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Dealing with Government in South Sudan

Dealing with Government in South Sudan: Histories of Chiefship, Community and State

Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Dealing with Government in South Sudan
    Book Description:

    South Sudan became Africa's newest nation in 2011, following decades of armed conflict. Chiefs - or 'traditional authorities' - became a particular focus of attention during the international relief effort and post-war reconstruction and state-building. But 'traditional' authority in South Sudan has been much misunderstood. Institutions of chiefship were created during the colonial period but originated out of a much longer process of dealing with predatory external forces. This book addresses a significant paradox in African studies more widely: if chiefs were the product of colonial states, why have they survived or revived in recent decades? By examining the long-term history of chiefship in the vicinity of three towns, the book also argues for a new approach to the history of towns in South Sudan. Towns have previously been analysed as the loci of alien state power, yet the book demonstrates that these government centres formed an expanding urban frontier, on which people actively sought knowledge and resources of the state. Chiefs mediated relations on and across this frontier, and in the process chiefship became central to constituting both the state and local communities. Cherry Leonardi is a Lecturer in African History at the University of Durham, a former course director of the Rift Valley Institute's Sudan course, and a member of the council of the British Institute in Eastern Africa. Published in association with the British Institute in Eastern Africa.

    eISBN: 978-1-78204-087-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xi-xiii)
  5. Abbreviations
    (pp. xiv-xiv)
  6. Glossary
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  7. Introduction: The making of chiefship, state and community in South Sudan
    (pp. 1-16)

    In May 2009, fourteen hundred chiefs or ‘traditional leaders’ were transported by the Government of Southern Sudan (GoSS) to a conference in the town of Bentiu. The semi-autonomous GoSS had been created by the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended the war of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) against the Sudanese government (1983–2004). The Bentiu conference was called to mobilise the chiefs’ support for internal conflict resolution, elections and the national peace process, in the lead-up to a referendum on South Sudanese secession in 2011. The GoSS President and SPLA commander-in-chief, General Salva Kiir Mayardit, opened proceedings with...


    • [Part One Introduction]
      (pp. 17-20)

      Before 1840, the region that would become southern Sudan lay at the furthest limits of any long-distance commerce and beyond the reach of any state powers. Only its northernmost areas were already being raided for slaves for the markets and trade roads further north, while to the east were the distant frontiers of the Ethiopian kingdom, and to the south the kingdoms of Buganda and Bunyoro. The earliest documentary evidence is suggestive of some possible long-distance commercial linkages, notably demonstrated by the blue cloth worn by Bari rain chiefs on the Nile, which was said to have come from the...

    • 1 Frontier societies and the political economy of knowledge in the nineteenth century
      (pp. 21-40)

      Based on the availability of written sources, histories of South Sudan have tended to begin from the coming of the ‘Turk’: the incursions up the Nile from 1840 onwards by ivory and slave traders and Turco-Egyptian government forces. The subsequent decades of the nineteenth century have been characterised as a time of violent disruption and predation, epitomised by the slave trade itself. Gray and Collins depict the people of the region as ‘ill-prepared’ for these foreign incursions, having been ‘isolated’ from any external contact prior to 1840.¹ In the early 1980s, an anthropologist contrasted the history of the Bari on...

    • 2 Colonial frontiers and the emergence of government chiefs, c. 1900–1920
      (pp. 41-60)

      The defeat of the Mahdist state by British and Egyptian forces in 1898 led to the establishment of the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium of the Sudan in 1899. The new government immediately sought to secure its control of the upper Nile against both a brief French incursion and the forces of the Belgian Congo already occupying Rejaf in the far south. The vegetation blockages in the Sudd region of the Nile, however, delayed effective occupation of Equatoria for several years. Sudan-Congo relations remained extremely tense, until an agreement to lease the ‘Lado Enclave’ to King Leopold II of Belgium during his lifetime;...


    • [Part Two Introduction]
      (pp. 61-64)

      In Moru District in 1918, a police attack on an Atuot community was blamed on the district mamur, a subaltern Egyptian or Sudanese officer:

      On investigation it transpired that the police had attacked the followers of a friendly Atwot Chief called Dubbai who had lived on the Moru boundary for two years. As the attack was unexpected and came as a complete surprise about 100 Atwots were killed including women and children and their cattle captured and driven in to Amadi. The police of course were acting on the instructions of the Mamour [mamur].¹

      Over the next few years, British...

    • 3 Constituting the urban frontier: chiefship and the colonial labour economy, 1920s–1940s
      (pp. 65-86)

      In 2006, a very elderly Bari man, a former mechanic, recalled being moved when still a small child in the late 1920s to make way for the building of the new provincial headquarters of Juba. He stated that the chief at the time, Gaddum, had been made chief because he knew more Arabic than the rest of the people, and that he was responsible for conscripting labour for the government.

      People at that time did not know government affairs... A chief of long ago was not good: he would beat people, so the people were very much afraid of him....

    • 4 Claiming rights and guarantees: chiefs’ courts and state justice, c. 1900–1956
      (pp. 87-106)

      This statement (in English) by a very elderly retired schoolteacher in Rumbek asserts the value of the new knowledge that might be acquired on the colonial urban and bureaucratic frontiers described in the previous chapter. His is a district where most people were reportedly reluctant to send their children to school, if they instead had cattle to look after. Yet while cattle-owning might have often kept young people away from the urban frontier and waged labour, cattle disputes would paradoxically bring many more people to the new institutional frontier of state justice. As a particularly movable, individualised and socially-embedded form...

    • 5 Containing the frontier: the tensions of territorial chiefdoms, 1930s–1950s
      (pp. 107-124)

      The ideal of the village community as a territorial, social and administrative unit was imported by colonial officials from their British homeland, and in some areas imposed forcibly upon the indigenous geography of southern Sudan. During the 1920s and 1930s, such visions had interacted in tension with the emphasis of Indirect Rule on tribal units of Native Administration, culminating in the mid–late 1930s in the Equatoria Province policy of harnessing units of descent and kinship, in the hope ultimately of building tribes. By this time, however, the Condominium government was already moving away from Indirect Rule ideologies and beginning...

    • 6 Uncertainty on the urban frontier: chiefs and the politics of Sudanese independence, 1946–1958
      (pp. 125-142)

      The final decade of the Condominium heightened popular expectations of government and opened up new avenues of communication and opportunity for southern Sudanese to access the state. Burton claims that it was from the 1940s that towns were ‘accepted’ by local people, ‘when it became clear that in order to protect their own political and economic interests, it was essential to participate in town-oriented affairs more directly’.¹ Yet the effect of an urban-rural, state-society divide was nevertheless being sharply crystallised in this period, firstly through the consolidation and political activism of an increasingly self-conscious, town-dwelling, literate ‘class’ (as the government...


    • [Part Three Introduction]
      (pp. 143-146)

      The historiography of the period between Sudanese independence in 1956 and South Sudanese independence in 2011 has been dominated by the two lengthy periods of civil war, c. 1963–72 and 1983–2004. Most scholars have concentrated on explaining these conflicts, detailing the suffering and coping of southern Sudanese, and emphasising their alienation from a series of authoritarian regimes and brief unsatisfactory parliamentary governments in Khartoum.¹ The first parliamentary period straddled the declaration of independence in 1956 and established a pattern of sectarian politics and unstable coalition governments, in which the dominant northern Sudanese political parties were united only in...

    • 7 Trading knowledge: chiefship, local elites and the urban frontier, c. 1956–2010
      (pp. 147-164)

      During the most intense periods of civil war or uprising since 1955, most people took refuge in more remote parts of ‘the bush’ or across southern Sudan’s borders. A much smaller proportion sought safety in the government-held towns, despite their repressive security regimes. But whenever there has been sufficient peace or stability, people have swiftly returned to – or relocated to – the small towns, in search of employment, enterprise and education. The edges of the town might be seen as the frontiers and limits of state power, as in much wider analysis of post-colonial African states; as such, the...

    • 8 Regulating depredation: chiefs and the military, 1963–2005
      (pp. 165-180)

      During periods of civil war, the urban frontier dramatically constricted around the government garrisons, and its inhabitants found themselves caught between two antagonistic ‘hakumas’, the rebel government in the ‘bush’ and the government in the town. Both bush and town were ambiguous moral spaces, and the chiefs and their communities wrestled with how to gain protection from or in them, during both the first and second periods of war. The communities that had crystallised by the late-colonial period in the vicinity of the towns were frequently divided and scattered to different locations. The institution of chiefship had to be similarly...

    • 9 Reprising ‘tradition’: the mutual production of community and state in the twenty-first century
      (pp. 181-198)

      As this response demonstrates, my original question to this young Mundari man near Juba was problematic because it assumed that the ‘government’ was a separate entity from the rural communities, when such a distinction was blurred or false. My question reflected the wider discourse that was increasingly manifest by 2005 at both local and national levels, of tradition and community as distinct from the state. Yet in practice, both traditional authority and definitions of ‘community’ were being produced in relation to, and in dialogue with, the state.

      From the early 1990s the National Islamic Front government recognised and appointed chiefs...

    • 10 Knowing the system: judicial pluralism and discursive legalism in the interim period, 2005–2010
      (pp. 199-216)

      People had long been drawn to the towns not only to obtain services and commodities but also to access the state and to acquire knowledge of its ‘procedures’. This was always a risky strategy, because the urban frontier was subject to the unpredictable threat of repressive or exclusionary government force emanating from the town centres or military barracks. Unsurprisingly, the nodal, urban state has been characterised as dangerously capricious in the existing literature on South Sudan’s history, in common with much analysis of post-colonial African states. Yet the idea that government works according to fixed, predictable rules and systems has...

  11. Conclusion
    (pp. 217-224)

    In 1997, Charles Tripp remarked on the ‘peculiar’ resilience of Sudanese state structures, despite the crisis of the Sudanese state project and its fundamental imbalances between centre and periphery. His cautious prediction that the ‘deep frustration’ of ‘those who have historically been excluded’ would lead to the breakup of the territorial state has proven accurate.¹ The leaders of the new Republic of South Sudan – and many of their international supporters and donors – have presented the successful revolt of this former marginal region as a fundamental departure from the history of the ‘Old Sudan’, establishing a tabula rasa for...

  12. Interviews
    (pp. 225-230)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 231-246)
  14. Index
    (pp. 247-254)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 255-257)