The Role of Traditional Authorities: Governance in Cultural Context

19th November 2018


By Dr. Francis Mading Deng

  1. The Challenge of Continuity in Change

The subject of traditional authorities is part of a wider issue of the role of culture in governance, development and nation building. This is an area that raises difficult practical questions. How does looking back to traditional values live with the need for forward-looking development in governance and nation building? And what about the discriminatory practices against women, children and ‘outsiders’, those who are not members of the ethnic group concerned? My objective is not so much to seek answers to those questions, as it is to raise issues for discussion. To that end, I will try to create appropriate context for the issues and the discussion.

The main theme of my comments will be the elaboration of the dilemmas of building a united, yet diversified nationhood, which is a characteristic that is shared by virtually all nations of the world.

The challenge is how to build on the particulars of an ethnic community, both in self-administration and socio-economic development, within the framework of a unified nation. While I will be addressing the issues in a broader African and perhaps global context, my focus will of course be on South Sudan.

II. Historical Context of Social Cohesion

My starting point is that every society has a normative order that is determined by fundamental cultural values, which provide the bases for distributing and regulating the shaping and sharing of power and other values. It is on the ground of those fundamental principles that roles are distributed on the bases of leadership status, age, gender and other factors.

Each of the groups in the distribution of functions should ideally feel the value and dignity of contributing to the peace, security, and stability of the community. The individual is seen as a vital and valued element in the cohesiveness, integrity and viability of the community as an integrated whole. This creates a system in which all members have a stake and that is stable and generally resistant to radical changes until some major crises shake and challenge  the status quo.

Among such transformative crises were colonial intervention and the massive dislocation associated with conflicts. South Sudanese societies have been well studied by anthropologists whose studies have received worldwide recognition. These societies have been described as acephalous segmentary lineage systems that are stateless, independent, democratic, conservative and fiercely resistant to domination and change. That was why modern education, health services, urban migration, trade and employment were initially resisted.

However, once they realized that the fundamental values of the traditional order can best be promoted through modernizing means, radical change was embraced, even at the risk of negatively impacting on the desirable aspects of the old order. The challenge then becomes reconciling between the positive aspects of tradition while transforming society through socio-economic development as a process of self-enhancement from within, building on appropriate elements of the traditional order.

III. The Advent of Stratified State Diversity

Colonial intervention and the creation of the modern state brought together into one administrative framework ethnic groups that had been mutually independent. The overriding goal of the colonial administration was pacification and law and order, and not the modernizing development of traditional societies.

To counterbalance resistance, colonial administration developed strategies that were appropriate to the cultural context.
In the Sudan the Anglo-Egyptian administration adopted contrasting approaches to the North and the South. In the North, emphasis was placed on respect for the Arab Islamic identity to prevent the resurgence of the Mahdist Islamic nationalism. The South was seen as primitive and savage and therefore requiring a combination of military control with culturally contextualized minimalistic administration.

This entailed commissioning anthropological studies to guide policies and their operationalization, which resulted in the adoption of the policy on closed districts and indirect rule through traditional authorities. The Chiefs Courts Ordinance (1931) in the South and Native Courts Ordinance (1932) in the North established courts for the administration of justice to apply customary law, which, in the North, was amalgamated with elements of Islamic law.


Native administration, which was applied in both the North and the South, proved to be an effective and inexpensive way of establishing and maintaining law and order. As a result, a handful of British administrators were able to successfully control that vast country of a million square miles.

IV. Independence Movement as a Unifying Process

In varying degrees in colonial Africa, independence movement was a unifying objective that transcended racial, ethnic, religious, cultural, political or regional differences. The terms of independence were negotiated by the dominant elites with limited concessions to minorities and the marginalized regions who were virtually excluded in the process. European models of liberal constitutionalism, which had not been applied by the colonial administrators themselves, were bequeathed at independence.

With independence differences and conflicts began to emerge. Contextualizing policies and strategies were developed to meet those post colonial threats and challenges. They included centralization, one party system, African socialism, and authoritarian leadership, without term limits.

Attempts at cultural adjustment were adopted , which included Nkrumah’s Consciencism,  Nyerere’s Ujamaa, Kaunda’s Humanism, Senghor’s Negritude, and Mobutu’s Authenticite’. But though genuine, they proved to be primarily self serving in otherwise Eurocentric normative framework.

The repressive policies of post colonial administrations generated what became known as second liberation movement from within, aimed at democratic participation, fundamental freedoms and civil liberties, and human rights protection.

Commensurate with the demand for reform was the search for appropriate African normative frameworks for constitutionalism in areas like governance, respect for human rights, development and, more recently, gender balance and respect for the environment. These concepts had to be grounded in African cultural frameworks rather than be perceived as imports from the West.

V. Sudan’s Crisis of Identity Conflicts

The two main conflicting identities in the North and South Sudan evolved in a historical context that differentiated and stratified people on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, language and culture.

One dimension of the process was that if one became a Muslim, was Arabic speaking, culturally Arabized and claimed Arab ancestry, one was elevated to a status of relative dignity. Contrastingly, Black Africans, who were labeled as ‘heathens’, were considered inferior and legitimate targets for enslavement. This meant that a process of ‘passing’ to enhance one’s status was encouraged and massively popularized.

The other dimension of the process was that this distorted self perception was imposed on a pluralistic country as the identity of the nation. This intrinsically discriminated against those who were not Muslims or Arabs. Racially, the non-Arabs were the overwhelming majority of the people in the country.

The cultural discrimination and marginalization of the system was evidenced by the study of Law in the University of Khartoum. The curriculum included primarily Anglo-American Law , Islamic Law, even Roman Law, with total disregard of customary law which was the applicable law in South Sudan and with some Islamic modification in the North.

Fortunately, with the encouragement, support and guidance of my American and British lecturers, I undertook a personal study of Dinka customary law which I later pursued in my post graduate studies in the United Kingdom and the United States and became a basis for my broadened interest in my studies and writings on different aspects of culture, identity and politics more generally.

The reaction of the South to this stratification and gross inequity took
two contrasting wars of liberation, secessionist and unity in a fundamentally restructured New Sudan. When secession could not be achieved after seventeen years of armed struggle, a system of diversified unity through regional autonomy for the South was agreed upon in the 1972 Addis Ababa that ended the first seventeen-year war as a compromise. The Ngok Dinka of Abyei, who were annexed to the administration of the North in 1905, were given the option to remain in the North or revert to the South, but that provision was never implemented.

The unilateral abrogation of the agreement triggered another rebellion championed by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and Army aimed at creating a New Sudan of full equality in unity. The vision of the New Sudan inspired the marginalized communities and liberal elements in the North to join the rebel movement that was South Sudan led. This rebellion too failed to achieve its desired objective and after over twenty years, another compromise was effected through the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005.

The Agreement gave the South the right to secede through a referendum to be exercised after a six year Interim Period. During the Interim Period, a system of One Country, Two Systems was stipulated in an attempt to reconcile unity with secession. During the Interim Period, the unity option was to be made attractive to the Southern voters. That too did not succeed and the South seceded and became fully independent on January 9, 2011. But there were also armed groups in the South who were opposed to the Movement and whom Sudan continued to support.

In the Sudan, the Abyei Protocol of the Agreement gave the Dinka of Abyei the same right granted them by the 1972 Addis Ababa Agreement to decide through a referendum whether to remain in the Sudan or join South Sudan.

That protocol was also not implemented. The Agreement also stipulated a form of internal self-determination for the marginalized groups in the North that had joined the struggle, through ‘popular consultations’, but that was also never implemented.

Despite the independence of South Sudan, because of their unresolved internal conflicts, the two states remain bound by conflicts that spill over their borders, with negative impact on their bilateral relations and the stability of the whole region.

In the independent South Sudan, ethnic conflicts escalated into a civil war in 2013, only two years after independence. Although it was ended by a peace agreement in 2015, violence again erupted in 2016, which the IGAD sponsored High Level Forum to Revitalize the 2015 agreement has been endeavoring to end. Sudan was mandated by IGAD to assume the leadership of the Revitalization process, generating intensive negotiations in Khartoum that achieved a breakthrough in September and the conclusion of a Revitalized peace agreement whose implementation is currently underway.

Parallel to the Revitalization process has been the National Dialogue initiated by the President of the Republic in December 2016 for the people of South Sudan to engage in a top down, bottom up process of consultations to discuss the causes of the conflicts at all levels throughout the country and to seek ways of addressing the grievances of all groups involved to achieve comprehensive peace and institutionalize a culture of dialogue to resolve conflicts peacefully and not through violence. The two processes are complementary and mutually reinforcing. With the conclusion of the planned regional and national conferences as the final phase of the National Dialogue, they are expected to eventually converge and integrate into a comprehensive national compact.

Between Sudan and South Sudan, what the situation calls for is cooperation to resolve internal conflicts and create an atmosphere conducive to improved bilateral relations that might lead to closer ties and a degree of reunification between the two countries. Sudan’s recent assumption of the leading role in the Revitalization process that has successfully led to the signing of the Revitalized Agreement is a positive step in the right direction. If and when this positive development achieves durable peace in South Sudan, it will be incumbent upon the Government of South Sudan to reciprocate by mediating an end to the conflicts in the Sudan. The objective would be to comprehensively turn Bound by Conflicts, the title of my recent book, to Bonded by Solutions, a potential title of a book that might be written as a sequel.

The challenge for pluralistic countries worldwide is how to manage diversity constructively within unity. In discharging my two UN mandates, first as the Representative of the Secretary General on Internally Displaced Persons for twelve years, and then as Under Secretary General/Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, I found this to be a challenge facing virtually all countries of the world. The United Nations is an organization of paradoxically divided nations, most of whom are still striving to become united nations.

VI. Self determination and Self administration 

Diversity within unity usually generates the demand for self determination in different forms and degrees of independence or decentralization as the stated objective. The essence of self-determination is management of one’s own affairs. Independence is itself a relative concept as there will always be interdependence. A significant degree of self determination can be achieved through self administration as a feature of decentralization.
An important dimension is cultural contextualization. Self determination even amounting to independence is not an end in itself, but a means of enhancing the self through political, economic, social, and cultural development. Self enhancement from within implies utilizing internal material and human resources for development in a self reliant process, rather than seeing development as externally generated and dependent on outside generosity. Implicit in the process is the imperative of cultural orientation in development, building on indigenous values and institutions.

Perceptions of wealth and poverty themselves should also be culturally contextualized, with both subjective and objective dimensions. People may be objectively poor by some well defined criteria; but they may resent being viewed as poor and may in fact view themselves subjectively as rich. This is indeed the way our people perceived themselves before the impact of modernity began to erode their self-esteem. While positive self perception may be, and indeed is, gross exaggeration, it is an asset that needs to be creatively and constructively utilized. Negative self-perception on the other hand is demeaning and defeatist. There is a need to reverse this and develop self-confidence for people to assume control of their destiny and development as self-enhancement from within, making effective use of their resources and resourcefulness.

This was the essence of my study of Dinka Customary law and its role in guiding development that resulted in my book, Tradition and Modernization: A Challenge for Law Among the Dinka of the Sudan. A major policy implication of the study was the Strategy of Transitional Integration which required building on the indigenous values and institutions of the Dinka in a cross culturally integrating approach to development as a process of self-enhancement from within. Nor is this merely an intellectual exercise. Interviews I conducted with leading Dinka Chiefs in 1973 which resulted in my book, Africans of Two Worlds: The Dinka in Afro-Arab Sudan, unanimously reflected their positive view of their people as well endowed by their wealth of cattle and confidently committed themselves to materially support their own development, requiring only technology from outside, which they were prepared to pay for themselves. Obviously, this was an overestimation of their wealth and capacity, but it reflected a potential asset that must be made use of to the maximum.

An example of a country that has successfully adopted a development strategy that effectively utilizes indigenous cultural values and institutions is Rwanda. I visited Rwanda in the 70s, 80s, 90s, only three months after the 1994 genocide when the evidence was shockingly still fresh, and more recently when I witnessed the near miraculous progress they have made. The transformation is extraordinary. When I enquired into how they were able to achieve such a remarkable development, I was told that they applied traditional values of communal unity and solidarity and personal and collective dignity to mobilize cooperative efforts in the development areas of agriculture, construction, livestock management, and beautification of their homes and towns.

They even mentioned specifically the cultural principles that they invoked and which resonated with what I knew about Dinka society. In fact, they sounded very close to the Dinka concepts of Cieng baai, idealized communal human relations in unity and harmony, and Dheeng, a principle of personal and collective dignity, values that are well known to every Dinka and which I believe are shared by all our communities.

VII. Trends Toward Fusion and Fission

The demand for self determination that can be exercised through self administration and various forms and degrees of decentralization reflects a balance between the contending trends toward greater unification and assertion of localizing identities and autonomy. This requires a greater appreciation of the dynamics of identity, a concept that is both flexibly malleable and rigidly upheld. Identity can be both subjective, reflecting self-perception, which social scientists consider the pivotal factor, and objective, determined by observable tangible factors. It can also be exclusive to a narrowly defined group of insiders, and inclusive of a wider group of unified diversity.

In this context, it is important to bear in mind that identity and diversity as potential grounds for conflict are relative phenomena. Somalia is one of the most homogeneous countries in the world whose people are one ethnic group, with one culture, one language and one religion, and yet it is torn apart by clan differences.

What causes conflict is not the mere differences of identity as such, but the manner in which differences are managed, or more accurately mismanaged.

In countries experiencing identity conflicts, the populations are dichotomized into in-groups that enjoy the rights of citizenship, and out-groups that are discriminated, marginalized, excluded, denigrated and denied the rights of citizenship. When they react against this gross inequality, sometimes through armed rebellion, the dominant group responds with an atrocious onslaught that could become genocidal. The paradox is that even the powerful dominant groups fear armed opposition as posing an existential threat that must be counteracted even to the level of genocidal response.

This policy analysis implies that the best prevention and response to identity conflicts is constructive management of diversity aimed at inclusivity, equality, and respect for the human dignity of all groups, without discrimination on any ground, including race, ethnicity, religion, culture, language, national origin, or gender.

That was the vision of New Sudan, which the SPLM/A postulated for the Old Sudan and which inspired the country across the North-South divide. Nor is this vision confined to the Old Sudan or any one country; it is a challenge both Sudan and South Sudan still face.

From my own observations around the world in discharging my UN mandates, it is a challenge that all countries face in varying forms and degrees.

It is also not a challenge any country can manage in isolation, without international scrutiny and support. Human dignity as stipulated by the principles and norms of international human rights and humanitarian instruments dictate that national sovereignty can no longer be asserted as a shield or barricade against the outside world. Sovereignty implies responsibility to protect and assist populations within state borders, if necessary with international assistance. Failure to do so invites the threat of international humanitarian intervention. The best way to safeguard sovereignty is therefore to credibly discharge the responsibility of sovereignty and request international support as needed.

Sovereignty as Responsibility is the normative principle that guided me in carrying out my UN mandates on the protection and assistance of internally displaced persons and the prevention of genocide. No self respecting leader of a country that claims national and international legitimacy can assert that it has absolute right to brutalize, mistreat or neglect its citizens in desperate need of protection and assistance, and resist international scrutiny and corrective response. To the contrary, my approach of invoking sovereignty as responsibility was well received by all governments and accounted for my relative success in constructive engagement with officials, both individually and as representatives of relevant international organizations.

VIII. The Challenges for Foreign Policy and Diplomacy

To rephrase a popular saying, no country is an island unto itself; all countries are interconnected in the global community of nations. This interconnectedness implies that foreign policy is an extension of domestic policy. Success in promoting one’s country internationally is not a matter of cleverness or being well spoken, but of having a sound domestic policy and strategy to promote. For me as Ambassador and Minister of State for Foreign Affairs after the 1972 Addis Ababa Agreement that ended the seventeen-year war, the achievement of peace, unity and post conflict reconstruction and equitable development provided a positive domestic basis for our foreign policy and diplomacy.

In the case of South Sudan today, there is a need to explore and build on a common ground toward the shared goal of peace to end the devastating war and the massive suffering of our people. The war in South Sudan is not only a tragedy for the country, but is also a threat to regional and international peace and security. Ensuring world peace and security requires a holistic approach that balances globalization with localization. There is currently a worldwide tension between the trend toward greater unification and the desire for local communities to govern themselves, manage their own affairs and determine their destiny.

Within the national jurisdiction, there is a need for the international community to constructively negotiate with governments an arrangement that combines working with the central authorities and reaching down to the local communities; a top down, bottom up approach to international relations.

This is the objective of South Sudan National Dialogue and the parallel process of the High Level Forum for the Revitalization of the 2015 Agreement. The two processes are complementary and are expected to eventually converge into a comprehensive peace and the institutionalization of the culture of dialogue to prevent, manage, and resolve conflicts peacefully, instead of resorting to violence.

  1. Traditional Governance in Perspective.

The search for comprehensive and durable peace, security, and stability requires making effective use of traditional governance system in which traditional authorities constitute central pillars. The challenge is however much greater than accommodating native authorities as individuals or institutions, or using them in a limited area of local administration. It should aim at making effective use of cultural values and institutions as essential instruments for state craft, nation building and self-reliant development. There is an urgent need for cultural contextualization of constitutionalism, a system that goes beyond the constitution as the overarching normative framework. Utilizing indigenous values and institutions is a means of decolonizing the system that does not mean going back to the past, but rather building on the established foundations for constructing a solid future.

In this connection, the experience of the Sudan in establishing an Arab-Islamic system is an important, though paradoxical experiment. On the one hand, it represents a justified attempt to decolonize post colonial system of governance by building on indigenous values and institutions. On the other hand, it raises the equally valid question on how to reconcile building on the cultural and religious values and institutions of one group with the challenge of managing diversity in pluralistic countries. That is a paradox that poses a challenge to all countries of the world in varying degrees.

While South Sudanese are not divided by the sharp differences of race, culture or religion, they are also confronted by the challenges of managing ethnic and communal diversities that must be addressed through the principles of constructive management of diversity based on inclusivity, equality, autonomy, and respect for the dignity of all groups without discrimination on any ground.

Constructive management of diversity must also involve empowering each group to be self governing and to generate its own culturally oriented development based on using its material and human resources in a self reliant process of self enhancement from within. External support, both National and international, should be elicited as complementary and not as the primary generator of development. This requires a system of internal self-determination as decentralization through self-administration.

I would like to end with two specific proposals for follow up research. One is to conduct a comparative study of how other African countries have managed the challenge of making effective use of the role of traditional authorities as an aspect of cultural orientation to socio-economic development and in state and nation building. The other is whether the curriculum in schools and universities address the role of culture as an essential resource in approaching socio-economic development as a contextualized process of self-enhancement from within. These policy-oriented studies can be conducted by universities or by independent South Sudanese research institutions – think tanks.