By Makol Bona Malwal
South Sudan was conceived on the myth that we are one people with one common destiny. We are now discovering that regional and tribal differences are not dissolving and that South Sudanese think and act very differently from one another.
The simple fact is that people who are raised thinking of their tribe/nationality as Pojulu, Dinka, Shuluk, Zande, Bari, Murle, Nuer, or what have you will probably always think of themselves in that way. It may take several generations for the concept of being Pojulu, Dinka, Shuluk, Zande, Bari, Murle, Nuer, or what have you to become the equivalent of being a New Yorker or Californian to an American, and those generations will be longer than generations were in the USA in the 1800s.
It is very important that we highlight the possible challenges and the inconsolable pains to face South Sudan beyond the passionate emotions for independence and try to stimulate the start of thinking rationally for all our future’s sakes. Our new country will face many challenges, despite simplistic categorizations of our war of independence as being between Africans and Arabs/Christians versus Muslims. South Sudanese are not a unified group; this is a profoundly and proudly multi-ethnic, multi-racial and multi-religious lot/land.
Any sense of a common national identity that does exist was forged in the struggle against the Mundukuru (north Sudan), something that we are all acutely aware of.
The point is that South Sudanese must ask themselves if a ‘South Sudan Nation’ is, in fact, truly what they want. A true nation of South Sudanese will require the majority of its citizens to share common values, common ideals, common mores and most likely a common language. If these do not exist naturally, they must be cultivated and that leads to some very difficult ground for debate and discussion (and the potential for many, many problems). As part of this, South Sudanese must ask themselves why they want a nation. Is it to compete economically with the Mundukuru (north Sudan), East Africa and other large population economies (a really bad reason to build a nation)? To prevent any possibility of another grand South Sudanese civil war (South Sudan imploding)? Or why?
This lack of unity is South Sudan’s most profound crisis, one that underlies the country’s economic and political woes. Most South Sudanese have little idea what the country stands for, what binds its people together, where it has come from in the past and where it is going to in the future. After decades of war and a hefty (and still growing) death toll, we have succeeded in attaining independence without gaining a nation.
Yes, but what is a South Sudanese?
Values matter because they are the glue that binds countries and peoples together. They help define what a society stands for and against. There is no consensus within South Sudan or among South Sudanese, not even the beginning of a consensus, about what South Sudanese values are.
Diversity does not equal tolerance and the existence of differences does not mean acceptance of them. A fact that has come glaringly to the fore as South Sudan has slipped deeper into crisis and relationships have strained among its people and tribes.
The relationship between peasant communities and pastoralists with shared livelihoods need to be effectively managed or else violence is the natural outcome of mismanagement.
One can of course have multiple identities. Some Europeans are Catalan and Spanish, as well as European. But identities cannot be artificially created; they are forged early on and never go away. We must construct common institutions, laws and create all the symbols of a nation-state. Prosperity for a war-torn country, freedom from tyranny and peace among our people and tribes after decades if not centuries of bloodletting should be some of the ideals we should aspire too.
This is not to say that a united South Sudan will never happen, but it must be understood that it will be a long, slow process and will likely be longer and slower than the process was in the US for example, due to a longer legacy of conflict between our tribes and people and of all things longer life-spans of those generations today that think of themselves as coming from specific tribes rather than being South Sudanese.
Over the long term though, people need the solace and sense of community and shared culture, history and custom that nationhood provides.
Makol Bona Malwal can be reached at this address.