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Modern Government and Traditional Structures: A consultation on present challenges in the South Sudan
April 14-16, 2005 in Neuchâtel, Switzerland


The successful conclusion of the peace agreement for Sudan in January 2005 brings not only new opportunities, but also new challenges to the people and authorities of the South Sudan. One of the challenges is to rebuild the war-torn society of the South, which was seriously damaged in social and political terms by two decades of armed conflict.
Another challenge lies in the accommodation and integration of Sudan's immense cultural and ethnic diversity. Since the social fabric of the South Sudan consists of more than sixty distinct communities (nationalities), there can be no unity without respect for its diversity. The latest UNDP report on human development is very relevant in this respect. It makes clear that countries do not have to choose between national unity and cultural diversity, and that policies recognizing cultural identities and encouraging diversity do not result in fragmentation or conflict.

Furthermore, both modern and traditional institutions of the South Sudan have been severely weakened by the war, resulting in a critical "institutional vacuum" in the South. It is therefore important to rescue whatever is left of legitimate institutions, and to rehabilitate and to adapt them to the new environment.
With the implementation of the peace agreement, the new political order of the South Sudan is slowly taking shape. In this light, the project for establishing a forum for the leaders of all the ethnic communities - known as the House of Nationalities – has become politically relevant.

The conference in Neuchâtel was attended by a number of prominent political personalities and scholars from Ghana, South Africa, Kenya, North and South Sudan, Oman, the US and Europe, by human rights activists, anthropologists, linguists, lawyers, members of the SPLM leadership as well as traditional leaders from Botswana and the South Sudan.
The participants of the conference are submitting these conclusions on the establishment of a future forum of nationality leaders' in the South Sudan for wider consultation to the South Sudanese community.

Main Conclusions

At the traditional leaders’ conference on June 29th-July 5th 2004 at Kapoeta, New Sudan, the SPLM/SPLA, together with the traditional leaders, endorsed the principle of establishing a traditional leaders’ forum in the South Sudan.
On the basis of the “Kapoeta Declaration” the participants of the conference in Neuchâtel discussed the functions and operational principles of such a forum.

I. Cultural and Political Significance of a Forum

  • The cultural diversity and wealth of customs and traditions are South Sudan’s biggest assets, which need to be protected.
  • Traditional structures are an important and legitimate element of social order in the South Sudan as over 80% of the population live in rural areas.
  • In the past, traditional structures prevented and resolved many tribal conflicts.
  • Respect for traditional structures and the ethnic diversity they reflect can greatly contribute to South Sudan’s effort to build a nation.
  • Tolerance of cultural differences and democratic values is crucial for allowing traditional structures to evolve and modernise.
  • Tradition and modernity are not mutually exclusive but complement each other in many ways.
  • Culture and traditions are not static, they evolve, and do so even more if respected and given the appropriate institutional expression.
  • Every sustainable state-building process requires a system of checks and balances. To achieve stability and peace, the nationality leaders' forum must be part of this system.

I I. Functions of a Nationality Leaders' Forum

Forum for cultural diversity: Sudan’s greatest wealth is in its cultures. In creating space for Southern Sudan’s cultural diversity, the forum will be instrumental in shaping Sudan’s nation-building process, which has to be based on cultural diversity and political unity. The forum should not only preserve culture, but also facilitate change in traditions and customs. Preservation of culture goes hand in hand with its smooth transformation.

Forum for conflict prevention and conflict resolution: Conflict prevention and conflict resolution build on the legitimacy of traditional structures. Intra- and inter-tribal conflicts have already in the past been settled most efficiently by traditional leaders. Regular meetings among them would not only help to resolve but contribute to prevent violent conflicts. In their capacity as mediators traditional leaders contribute in a effective and efficient manner to good governance.

Forum for linking central government to rural communities: The lack of communications infrastructure in South Sudan poses the challenge for the government to reach out to communities in remote areas. A forum for traditional leaders offers the opportunity to link rural areas to government structures by taking advantage of existing communication channels. As a consequence, rural societies will be able to participate in political decision-making.

Forum for customary law: Customary law constitutes a form of justice that is accessible and understandable for most people in rural areas. A traditional leaders’ forum will have to take stock of the diversity of customary laws in the South Sudan, and to identify areas for reform. The forum should be able to address and tackle gender discrimination and harmful practices (such as the removal of teeth). The harmonisation and codification of certain aspects of customary law is another important issue such a forum could address.

Forum for the judiciary: Most chiefs already act de facto as final judicial instances. This is often the only form of justice people in rural areas can access. It remains to be seen to what extent different judiciaries can co-exist and the sort of jurisdictions they should have. In countries such as Botswana and South Africa the judicial competences of the traditional leaders have proven to be most effective as over 80% of all court cases are handled by traditional leaders. A forum could also act as a court of appeal for cases dealt with on the basis of customary law.

Forum for developing policy on local languages:The Peace Agreement acknowledges all local languages. However, with ostensibly so many languages in South Sudan, how can such recognition be made reality? There is a certain need to address the issue, for instance by exploring possibilities as to how the many different languages could be harmonised. Other related issues on language policy in the South Sudan could as well be examined by the forum.

Forum for advice on political issues: The forum could act as a body to be consulted by the government of the South Sudan on all issues affecting traditional communities. Any matter the forum considers relevant - whether it concerns local and regional development, peace-building, land policies or any other issue affecting traditional communities - should be reviewed, discussed and debated.

I I I . Operational Principles of a Forum

In the South Sudan, the forum would primarily be established at state and national level. The current administrative structure of the South Sudan is changing rapidly. Due to various local and regional factors, one can observe a constant shift in administrative borders, in particular at county level. While the lower administrative levels have always been variable, the regional level has been relatively constant. The peace agreement stipulates that the three regions of the South Sudan will be subdivided into ten states. It can be assumed that the state level as well as the national level will be central to the political and administrative life of the South Sudan, and it is on these two levels that the role of the traditional leaders is most absent.

Linking state and national level
Since the number of nationalities within the individual states in the South Sudan varies between five and fifteen, the number of delegations for the forums at state level will vary accordingly. Given that nationality forms the basis for representation in the forums at state and national levels, the forum at national level is the sum of the forums at state level. Therefore, and according to the lists established so far, the nationality forum will have between 90 and 100 members.

Decisions in the forum shall be taken by consensus. The “one person one vote” principle is only one amongst several democratic ways of decision-making. Consensus-oriented decision-making procedures have a long tradition in Africa’s culture and have generally been greatly inclusive and process-oriented.

The nationality is the basis of representation in the forum, and accreditation will be based on equal representation of each nationality. It is up to the communities to find their own ways of designating a legitimate representative to the forum.

The traditional leaders’ forum will change its location and meeting place on a rotational basis. The number of meetings per year remains to be determined. However, the frequency of meetings at state level will be denser than at national level where one to two meetings per year seem reasonable. The forum at the national level could also be hosted each year by a different nationality.

Women and Youth
The forum shall establish an institutionalised dialogue between the traditional leaders on the one side, and women and youth on the other side. Thus women and youth will be given a voice during the deliberations of the forum to allow them to raise issues they would like to be taken up and dealt with by the forum. The main focus of this dialogue could be the reform of customary law in the South Sudan.

The forum shall be financed by the corresponding level of government in the South Sudan. However, the members of the forum shall not be government employees, and in order to guarantee the forum’s independence financial contributions from the government shall be endorsed by parliament.

The participants in the conference in Neuchâtel thanked the Swiss government for organizing this conference on the challenges of tradition and modernity in Africa, as well as Professor Kwesi K. Prah and Dr. Willy Mutunga for moderating it. The participants encouraged the international community to support this process further, and assist the traditional leaders from the South Sudan in establishing a nationality leaders’ forum. In this respect they welcomed the idea to link traditional leaders from the South Sudan with their counterparts in other African countries such as Botswana, South Africa, Ghana and Somaliland where nationality leaders’ forums exist already.


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