kabaka’ without being forced or coerced. And a Munyoro’s loyalty is with his ‘Omukama.’ The same for other communities.

But the nation holds because there is a central coercive power that is extremely strong. The army, or Uganda People Defense Force is totally dominating. Other communities cannot challenge it. And even with that there are several rebellions.

In South Sudan, the coercive power of the government is never dominating. Communities in South Sudan have their guns and can challenge the government. So the Sudan People’s Liberation Army is just one among many forces in the country.

And the truth that is now emerging is that the SPLA is just one hell of a Dinka militia. It does not represent South Sudan.

Considering this reality, it is not practical to expect peace in South Sudan if the mentalities of leaders remain like imperial officers who are there to extract resources and send to their country.

In the case of South Sudan, the leaders use the state power and legitimacy to enrich themselves at the expense of disposing others of their natural rights, land and identities. This way, there will be no peace at all. At least the colonial powers left the land and the identities of the ethnic groups intact.

The logic is that if somebody can loot to enrich himself why not others? If as it is now known that the president has property in Kampala and Nairobi, why not others? The wealth is coming from the same oil. Why not the Nuers, or Shilluks, or Kreshi?

So this concept of a nation, which I call “an artificial construct’ is being used for enriching some people, why should it be there? South Sudan is an artificial construct.

The real thing or people that existed there are tribes with their territories and cultures. Now when the Dinka start to use South Sudan as the basis of domination, why should people not fight?

And according to the international legal system people are recognized according to the nation state formula. That is why there are passports. But let us remember this is a new idea because in the past there were several political organizations that were never resembling nation state.

But even if it should be argued that the level of human development required synchronizing the system and it is leveled at nation state, the question remains, how to create one. The bigger question still is, creating such at the expense and for the benefit of what and which tribe or rather how to create one without robbing one for the benefit of the other but rather for all?

The examples in USA and Canada are good enough to tell us how a nation state should be created particularly so in our kind of setting of diverse ethnic groups predating the current state of south Sudan. The constituents should sit as equals and agree how they want to be ruled.

The debate of how to be ruled must be carried out in an atmosphere of equality. And South Sudan has not done that. It has to happen sooner than later.

Every tribe and community is equal to the other regardless of its numbers because the existence as a tribe or community is a natural right and does not depend on numbers nor is it granted by anyone but simply natural and predated the current colonial structures.

Decisions taken at the House of Representatives must be approved in the house of nationalities. That way, a group has the right to exist not at the mercy of nor to the benefit of the others but rather on just existence.

So the suggestion of the house of nationality is right. South Sudan needs to have not the council of states, but council of nationalities. In the council of nationalities, every tribe has just one vote and whatever the house of representative discusses can be negotiated to their interests right in the house of nationalities.

I want to say the ontological reality must be respected if polices are going to work.

To conclude, South Sudan is not a strange case. It is unraveling the theory of nation state in Africa. Is it not the same in Kenya in 2007? Is not the same in Uganda now all this time? Is not the same in Congo?

Otherwise what is the idea of tribalism? So as Africans let us live according to our reality. Those other nations in the world that synchronized by extinctions other tribes to achieve nationhood must not be copied by south Sudan. But South Sudan has a chance to develop a truly African State reflecting the reality of our existence as conglomerations of mini-nations in one and this is our reality on the ground.

So the formula for peace should be reworked to take into account all tribal interests.

Rigoberto Modi


  1. Wani Lomiji says:

    Insightful piece,

    1) The Tribe itself was never wholly bad, but is just being used as a means towards some wrong ends;

    2) A Council/house of nationalities as a positive recognition of tribe (beneficial constituency) rather than Council of states (an incomprehensible constituency) ….

    Thank you Mr. Modi.

  2. oyhath says:

    Dear Mr. Rigoberto Modi,

    Great. I agree. We can’t fix a problem if we can’t diagnose it correctly. Our plight today has its origins in the colonization of Africa by the Europeans.

    The mentality, policies and actions of many leaders/presidents in Africa today, at least in the case of South Sudan, is exactly like that of the imperial powers that colonized Africa, India and elsewhere: looting the resources of countries they ruled. Exactly the same. The only difference is that the looters of Africa today, certainly in the case of South Sudan, are Africans themselves. There is an extra dimension in the case of South Sudan, though, in that the President is enriching his tribe. This is obvious, like the sun in a day time: look at the structure of government of South Sudan, the army, the civil service. You will find that all these structure s are dominated by the President’s tribe. The President also, aided by the Jenge Council of Elders, the real parliament in South Sudan, has made decisions grabbing the land from other tribes and giving it to his tribe. Is this not a president working to enrich his tribe? Rigoberto, in your piece you say in Africa the resources stolen by the presidents go to the Presidents’ personal bank accounts and doesn’t go to his tribe because the tribe is too big. Well, think again. This is not true and this the one point I differ with you in your well-articulated piece, at least in the case of South Sudan. Another example, if you look at the published list of people who have stolen millions of public cash in South Sudan, the majority of them is from the President’s tribe.

    When the Europeans came to Africa, India, etc,. they stole the resources of those places using a variety of tools, from soft power through the Church to sheer physical power by physically eliminating anyone whom they could not subdue through the soft power of the church or through economic incentives like employment in state machine. After the colonial powers left Africa, they cloned the same system of looting of public resources, such that those places never get to develop one day to look like Europe. Our current predicament has its roots in colonialism as I pointed at the beginning of my comments, although the colonial administration left Africa decades ago. We cannot go back to the past, but that is the origin of our troubles today, because it was the Europeans who forcibly put us together and artificially made us one people. We were never one nation when the Europeans came to Africa to colonize Africa. The Europeans looted Africa to develop their tribes into nations and make technologies that allow them today to fly to the moon while Africa is still entangled in endless tribalism and backwardness. So I believe with you completely that the nations we see in Africa today are “artificial construct”. The European nation developed naturally, organically from tribe to nation, but the same Europeans upon coming to Africa artificially forced different tribes, that is, different African nations, to form nations, the so called African nations today. It is a joke, complete joke. It’s so ridiculous, but that is typical nature of colonialism- it never came to Africa in Africans’ interest.
    But we still need to deal with our African looting Presidents and we certainly can’t blame it all on colonialism. To do this we need a fundamental change, just like Europeans effected fundamental change in their political, societal, cultural and economic realities – through the European Revolution. Nobody will bring us that change. We have to it ourselves, depending on ourselves.

    So, I believe and agree with you, Rigoberto, that the social revolution that happened in Europe has not happened in Africa and it needs to happen in Africa, certainly so in the case of South Sudan. Although dictators like Museveni have ruled places like Uganda seemingly forever with an iron fist, south Sudan is not Uganda and the idea of one-tribe project to rule south Sudan forever is destined to fail even with the alliance of that tribe with Museveni, because has a unique breed of tribes. We need a revolution in South Sudan today to show the one ill-advised and corrupt tribe that, like the European Revolution proved, everyone has the same right and, you know what? To hell with everything if equality cannot be realized for everybody.

  3. False Millionaire says:

    Is killing women,childern and unarmed ordinary citizens who have nothing to do with the corrupt government a,”revolution”?
    Why don’t u just wait and see if u wouldn’t discover so soon having shot yourself in the foot instead of ranting with rubbish in reaction to Mr Rigoberto’s reasonable article?!!!

    • Elijah Samuel says:

      AHAAA, now you are talking, ones toe is more painful than the toe of your brothers isn’t it? There were Nuer Women and children gun down right at the nations Capital by the thousands by none other than the Dinka,What about the un armed civilians in Wau, Yambio, Wondurub, Loa etc, I bet it did not hurt as this one does? You are a pathetic Jieng and tribalist.

      Hear me and hear me well. You have blood and I have blood, and there is one think that can penetrate through and that is bullets, the bullets know no Dinka nor “Others”. Intact none of us produce our own bullets. So You will soon learn what the Arabs have learned. The Arabs were more than us, they had war equipment superiorities but, there is nothing like those who have lost the fear of death for the sake of the survival of their future.

  4. mading says:

    Oyhath. You are talking like Adwok Nyaba, but you guys keep in mind that when Muonyjaang grab one tribe hand, that tribe will be telling Muonyjaang please brother for me I was told to do by tribal X.

  5. False Millionaire says:

    It would have been interesting if u could show what u have achieved since murdering women,childern and unarmed citizens on the roads in equatoria.
    U see,it’s most unwise my friend to give false impression of an internet victory while having the sky hanging heavily to collapse on u.What common sense is there in u to mock while u are the same fool who have dug your own grave?!!!

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