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Burden of Nationality


To understand the importance of the proposed ‘House of Nationalities’ as a means to peaceful and democratic governance of South Sudan, it may help to look at it from another angle. For example, an introductory note to a book manuscript, titled, ‘BURDEN OF NATIONALITY, A Story of Post Colonial Africa’, addresses itself to the obvious question thus:

When a child is murdered, starved to death, maimed, deprived of childhood and education, enslaved, raped or prostituted or forced into wielding arms to kill or maim others; where such inhumane practices are visited upon innocent men and women, all in the name of "national unity" or "national security", or “liberation”: that is "Burden of Nationality."

When a country’s leaders collect taxes from citizens or borrow monies from other nations in the name of citizens; then use that loan to purchase tanks, war planes and other weapons of destruction and then turn them indiscriminately on those citizens in the name of "national security" or "national unity"; and where such monies are deposited in foreign banks for personal use by those corrupt national leaders; thus turning every citizen into a debtor: all that is "Burden of Nationality."

A nation, in which some of its citizens suffer discrimination, imprisonment, torture or death because of colour of skin, religion, ethnicity, language, culture, social or class identity; or because of differences of opinion with their government: that nation is a burden on its citizens.

It is "Burden of Nationality" for young men and women to be herded onto battlefronts to fight and die in dubious civil wars or settle scores between leaders of neighbouring states or between tribal or clan leaders.

When an individual citizen is assumed guilty by other nationals; barred from entering other countries, searched, detained, finger-printed at ports of entry; accused of corruption and generally humiliated because of a projected image of his/her country, that is "Burden of Nationality".

"Burden of Nationality" is a story of postcolonial Africa. It is a story of a people who suddenly find themselves in the same net under one flag with their traditional enemies.

It is about a people trying to find their fair and just place within that net; and it is about a people trying to break away from a forced and unfair unity about which they were never consulted.

It is also about a people who are humiliated daily by self-imposed governments in remote capitals; a people whose armed forces, not being accountable in any way to their citizens, behave like occupation armies: raping, pillaging and destroying at will.

It is about a continent in which a government will organise and execute a "Jihad" (Islamic Holy War) or genocide against its own citizens. It is about a people regularly savaged by their own "liberators", who often forget they are committing the same crimes - and often worse - than those committed by the governments against whom they took up arms.

It is a burden induced by tyranny, corruption and the moral bankruptcy of leadership in government or in opposition. ‘Burden of Nationality’ is, regrettably, about corruption, war famine, disease and death. It is about my continent. It is about postcolonial Africa.

If such a picture is true for much of postcolonial Africa of the last forty years or so, the burden of being Sudanese, a nation that has seen nothing but bloodshed for 37 of its 47 years of independence from Britain, has been too heavy a cross to bear, particularly for those in the war zone in South Sudan, where an estimated 2 million people have died from war and war-related famines and disease, while twice that number is internally and externally displaced.

That the burden of being Sudanese has gone on for so long, taken so many lives and will most likely end up in the eventual parting of ways between North and South of the Sudan, is a shame and an enormous guilt that must haunt forever the architects of the Khartoum based Islamic and Arab-cultured fanatical governments that have relentlessly persecuted South Sudanese over the years for being different and daring to remain so.

However, while the suffering of South Sudanese has been seen in relation to the fight for their fair, just and rightful place under the Sudanese flag or freedom from the North’s domination, little attention has been paid to the fact that South Sudan itself is geographically (over 660,000 sq. km) much larger than some of its neighbours and certainly larger than many European nation territories.

What is also overlooked or overshadowed by the North-South conflict, but of critical importance, is the ethnic multiplicity (over 60 ethnic groups) of cultures that make up the estimated 10 to 11 million population of South Sudan. These cultures are often derisively and carelessly lumped together by the Moslem and Arab dominated governments in Khartoum as “Southern cultures” or “African cultures” of “infidel Southern tribes”, not worthy of consideration.

Indeed, it is easy to forget that if such a conglomerate of cultures is not wisely managed, it could easily lead into a Congo (DRC), a Uganda, a Burundi or a Rwanda (God forbid), just like any other troubled African nation. Such a clear threat has been of little interest to governments of Sudan and “friends of Sudan” alike. The North-South conflict has been the overriding concern, even to the South Sudanese themselves

Changing Attitudes

Happily, though, that is no longer the case in South Sudan today. In the last two years, a widening group of South Sudanese intellectuals and an increasing number of South Sudanese civil society organisations have been engaged in various agenda, collectively known as “South-South dialogue”, with empathy on South Sudanese debating among themselves the future governance of their territory, within or without a united Sudan.

Borne of bitter experiences from the governance of an “autonomous Southern Region” from 1972 –1982 and rebellions within the liberation movements over the years, the South Sudanese are now

very much aware of the dangers posed by ignoring or sidelining ethnic and cultural aspirations, no matter how small an ethnic community. “As the Dinka (of Sudan) say,” a commentator pointed out recently, “one bird can mess up a whole lake,” no matter how small.

So, while on one hand, the people of South Sudan are earnestly in search of peace between their region and that of the north, they are also in earnest search of an effective end to the recurrent conflict and destruction among themselves, an unfortunate situation that has plagued the “Southern Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A)”, for much of its existence and may continue well into the future governance of the region. The desired outcome of this search is a democratic and humane South Sudan, governed now and in the future with fairness and justice for all of its ethnic communities, large and small.

Therefore, contrary to the popular belief in much of Africa that ignoring, and even undermining, the so called “tribal cultures”,
the people of Southern Sudan have embarked on a radical path that they hope will place ethnicity in the centre of governance for their region.

Seen from that point of view, the logical conclusion is somewhat obvious: South Sudanese are now speaking out loudly and clearly, among themselves and to friends of the region, of the necessity for an inclusive political system, based on democratic institutions, for a just, fair and effective governance for all the peoples of South Sudan. Only then, they argue, can they see a future nation/region that is likely to be more enabling than becoming a “burden of nationality” to her citizens; a South Sudan to be proud rather than ashamed of. Thus the “House of Nationalities” concept was born.

The ‘House of Nationalities’ Concept

In November 2000, a group of Southern Sudanese intellectuals held a three-day seminar at the Aberdare Country Club, at the foot of snow-capped Mount Kenya, to discussed the future governance of South Sudan, within or without the union of the Sudan. Funded by the Government of Switzerland, the seminar itself was sponsored by five independent South Sudanese civil society groups, namely: the Horn of Africa Centre for Democracy Development (HACDAD), the New Sudan Council of Churches (NSCC), The South Sudan Law Society (SSLS) and the Centre for Documentation and Advocacy (CDA). It was at Aberdare that an idea, first argued by the South Sudanese intellectual, Prof. Barri Ngagara Wanji, that there was a need for the creation of a forum, “where all the nationalities found in the South Sudan could meet on a regular basis in order to discuss their problems,” led to the idea of founding a ‘House of Nationalities’ for South Sudan.

The Aberdare Country Club seminar, chaired by a Kenyan friend of South Sudan, Dr. Willy Matunga, and guided by the South Sudanese lawyer, Dr. Peter Nyot Kok,

Formulated and defined the “House of Nationalities” as a practical concept that could be the answer to ethnic confrontation; in effect a fresh look at ethnic diversity as an asset rather than an impediment to a peaceful, fair and just, democratic governance of any state in Africa. Stated simply, the seminar saw the role of the “House of Nationalities” as:

  • A democratic space for preserving the unity and ethnic, religious, linguistic cultural and other diversities in Southern Sudan.
  • A tool for reconciliation and the consolidation of peace and unity among the people of Southern Sudan.
  • A forum for nation building on the basis of consensus and shared values.
  • A mediator and arbitrator of conflicts.
  • A promoter of our cultural heritage.
  • A forum for sharpening national consciousness and common belonging.
  • An instrument of good governance and promoter of fundamental human rights and basic freedoms.

It was recommended that “a broader involvement of civil societies and the political authorities in South Sudan should be considered as indispensable as a final step towards implementation of the ‘House of Nationalities’ at whatever level.” As a result, the Aberdare seminar was followed a year later by a one-day workshop in Nairobi. This was in turn followed in January this year by a much bigger three-day workshop, also in Nairobi, which was attended by over 70 individual members of the ethnic communities of South Sudan and of the Nuba Mountains.

A Broader and Inclusive Debate

At the Nairobi workshop, it was pointed out to the participants by one of the pioneers, South Sudanese lawyer, Mr. John Luk Jok, that the “the ‘House of Nationalities’ cannot exist in isolation of other organs or institutions of government;” that “it should, therefore, be conceived in the context of a broader and more comprehensive constitutional framework.”

Mr. Jok also gave special thanks to another South Sudanese pioneer of the ‘House of Nationalities’ concept, Dr. Peter Adwok Nyaba, for hard work and dedication to the idea. He credited him with having been instrumental in researching, advancing and spreading the discussion on the ‘House of Nationalities’. Dr. Nyaba’s research work, he pointed out, has resulted in the original “green” and the updated “blue” booklets, which are now in circulation.

Dr. Nyaba himself spoke of his dream for peace in Sudan, whether signed in Machakos or elsewhere. But he also spoke of his fears for more bloodshed "if we don't change our ways."

He pointed out that fighting among (Photo: Dr. Nyaba, right, and Mr Edward Apuoro at the Nairobi Workshop) Southern Sudanese over the years "has killed more Southerners than those killed by the enemy." This, he said, was the result of having ignored people's values.

He challenged the workshop to chart out a path that will lead away from the old system of dictatorship and injustice to an era of peace, democracy and respect for human values.

He appreciated very much the recognition and constitutional responsibility accorded to the "House of Elders" in Somaliland, an experience of which that country's Ambassador, Hussein Ali Dualeh, spoke so eloquently at the Nairobi workshop.

Other Experiences

Ambassador Dualeh deplored the general experience of governance in Africa in the last three to four decades, during which time too much power was bestowed on the leaders without constitutional provisions in place to question their performance.

Even in Somalia, where language, culture, and religion are not issues of conflict, he cited an example in which 47 out of 49 government ministers came from the same clan.

"Obviously this," he said, "caused unrest among other clans who demanded fairness. When those in power refused to share power, the result was the unrest that led to the collapse of Somalia as a nation and the continuing suffering of the Somali people!"

Eventually, however, Somaliland looked to the elders to save the situation and they have brought peace back to that part of greater Somalia. He pleaded with the Southern Sudanese not to abandon their roots and the wisdom of elders in the governance of their country.

Professor Yash Pal Ghai, Chairman of the Kenya Constitutional Review Commission, empathised the central role of any constitution to provide for justice and fairness among all citizens.

He pointed out, for instance, the need for the Kenyan constitution to provide for ethnic and religious minorities, as well as providing for gender balance.

(Photo: centre picture Prof Ghai and Ambassador Dualeh to his left), "Overall, he said, the aim of the Kenyan Constitution Review is to strengthen national unity while bearing in mind the different cultures involved, so that cultural and social uniformity are not imposed."

Ambassador Josef Bucher, a man whose country, Switzerland, has been more than generous in funding the previous seminars as well as the workshop, spoke of "the white tribes" or "nationalities" that make up the Swiss Federation and the delicate balancing of powers among the three nationalities, namely: the German-speaking, the French-speaking and the

Italian-speaking parts of Switzerland. Rotation of powers is frequently affected at the highest levels of the Federal Presidency and Assembly in such a way that both the small and large nationalities are given their fair share of power. Power, he said, corrupts and has to be guarded with clear constitutional procedures.

Perhaps the man who brought it clearly home to the Nairobi workshop was Ambassador Bethuel Kipligat, a Kenyan diplomat with long experience in peace and conflict resolution in Africa.

He underlined the failure of policies pursued by much of Africa for the last three to four decades of independence. While preaching unity of the nation, African governments failed to recognise, tended to ignore, and even tried to suppress, the reality and dynamism of existing traditional values with disastrous results.

"From 1960 to 1992," he said, "35 African countries have suffered conflicts and, in the process, 23 heads of state were assassinated." He noted that 28 out of the 35 conflicts were against the state, and all because those in power were unwilling to share it. In a recent debate on the Kenyan Constitutional Review, Mr. Kipligat urged his compatriots not to leave anything to chance again this time. Of power, he said, no one is to be trusted! “Even I cannot trust myself!" he said. A man much acquainted with the long war and the suffering of South Sudanese at home and in exile, he sincerely endorsed their search for more democratic and just governance in the Sudan.

Moving the Goalposts

In the minds of many South Sudanese, the Nairobi Workshop would appear to have essentially moved the goalposts from previously less ambitious to the more ambitious proposals, which place ethnicity in the heart of constitutional legislature and governance.

To that end, proposals are now weighted towards the establishment of a "House of Nationalities" as an "Upper House" of legislature at the national as well as at the regional levels as soon as possible inside Southern Sudan. It is now expected that these proposals will be decided on in a national conference to be held inside Southern Sudan as soon as possible.

The proposal to establish the "House of Nationalities" was agreed in principle and found to be acceptable, not only to the broad cross section of the civil society organisations and among Southern Sudanese in general - as well as the people of the Nuba Mountains (which is in the north) who participated in the workshop - but also to the SPLM/A.

While the SPLM/A was initially reluctant to participate and give the project its sincere blessing, Dr. Samson Kwaje, the movement's Commissioner for Information and official spokesman, in his closing remarks to the Nairobi Workshop, not only gave the concept his movement's full blessing and support but also urged its immediate commissioning back home.

Nevertheless, while there was broad agreement to establish the ‘House of Nationalities’ in Southern Sudan as soon as possible, pertinent questions about the exact status of the House remain to be answered. For example: should it be advisory or legislative?

Where would it be based? Should there be just one at the national level or should there be a "House of Nationalities" in each region? Questions such as these were deferred for a later date, when they will be the subject of consultation during the proposed conference to be held inside South Sudan.

It was proposed and agreed that all nationalities, civil society organisations, SPLM/A and various stakeholders will be invited to the conference and will hopefully reach agreement and/or establish a consensus on the status of the "House of Nationalities" and on its establishment.

The ‘House of Nationalities’ has also acquired a new perspective that extends its original concept beyond the bounds of ethnic identities.

It has, for example, raised questions about the future gender balance in the governance of the region. It has also raised questions about the future status of de-ethnicised urban dwellers' participation in a house composed of ethnic nationalities with rural grassroots.

Conclusion and Observations

Over all, the Nairobi workshop was a great success. If for nothing else, the gathering of so many "nationalities" under one roof,

not only from the Southern region but also from the Nuba Mountains, to discuss participation of ethnic and civil society organisations in the administration of their country, was in itself a milestone.

But, although the atmosphere was typically Sudanese: polite and generally camaraderie, it was clear at the beginning of the workshop that preconceived ideas about the intentions and direction of the much-talked- about ‘House of Nationalities’, was producing tension.

However, as contributions from the floor were heard and the results of group deliberations were shared and discussed, the atmosphere changed from that of scepticism to that of enthusiasm.

But, the enthusiasm with which the SPLM's spokesman endorsed the final outcome of the workshop, particularly his evident desire to see an upper house of legislature established on the ground as soon as possible, though welcome, must ring alarm bells in the minds of those who would rather the SPLM/A, the de facto government in South Sudan, should not be seen to lead the exercise in any way.

The political scene around the world, and particularly in Africa, is littered with politically co-opted civil society organisations that are likely to be popular at grassroots.

If the ‘House of Nationalities’ is to succeed in its mission, it must not forget its original guiding principle: conflict resolution and peacemaking among Southern Sudanese. Not only must it seek the approval and support of the SPLM/A, it must also seek endorsement from disaffected groups that are not necessarily part of the SPLM/A.

Its independence, particularly in these sensitive times for the region, is good for all concerned, including the SPLM/A. It is good for the future of civil society organisations in the region. It is good for democracy. It is good for South Sudan. It is good for Sudan.

Jacob J. Akol, London, March 5, 2003.

Note: Jacob Akol is a Sudanese journalist who currently lives in London, UK.

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