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By James Gatdet Dak - 17 Oct 2019

Opinion | Is South Sudan’s administrative system an ethnic fragmentation or incoming ethnic federalism?

I neither claim to be an expert on decentralized system of governance and on federalism, in all its forms, nor a decision-making authority in our nascent state - the Republic of South Sudan. I am however humbly compelled to share my opinion or appeal to the leadership in South Sudan on some concerns, given the current governance crisis our country faces, among other crises.

Our nation is at a crossroads as the November 12 dateline approaches to form a transitional unity government, inclusive of all the parties to the peace deal, and with peace parties or partners still debating on implementation of critical issues which are conditional on formation of this would-be transitional government. Besides the required implementation of key pre-transitional security arrangements, the parties have yet to agree on whether the country should revert to the inherited 10 states at independence, or remain with the current newly established 34 states or more - with new boundaries – or alternatively consider the 21+ former colonial administrative districts established under the British rule (with their boundaries as stood on January 1, 1956).

With no agreement on the mentioned issues as stipulated in the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCiSS), the parties may not also agree to form the transitional unity government on November 12.

I am not writing this piece to vote between the competing numbers of states or unknown boundaries. I, however, want to look at the current decentralized system in South Sudan with regard to the proliferation of ethnolinguistic states across the nation, which are controversial and problematic, and an element which may even fail the formation of the government on November 12. My aim in writing about it is to (maybe) generate a scholarly interest in the topic by those who are well versed with decentralized systems of governance or different types of federal systems. This is also to take into account the uniqueness of the situation in South Sudan!

With the focus on the ever-increasing number of states or local units, currently 34 states and counting, mainly on tribal lines dividing roughly 12 million population of the country of 64 ethnic groups, and with uncertainty on their respective boundaries between ethnic groups in the country, one would want to understand what this policy is all about, or wants to achieve. Is it to take towns or development to the people, or promote peace and stability, or is it to achieve unity in diversity, or to establish political mobilization units for the ruling party, among our people in the young, but bleeding Republic? Or what is it…?

Is it a system of ethnic fragmentation and/or an introduction of would-be ethnic federalism?

Proponents of the current decentralized governance system in South Sudan would simply argue that the system works; that this is what the people want. They want, or even need, their own states! The question is, why wanted or needed their own states; to do what with them; and what about the undetermined problematic boundaries? What about the current ethnic tensions which are being brought about by this ambitious manufacturing of more states, as ethnic groups, whose historical lands are being claimed by other communities and annexed to other states, seem to be as nervous and angry as they await the outcome of the negotiations from the parties?

Putting aside political interests by some elitists who wanted or maybe wanting more states of their own for mere political accommodation in the states or for overrepresentation at the centre in Juba, it seems the ordinary citizens were told only one side of the story which may be momentarily euphoric, but untrue. And this is development comes with more states. This simply made some of them believe that owning their respective tiny states would bring services and development to their areas, or create employment exclusively for the locals. To them, this would ensure that they receive more handouts of budgetary resources from the distributive system from the centre.

But is it true?

Citizens up to now, and for a very long time, have not yet witnessed any progress in services delivery or development in the states as a result of simply having a state of their own. We have only vividly seen overstaffed state governments with little expertise, draining the scarce resources of the states and even with no salaries, but arrears after unpaid arrears.

We have seen state governors posed in pictures under “big” trees as their offices and lamented that they don’t have the resources to build offices at their new state government’s headquarters, etc.

We have seen ministers at the newly established state governments having no basic equipment such as computers to write their official memos on, making historical documents by handwriting in the twenty-first-century states. I can’t even mention standardized or meaningful services to do with education, health, food security, roads, electricity, and stability and so on, which are non-existent.

So what does this proliferation of non-viable and insufficient states instead bring to our people?

In this premature inflation of states, fragmentation, disunity, disappointments and even more conflicts can become real threats. Segregated ethnic groups may take this ethnic-based decentralization as a separation of ethnic groups and therefore reinforce ethnic tensions and conflict. With the current weak institutions, it can, and already has led some communities to wrongly think that their states are exclusively their own and, this has affected the right of citizens from other ethnic groups to live or work in another ethnic state. This is coupled with the unclear and not yet determined boundaries between the new dozens of states, which makes citizens nervous, not knowing what these strange boundaries will bring to their historical lands. Grazing lands and water points and competition over other resources are still problematic and can easily serve as a trigger for inter-ethnic conflicts.

Remember that the population of South Sudan has a very high rate of illiteracy with strong ethnic chauvinism, which is unfortunately above patriotism and nationalism. I have not seen the system coming up with practical policies that promote patriotism and nationalism and discourage tribalism in the young country.

Failure to achieve peace and stability, or to put in practice genuine decentralization governance system, to nurture political pluralism and then ensure respect for human rights, with the over-centralized fiscal decentralization, at least on paper, and where states fail to generate their own revenues, and then corruption, is already problematic currently.

Some may argue that the system of creating more states is an introduction of the federal system of government in South Sudan, which is a popular demand among the people. But how do you create federal states without a federal constitution, with clear laws and policies with responsibilities guiding their creation? And which one comes first: peace and stability or more unconstitutional states that even sabotage the achievement of peace and stability?

Even if South Sudan were to adopt a federal system of governance, which is, of course, a popular demand of the people, in principle, should it be ethnic federalism or multiethnic federalism? Or should it be a combination of multiethnic and ethnolinguistic federalism, as in the case of the current decentralization fragmentation?

Yes, I am an advocate of federalism. And yes, there are countries, for instance, the sisterly country, the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, which has successfully adopted ethnic federalism. However, given the unique situation of our country, introducing federalism by prematurely creating tiny states based on ethnicity or ethnolinguistic can be a recipe for further disunity. It serves as precedence which gives unnecessary appetite to the rest - among the 64 tribes - to claim states of their own. People should also be mindful of the securitization of ethnic units given the geopolitical concerns.

Unlike Ethiopia which has leadership with political will, a practical federal constitution and strong institutions and with its people who put patriotism and common national interest above ethnicity, our new nation lacks almost all of these. So by prematurely decentralizing the people or federating them based on their respective ethnicities, without peace and stability and without a federal constitution, strong institutions and the rule of law, is like putting the cart before the horse. It is worrisome!

First and foremost, there is a need to achieve peace and stability in the politically and tribally divided country. The political parties to the revitalized peace agreement signed on September 12, 2018, should first fully implement the peace deal and agree on the number of states and their boundaries. With it the constitution should be reviewed and amended, and also start to work on a permanent constitution. If federalism becomes the agreed-upon system of governance, then the constitution should also be a federal constitution that shall clearly spell out the division of powers between the centre and states, and between the federated states and local units.

Unfortunately, the current tendency towards a single party rule in South Sudan can also weaken federalism. What South Sudan currently has is an intrusive central party structure on the whole decentralized administration system. This has enabled the national party leadership to unilaterally impose detailed unworkable policy directives on the state and local governments. It can also lead to authoritarian political centralism and the collapse of the struggling, budding democratic pluralism. And what if the ruling party loses power? Can it not pose a risk of turning these ethnic units into communal contenders?

I am not saying ethnic federalism cannot succeed. If the country goes for a decentralized system based on ethnicity, as it now seems to be the trend or ethnic federalism, there should also be put in place mechanisms for managing and reducing opportunities for ethnic domination at the national level. This is to avoid the possibility of the state entrenching itself in a dominant ethnic-nation-building type of a system. A stable government should generate intra-ethnic competition within and between ethnolinguistic states to deflect them from forming a political bloc based on ethnicity. This is a challenging task in South Sudan, but with the hope that in the long run, nationalism and patriotism shall prevail over strong ethnic ties.

Whatever the system we want to adopt, my main concern is whether it can promote peace and stability, unity in diversity among our people and services delivery and development in our country. A governance system that would instead cause ethnic tensions or conflict is not welcomed.

I, therefore, appeal to the leadership of South Sudan in the person of His Excellency President Salva Kiir Mayardit, his brother Dr Riek Machar Teny-Dhurgon, leader of the main opposition party, SPLM/A (IO), and other opposition parties, to put the interest of our nation and its people above their own interests. As they prepare to meet again before November 12 dateline, the suffering people of South Sudan expect them to deliver peace by agreeing on the outstanding issues in the implementation of the R-ARCiSS. These include the security arrangements, number of states and boundaries, among others.

Meanwhile, respect for human rights should be observed. Freedom of expression is constitutional in South Sudan and should be respected. There should be no unwarranted arbitrary arrests due to political intolerance which violates the rights to the freedom of expression. No kidnappings or abductions! They are not a genuine or moral solution to our country’s problems. This can instead tarnish the image of our country. We don’t want our country to be equated to a police state or a mafia state. We lost over two million precious lives during our liberation struggle against oppression so that we achieve independence and reverse the oppression. We shouldn’t be doing the same oppression ourselves now and against ourselves.

I wholeheartedly thank the regional bloc, IGAD, under the chairmanship of the Ethiopian Premier, Dr Abiy Ahmed, for spearheading the mediation between the rival parties in South Sudan. The people of Ethiopia, like peoples in some other neighbouring countries, have shown their generosity by welcoming our people to live among them as refugees in their country. I thank the international community for supporting the people of South Sudan and ensuring that peace does not collapse. Let us not waste their efforts and generosity.

Let there be political will! Let there be peace, forgiveness, reconciliation and harmony among the people of South Sudan. I hope the incoming meeting between the leaderships of the parties to the peace agreement will bear fruit by resolving, once and for all, the pending issues on security arrangements, number of states and their boundaries.

May God bless South Sudan!

The author is a veteran journalist, peace and human rights activist; and former press secretary in the Office of the President (Vice President’s office), as well as former Official Spokesman of the leadership of the SPLM/SPLA (IO). Email address:

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