What is the House of Nationalities?



Tradition and Modernization



I. Background on the Study

Tradition and Modernization, my doctoral dissertation, submitted to Yale University Law School in 1967 for the degree award in 1968, was revised and published by Yale University Press in 1971. In 1972, it won the Herskovits Award, presented each year by the African Studies Association to the author of an outstanding work on Africa published the year before.

The Award Committee described it as “scholarly, well written, original and theoretically stimulating.” The book was positively reviewed in scholarly journals. In the Journal of Developing Areas, Norman J. Singer wrote in a review: “In recent years there has been an increased interest in the common problems of law, anthropology, and the development process. Francis Deng has given us a comprehensive work which effectively analyses these problems by means of a case study…An objective, well-written, intellectual analysis on the Dinka.”

C.W. Van Santen wrote for the Bibliotheca Orientalis: “The complexity of values and institutions in a ‘primitive’ society could not better be explained than is done in this book by a Dinka himself. After a thorough education in legal and sociological thinking, the writer describes in clear scientific terminology the society to which emotionally he always belongs. The result is an inside view with Western-educated eyes, followed by an evaluation and recommendations…which deserve the widest attention.”

“Written in lucid and felicitous style, this work glows with humility, objectivity, and insight,” James S. Read wrote in International Comparative Law Quarterly. “This book is highly relevant to the future of the Sudan, but it has much which is relevant and valuable for most African states, faced as they are with the problem of reconciling tradition with modernity.”

James J. Fisherman, in his review for the Journal of Modern African Studies describes the book as “… a standard work on the Dinka.”

Despite the positive response the book received abroad, in the Sudan itself, it hardly got the attention of the policy and professional circles for which it was intended. The second edition of the book, with a postscript by me, was published in paperback by Yale Press in 1987. Copies were shipped to the Sudan for free distribution to university libraries. And yet, the book remained largely in oblivion.

The Strategic Vision of the Study

In a way, this disregard should not be surprising because the book was concerned with the major issues that were tearing the country apart, in particular the crisis of national identity and the war of visions that is rooted in the history of identity formation and the grossly inequitable distribution of power, wealth, services and development opportunities resulting from the identity crisis.. The stratification and discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, culture, and religion associated with the process and the outcome affected the non-Muslim populations of the country, in particular the people of the South. A degree of inequality is, of course, unavoidable in all societies. However, when stratification and discrimination become so extreme as to be intolerable, conflict escalates unavoidably into violence and destructiveness.

Tracing the relationships within the family on the bases of gender and age, between tribal factions and neighbouring ethnic groups, and among sub-national groups categorised in terms of North and South, the book tried to correlate the propensity to violate the stipulated norms of conduct to the level of deprivation and degradation with respect to the shaping and sharing of power, wealth and other relevant value processes. Promoting justice and equitable relationships becomes, therefore, the essential remedy.

With tradition and modernization as the overarching dichotomy and organizing normative framework, the book analysed the prevailing conditions of conflict in the country from the local to the national levels, attributing the manifestation and the intensity of conflictual relationships to stratifications and discrimination based on a wide range of factors. Among these factors were race, ethnicity, culture, religion, class, gender, and age. While the tension between the forces of modernity and tradition were fundamental to the policy objectives of the study, addressing the complex web of conflictual relationships based on these factors was considered essential to the overriding goal of promoting comprehensive peace, security, unity, harmony, and stability for the country and the society at all levels.

Law is envisaged as both a mirror and manager of the social processes. It regulates relationships with the aim of preventing, managing, and resolving conflicts. And yet, law is not an abstract concept, neutrally poised above these social processes, relationships and conflicts, but is an integral part and parcel of the whole system. Social processes at all levels envisage people (individuals and groups) seeking values (material and immaterial), through institutions, using resources and operational strategies, with certain outcomes and effects on the system and the public order.

The degree to which those who make policies or laws and those who administer justice are regarded as legitimate representatives of the social order will undoubtedly depend on the degree to which they are identified with the aspirations and expectations of the particular category of people involved. Bridging between the rulers and the status and aspirations of various groups can, of course, never be absolute, but the discrepancy can, to a significant degree, be mitigated to ameliorate the discrimination based on race, ethnicity, culture, religion, class, gender or age.

Correlative to this strategic vision, Tradition and Modernization was also concerned with the conventional approach to development that did not give due regard to the values, institutions, and operational patterns of traditional society and the accumulated wealth of knowledge and wisdom embodied in tradition. Every society operates on the basis of fundamental norms, assumptions and behaviour patterns that give coherence to life and provide guidance in social relationships.

These norms and patterns evolve over a long period of time and become established as essential ingredients of the culture or the way of life of a given people. And yet, they are never static, but dynamic, continuously adapting to changing conditions. However, what gives society a sense of cohesion and stability is that change itself is an extension of an established order. Even prophets emerge not to destroy, but to reform their societies.

To envisage a transformation that disregards the pre-existing order is to be both destructive and unrealistic. In my interviews with Dinka elders about their worldview, including past, present and future perspectives, I likened human beings to trees; a tree with deep roots will withstand even a hurricane, but a tree with shallow roots can be knocked down by a light wind. Traditions are the roots of society.

Even the most forward-looking and future-driven nation like the United States of America invokes not only the memory, but the strategic vision of the Founding Fathers, thereby building their future on their past—their tradition. For those who have left their society and country, I have also articulated the vision of the invisible bridge, which implies a conceptual linkage with one’s roots that enables one to move to and fro between cultures; without that bridge, one becomes disconnected severed, and alienated. Tradition and Modernization is therefore a framework that is pertinent to both those who are inside and those outside the country.

Post-Colonial Ambivalence Toward Tradition

Post-Colonial Sudanese leaders, who came primarily from the detribalised sector, have been somewhat ambivalent toward the traditional cultures, values and institutions. On the one hand, the sectarian leaders, who have patronized the major political parties, derive their support largely from traditional societies. On the other hand, tradition is viewed as a relic of the past.

Although over ninety percent of the Sudanese were still governed by customary law when I undertook the research reflected in this book, customary law was denigrated as being primitive and outmoded. The negative attitude toward tradition by the national authorities was particularly pronounced with respect to the non-Arab, non-Islamic South.

As a result, focussing attention on Southern cultures, including studying them, was viewed as subversive, with the exception of the works of foreign anthropologists, who were seen by Sudanese as peculiar to the West and irrelevant to the realities of contemporary Sudan.

Inside the country, focusing on local cultures was seen as accentuating differences and therefore adverse to national unity. Until recently, national unity was understood by the North as synonymous with the assimilation of the South and the promotion of uniformity along the lines of the Arab-Islamic mold.

The prejudice against customary law meant that the subject was not taught at the Khartoum University Faculty of Law. Although I was able to initiate field work on customary law among the Ngok Dinka, with the guidance of my expatriate British and American lecturers, my Southern Sudanese colleagues who tried to do the same in their communities met with suspicion, and their efforts were frustrated and blocked.

Tribal leaders felt threatened by the study of customary law, while Government officials viewed it as politically motivated and part of the Southern resistance to the Arab-Islamic policies of the Government. Even my own research among the Ngok Dinka was rumoured to be laying the foundation for my eventual appointment as a judge with appellate authority over the tribal courts.

The Paramount Chief, my Father, was the appellate authority within the tribe, and although appeals against his decisions were heard by the judges from the central government, they were rarely reversed. This was partly in support of his authority and partly because the central government judges knew nothing about customary laws and took the Chief as the expert and virtually the final authority.

It was rumoured that by studying customary law and becoming an appellate authority, I would be different and could be a threat to my father’s authority. Some personalities who were known to be in opposition against my father and presumably intent on fanning tensions within the family, even went as far as congratulating me, and even claimed to have seen that potential in me from childhood.

Although my father did not explicitly express concern about the situation, the rumours did not escape his curiosity. One day, he asked me whether the customary laws of all the tribes in the Sudan were being recorded or whether my research among the Ngok Dinka was an exception.

I got the gist of his question and told him, with his smiling acquiescence, that instead of sitting in court, I had decided to be more discreet and conduct my investigation with the Chiefs and elders at home, in view of the misunderstanding that I was detecting about my research.

Over the years, the problems which Tradition and Modernization aimed at addressing, the gross inequities that provoked the multi-layered conflicts and the disregard of tradition in development and nation-building, have continued to be aggravated by the civil war between the North and the South that has raged intermittently for nearly five decades, and which has not only devastated the country, but has shattered Southern societies.

Many communities have disintegrated and some have virtually disappeared. As a result, the challenges for the future have become even more monumental. It is fair to say, however, that the central message of Tradition and Modernization, which is to promote justice, equitable unity, harmony and an integrative process of change that utilizes traditional values and institutions as building blocks for development and nationbuilding, is even more pertinent in the Sudan today than it was when the book was written and first published.

II. Reconstructing the Nation and Society in Post-War Sudan

Sudan is intensely involved in what appears to be an irreversible process toward an end to the decades-old conflict between successive North-dominated Governments and the Southern-based liberation movements, the latest and most powerful of which has been the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and Sudan People’s Liberation Army, SPLM/SPLA.

But what precisely will an end to the conflict mean? Will it mean merely ending the hostilities or a redefinition of the challenges facing the country in the post-war context, especially in terms of both addressing the root causes and remedying the devastating consequences of the conflict?

Addressing the root causes will require resolving the crisis of national identity that has been at the core of the conflict, creating conditions of equality for unity in diversity and remedying the devastations of the war, which will require reconstructing the social order that has been shattered and generating an empowering approach to development as a process of self-enhancement from within.

Addressing the Identity Crisis

The identity crisis in the Sudanese conflict is characterized by two principal discrepancies: The first is the discrepancy between self-perceptions and discernable factors of identity that do not conform to those perceptions. In other words, those who identify themselves as Arabs racially, ethnically, and culturally, with Islam as a reinforcing factor, are, in many respects, also Africans in their obvious racial and cultural characteristics, with Islam and elements of Arab culture, primarily the Arabic language, as adopted elements that have tended to predominate.

Southerners too identify themselves as purely African and deny the shared elements in common with the North resulting from a long history of interaction and cultural diffusion along the Nile Valley. And then, there are the non-Arab groups: the Fur in the West, the Beja in the East, the Nuba and the Funj in the areas along the North-South borders, and even the Nubians in the extreme North, which have previously been subsumed under the rubric of Islam and Arabism, but which are now becoming more acutely conscious of their non-Arab identities.

The second aspect of the discrepancy, which is linked to the first, is the way the whole country has been identified with Arabism and Islam, thereby marginalizing the non-Arab groups throughout the country, who constitute the overwhelming majority. While social scientists insist that it is what people believe themselves to be, rather than what they objectively are, that counts, where distorted self-perceptions affect the status of other citizens and the destiny of the nation, self-identification cannot be left as a purely personal matter; it must be scrutinized and challenged as a matter of public policy.

On the other hand, these self-perceptions are deeply held and cannot be wished away instantly. A more balanced and constructive way of resolving these discrepancies is to acknowledge that identity in the Sudan is both rigidly held and dynamically fluid at the same time to meet the exigencies of a given situation; that for the short and mid-term purposes, the diversities of identities resulting from self-perceptions need to be recognized and respected through a decentralized system of government (autonomy, federation or confederation, without necessarily prejudicing the arrangement with these loaded labels), but through freedom of movement, residence and employment, combined with public education, can be re-shaped over time to explore and expose the commonalities of national identity as a basis for fostering a more sustainable sense of unity and nationhood.

Equality as a Condition for Unity in Diversity

A major component of the Sudanese crisis of identity behind the multifaceted conflicts that have afflicted the country since 1955 has been the way groups have felt themselves dominated, marginalised and even excluded in the national processes of shaping and sharing power, national wealth, public services and development opportunities. In the past, this was seen largely in terms of the North and the South.

The assumptions behind the relegation of Southerners to the lowest status in the hierarchy of racial, ethnic, cultural and religious values and institutions was that the indigenous identities that prevailed there were not worthy of respect. The South was assumed to be a cultural and spiritual void to be filled competitively by missionaries from the Christian West or the Islamic Middle East.

In fact, volumes of anthropological literature argued to the contrary. Charles and Brenda Seligman, the pioneering anthropologists in the country observed, “The Dinka and their kindred the Nuer are intensely religious, in our experience by far the most religious peoples in the Sudan.” A long line of anthropologists and scholars of religion have since confirmed this assertion.

The current negotiations between the Government of the Sudan, which are offering the country the best ever prospects for peace, aim at addressing this national identity crisis in terms of the Arab-Islamic North and the African (now increasingly also Christian) South. But the need to recognize and respect the diversities of the country go beyond the North and the South and challenge both sides to live up to the ideals of equality within unity in diversity.

The essence of identity politics is that every group, however small, would want to be recognized, respected and allowed to autonomously and freely govern itself. Domination by a majority group is not justified by any normative standards. But beyond that, no group in the Sudan, indeed in most African countries, can claim to be the majority.

All groups are minorities within the inclusive framework of unity in diversity. Ideally, self-determination should apply to all groups that view themselves as having a distinct identity, cultural values, institutions, and established customary practices. However, if self-determination were to be seen as authorising full independence, that would be a recipe for chaos and disintegration. Within reasonable boundaries, self-determination will have to mean self-administration based on the integrity of the self-governing groups.

This normative framework is particularly pertinent to what anthropologists call the acephalous societies, which are characterised by a segmentary lineage system in which the component groups enjoy autonomy to the level of the tribes, sub-tribes, sections, clan-lineages, villages, the family, and ultimately the individual. Southern societies are, by and large, acephalous.

Even kingdoms were traditionally decentralized along territorial and kinship lines down to the clan, the lineage, the family and the individual. This is a self-promoting system that is guided by accepted normative standards of behaviour. Early administrators and anthropologists in Nilotic areas were impressed by the extent to which these societies maintained a high degree of order without the modern organs of government, including courts, police and prisons.

For instance, Major Tithrington, whose encounter with the Dinka went back to the early days of colonial rule, wrote of their “high moral sense.” He observed, “Deliberate murder – as distinct from killing in a fair fight – is extremely rare. Pure theft – as opposed to the lifting of cattle by force or stealth after a dispute about their rightful ownership – is unknown; a man’s word is his bond, and on the rare occasions when a man is asked to swear, his oath is accepted as a matter of course.” The principles of personal and collective honour, dignity, and piety were held in high esteem. The community was the watchdog of those ideals.

While it is unrealistic to believe that these ideals that have now been so eroded by decades of mistreatment, humiliation and destruction by outside forces can be restored, the normative framework of unity in diversity in the South and the North, promises a degree of accountability that the community can bring to bear on its members

This is the essence of the proposed House of Nationalities, which has been the subject of a series of discussion groups among Southerners over the last several years. The concept was developed during two workshops, an initial one held in 2001 and an expanded one in January 2003, when more than seventy Southern Sudanese representing various ethnic communities, civil society organisations and members of the civilian authority are reported to have met for three days in Nairobi.

They agreed upon the principle of establishing a House of Nationalities, and of presenting the project to the Southern Sudanese people, at home and in the Diaspora. The proposed “House of Nationalities is built on the premise that languages and cultures are very important to all Southern Sudanese. Culture is a precious wealth needing respect and protection. Languages and cultures are the bricks of nationhood: forming the foundation of long-lasting unity, peace and development.

This is the foundation on which the House of Nationalities stands.” Using languages and cultures as building blocks, the House of Nationalities “aims at protecting the identity of all ethnic communities (nationalities) living in the South Sudan. It ensures respect, dignity and tolerance for all South Sudanese nationalities.

The House of Nationalities is the ‘common fireplace’ where they can all gather in a large and open assembly and share knowledge, experience and traditions.” More specifically, the aims of the House of Nationalities are stated as follows:

  • To provide the space for representatives of all ethnic communities of the South Sudan to meet in a spirit of mutual respect and recognition;
  • To promote the dignity and the culture of all South Sudanese communities, and the preservation of their languages and customs;
  • To gain the State’s recognition of the different ethnic communities in the South Sudan;
  • To be a body to be consulted by the government before laws or policies that affect the communities are adopted, in particular those concerning culture, communal land, laws and customs;
  • To lay the foundation for a new concept of a nation-state by creating a truly inclusive national identity which proudly builds on both group equality and individual equality;
  • To serve as a venue for the settlement of disputes. It will empower communities to solve conflicts themselves while protecting their cultural and ethnic diversity from political manipulation. In time, it could become the supreme arbitration authority for all communities to submit their disputes.

The House of Nationalities is an intriguing idea that has been and will continue to be debated. It is an idea that leaves room for questions on the details and application of the concept. Should it focus on specific aspects such as the administration of justice, and the resolution of conflicts, or should it function in some broad advisory capacity as is the case with the House of Chiefs in Botswana and a number of African countries? Or should the idea be more mainstreamed to relate culture to all aspects of governance and organs of government? If culture constitutes the body and the bloodline of any social organic system, then it cannot be localized to an aspect of that system, but should be viewed as all embracing. And yet, given the potential risks, manipulations and dangers, how can the idea be made constructive?

The apprehension about this proposal stems from its emphasis on nationality differences, which can be divisive, especially given the propensity of political entrepreneurs to exploit those differences. There is also always the tension between a forward-looking view of development and the perception of a heritage-oriented view of identity as a backward-looking impediment to progress.

But these do not have to be seen as conflicting. Yes, opportunists will always want to exploit differences, but viewing differences positively in a process of constructive partnership on the basis of equality is the best way to countervail their destructive manipulations. As for traditional social structures being retrogressive, no society can grow without its roots in the past. Group identity and the ancestral legacy that is associated with it are the roots of a people and the foundation for healthy growth.

What is clear is that the idea of the House of Nationalities falls into a broader framework of how to build on the equality of diversity within unity. The North-South dialogue and the imminent peace agreement have established a framework which can be broadened to accommodate diversities within the North and the South.

Whether the country remains united or is partitioned, the principle espoused by the concept of the House of Nationalities challenges both the South and North to foster unity based on respect for diversity and the equality of all groups, large and small. While the idea will need to be further developed and refined, it poses a positive challenge to the concept of nationality as a process of self-enhancement from within.

Remedying the Devastating Consequences of the War

Most assessments of the devastations of the war tend to focus on the death toll with over 2 million dead, the physical destruction of property and the infrastructure, and the lost opportunities for development. Little attention is given to the even more devastating impact on communities that had been quite cohesive, with a strong sense of ethnic identities, cultural values, institutional structures and patterns of behaviour, but whose social orders have now been shattered.

Reconstructing these communities will require a deep understanding of their pre-war values, institutions, and life patterns, the way they have been impacted upon, including the radical changes they have undergone, elements of cultural continuity which persist, and what concepts and strategies can be employed to both remedy the negatives and build on the positives in their experiences.

Tradition and Modernization focused on the Dinka, more specifically the Ngok, although the problems it analysed are more broadly shared among various ethnic groups in the South. And yet, the Ngok Dinka of Abyei have been among the most affected by the war. Their land has been virtually depopulated, as people moved to Northern towns and cities and across the Kiir (Bahr el Arab) River to the South.

Notions of traditional organizations along territorial groups and the age-set system have continued in some form wherever people moved, but society has significantly disintegrated. Will the main structures of society be reconstructed or have they vanished forever? Whatever the answer, in all probability, these communities can no longer go back to the traditional patterns of the pre-war societies.

They will presumably reconstitute themselves in a manner that combines reproducing elements of the old order and applying new conceptions of social and political organizations. They will also undoubtedly expect to be provided with the kind of social services they have come to take for granted in the cities or towns to which they had moved for safety.

These would include at least basic education, adequate health services, sanitation and improved infrastructure. Their pattern of settlement and the quality of their housing are also bound to change significantly.

The existence of oil in certain conflict areas is also certain to influence post-conflict trends. Whether oil revenues will be used for uplifting these rural communities or will have the effect of marginalizing them even more, and perhaps threatening their survival as identity groups, remains a serious question.

Indigenous groups in oil producing areas could be reinforced and empowered to uplift themselves with these resources without threatening their agricultural and livestock economic activity, in a manner not dissimilar to the way Botswana has made use of diamonds to modernize its indigenous society, building on traditional values and institutions, or be turned into subservience by the outside beneficiaries of oil production and exploitation. Given the strategic interests involved with this vital resource, both within and beyond the Sudan, this is an area that will call for urgent attention.

Tradition and Modernization aimed at influencing policy, decision-making, and administration of justice. The fluid and dynamic conditions of post-war Sudan present the country with a challenge and an opportunity to reconstruct the nation and society on sound ground.

The disadvantage of the South in being among the least developed regions of Africa, now worsened by the devastation of the war, also offers the opportunity to build bridges between tradition and modernity, to postulate a framework of respect for diversity, pride in the identity and dignity of all component groups, large and small, and to generate development as a process of self-enhancement from within, utilising indigenous values, institutions, and operational patterns.

III. Future Challenges in Perspective

For peace to be genuine and sustainable, it must address the deep-rooted crisis of national identity. This will mean balancing between the rigidity of self-perceptions about identity, which would entail recognizing racial, ethnic, cultural and religious diversities, and building on the fluidity of self-identification to forge a new sense of an all-embracing national identity.

This can best be done by a transitional system of governance that is decentralized (through autonomy, federation or confederation), while leaving the dynamics of interaction, freedom of movement, residence, and employment to foster the development of a collective sense of nationhood.

Post-war challenges will also mean reconstructing communities whose values, institutions, structures, and cultural patterns have been shattered. This will require both responding to the radical changes they have undergone and building on those elements of their culture which they have continued to cherish and which constitute important building blocks for self-enhancement from within.

There will of course be many more aspects to the post-conflict challenges of consolidating peace and embarking on the constructive task of nation building. While Tradition and Modernization hopefully sheds light on what will be required to bring the nation together at all levels, the primary focus is on making constructive use of traditional values, institutions, and cultural patterns of behaviour.

Although the book focuses on the Ngok Dinka as a case study, the issues involved are pertinent not only to other Southern ethnic groups, but to the country as a whole, and indeed to other countries in Africa. If the book at least stimulates debate on the critical issues raised, it will have achieved an important aspect of its objectives. I am glad that at long last, Tradition and Modernization has come back home to the audience for which it was intended in the first place.

Francis Mading Deng
Woodstock, New York, November 6, 2003


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