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As a means to reduce conflict and fulfil its citizens’ hopes, South Sudan’s key challenges revolve around the development of an inclusive, residency-based citizenship, writes Christopher Zambakari.

The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed on 9 January 2005, brought an end to the brutal civil war (1955–1972; 1983–2005) that had engulfed Sudan well before its independence in 1956. The CPA was the immediate culmination of the negotiations that ended the hostility between the National Congress Party (NCP) and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A). It ultimately created a new political dispensation and landscape in South Sudan. An estimated two and a half million people have died and more than five million have been uprooted due to the civil war (UNMIS 2009; IDMC 2011). In fulfilling the mandate of the CPA, a referendum on self-determination was conducted in January 2011, and 98.83 per cent of South Sudanese effectively voted to secede from north Sudan. The General Assembly of the United Nations admitted the Republic of South Sudan into the community of nations as the 193rd member of the United Nations on 14 July 2011 (UN News Centre 2011).

With the celebration of independence slowly coming to an end, the South Sudanese citizens will start to demand the fulfilment of a long-awaited dream: freedom from oppression and domination, justice and equality, democracy and economic prosperity, peace and tranquillity. The South Sudanese will soon start to demand that the fruits of liberation be shared among the people. The expectation on South Sudan to deliver basic necessities such as security, water, food, healthcare and education will only grow with time. South Sudan has seen a proliferation of consultants and international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) over the past several years. Professor Mahmood Mamdani, director of Makerere Institute of Social Research, observed that the tendency today in Africa is to place the emphasis on the search for solutions while neglecting the crucial role of problem formulation (Mamdani 2011). Without devoting time to understand the issues that fuel violence, it is not possible to find sustainable solutions.

In the Sudanese context, nobody understood the challenge of Sudan better than the late chair and commander-in-chief of the SPLM/A, Dr John Garang. With the inception of the SPLM/A, Garang’s first task was to define the problem. The immediate task for Garang and challenge back then – as it was for Mandela in South Africa – was to reform the colonial state and fuse the various nationalities or tribes into a nation. The solution to the crisis of citizenship was summarised in the concept of the New Sudan. The New Sudan vision presented at the Koka dam conference was a conceptual framework for a country which was inclusive of all its multiple ethnic groups, pluralistic and embracing all nationalities, races, creeds, religions and genders – a country in which all Sudanese would be equal stakeholders. Ironically, the challenge for the Republic of South Sudan today is the same as that outlined by Garang in 1986 (Garang 1992). How is the new republic going to build a democratic, all-inclusive nation out of so many ethnic groups in the nascent state? How is the country going to answer the question of citizenship?

The crisis of citizenship is rooted in the policy laid by the British in the early 20th century and inherited in the post-colonial period in Sudan. It also explains the cycle of violence in Darfur, in the west of what is now considered north Sudan, and the deadlock over the disputed regions, with Abyei being the most contested area. The problem in Abyei between the Ngok Dinka and the Misseriya, the conflict between the camel nomads of the north in Darfur against the agriculturalists in southern Darfur and the demand for a tribal homeland in southern Sudan all revolve around the same issues: political representation, access to pasture for cattle and claims to a tribal homeland. Without resolving those fundamental issues, the violence will not subside. Rather, new waves of violence – with higher frequency and intensity – will arise, with far more deadly consequences.

What is required in Abyei, Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile is not a military solution to the problem. The problem being political, the solution must be political in nature. The question of citizenship and the colonial state, which reproduces and enforces political identities, needs a political reform that will join the two demands for citizenship, one ethnic in character and the second based on residence. The challenges in both Sudans are reflective of a larger challenge facing most post-colonial African countries (Mamdani 1996). Every post-colonial African state deals with the question of building an effective plural society and managing diversity within an inclusive framework. This is because Africa is the most diverse continent in the world, populated by diverse nationalities, with a rich cultural heritage pre-dating recorded history and vibrant plural societies. Given that Sudan is the microcosm of Africa‘s promises and problems – contained within its boundaries are all major African language groups and nationalities – the problems of Sudan are reflective of the larger continental political crisis facing all African countries (Garang 1992; Beshir 1968; Deng 1990).


One of the most enduring legacies of colonialism in countries ruled by Great Britain is how power was organised. The colonial state functioned on a dual system of governance. This form of governance led to group discrimination based on ethnicity and privilege of one group at the expense of all others. Any policy designed to bring lasting peace in South Sudan must begin with the question of citizenship. At the heart of the colonial system of governance was a duality in how the colonised were ruled and how those deemed civilised were governed (Mamdani 1996). It was a project enforced by law. Whereas the urban civilised was governed under common law, the natives were governed under customary law. Customary law, in turn, discriminated against individuals based on membership in a tribal homeland. Customary law was a system that privileged those considered natives and discriminated against those considered aliens, foreigners and non-natives (Mamdani 2009).

In a recent report published by the London School of Economics it was shown that in matters of institutional reform, the new South Sudan has rather taken a contradictory path (LSE 2010). According to the CPA, too much centralisation of power in Khartoum was part of the problem of Sudan before the independence of South Sudan. Until then, decentralisation had become a de facto solution. In Southern Sudan the government experimented with decentralisation only to return to a highly centralised system. At the local level, the government policy was to enact a legislation called the Local Government Act in 2009, which was seen as a way to delegate power to local institutions. However, this policy was also tainted by something familiar in Sudanese history. It was the mode of rule adopted by British strategists to govern Sudan in the first place. This was an administrative mechanism characterised by a duality in law which translated into parallel structures, one governing semi-proletarianised in urban areas and another governing peasants in rural areas. It was a policy which enabled British colonial administrators to divide up the majority of peasants into hundreds of smaller minorities and effectively deny them the political rights to mobilise or act as a majority. Today, it pre-empts the creation of a true inclusive state and focuses on a mode of governance, which produces many smaller nation-states within the larger state.


The land question is one of the most tested in Sudan. The citizenship question and the land question are related. The definition of citizenship is either based on ethnicity or it is based on residence. These two claims converge in the area of representation in the state as well as claims made to access land and resources. Those who claim citizenship also claim that access to land be based on ethnicity, which is defined as those who are indigenous to the country. Here, Sudan is like its neighbours. When one asks the question, ‘Who are these indigenes?’, the immediate answer is ‘those of us who have always been here’ – in other words, the natives. The second claim comes from migrant workers, immigrants, refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). These groups claim that citizenship based on ethnicity is unacceptable. They claim that every citizen should have similar rights. Anyone with the remotest background on African history will notice something which is consistent throughout the continent. Migration has always taken place across Africa – both voluntary and forced. Africa is the original continent of migration. The colonial state was particularly harsh and discriminatory towards those who move out of the demarcated tribal homeland in search of better living conditions, e.g., migrant workers or those forcefully displaced or internally displaced persons. The cases of the Banyarwanda in Uganda and in eastern Congo, the Ghanaians in Nigeria and the Burkinabe in Côte d’Ivoire are illustrative of these tendencies in the post-colonial period. In each of the mentioned situations, violence has been the outcome of a conflict that pitted those defined as natives – or indigenes – to those branded as non-native or non-indigene. Both claims should not be dismissed uncritically but understood to be based on the history of state formation in Africa. The first demand is rooted in the colonial period, reproduced by the post-colonial state, and the other rooted in the concept of nation-state which provides for equal rights to all citizens, with its genesis in the French Revolution.

Today, Sudan has the largest number of internally displaced persons in the world. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre puts the estimates around 5 million (IDMC 2011). Khartoum continues its policy of ethnic cleansing in the disputed regions with its systematic policy of driving out the Dinkas and replacing them with Misseriya in Abyei. In Southern Kordofan, a report quotes key members of the National Congress Party (NCP) explicitly demanding the ethnic cleansing of the Nubian people from their homeland (Africa Confidential 2011). Land allocation for returning IDPs is crucial for survival. This has been a particularly difficult process in relation to access to land, a vital source of livelihood for most Southern Sudanese, pastoralists, agriculturalists and nomads. One report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre and the Norwegian Refugee Council puts the challenge as follows:

‘Returnees are only allocated residential plots, but for their livelihoods they would also need agricultural land; however this is not being demarcated. The returnees have generally been told that they can cultivate any available land that they find. However, some returnees told IDMC that they would need permission from the local chiefs to acquire agricultural land; this would not be easy for those who were not returning to their original village (2011).’

Without resolving the crisis of citizenship, reforming land tenure laws and resolving the conflict in the border regions, South Sudan will remain in a perpetual state of war. Success hinges upon those unresolved, yet related, issues: citizenship and access to land, Abyei, Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile. These issues also hold the key to a successful nation-building project in the new republic.


In his recent keynote address to the East African Legislative Assembly Symposium, Mamdani stated that citizenship in Africa has been based on two post-colonial traditions: territorial and ethnic. Mamdani pointed out Tanzania’s exception among the East African countries, a group which South Sudan might soon become a member of unless it decides to opt out. He said that ‘Tanzania is the only part of the region where a group has not been persecuted collectively – as a racial or an ethnic group. Tanzania is the East African antidote to Nigeria’ (Mamdani 2011). It can even be argued that Tanzania is not only the antidote to Nigeria but the antidote to Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo), where conflicts rage over the citizenship question.

South Sudan and North Sudan will need to develop a legal framework to address the question of citizenship, particularly the problem of nomads and pastoralists in Sudan and elsewhere to avoid stateless people throughout the region. It demands the political imagination of deemphasising descent and emphasising residence as the basis of a common citizenship. In the first instance, this is a shift from exclusion to inclusion, which broadens the definition of the political community. The need to reform citizenship laws in the post-CPA era was pointed out in a report by a scholar based at the Open Society Foundation who wrote that ‘Non-discrimination on ethnic, racial and religious grounds is the foundation for a stable state while exclusion and discrimination sow seeds of political unrest, economic collapse and war’ (Manby 2011).

One way out of the citizenship crisis is to change the criteria for how citizenship is defined, lest the political right of citizenship be turned into an ethnically defined membership to a native authority (Mamdani 2010). This challenge requires that a person‘s primary residence be used rather than the origin of the person, while incorporating other methods for assigning citizenship. By allowing consent and voluntary selection of where people want to live, violence can be preempted and the nation-building project given a chance to succeed.


The governments in Sudan and South Sudan do not necessarily have a monopoly over the instruments of war. In the south the government does not have the luxury to unilaterally impose. The alternative strategy is to compromise and build consensus around key fundamental issues and bring all key players into the fold. This strategy will be reflected in the new government that will be formed in the upcoming weeks. This creates the necessary environment for political imagination based on the condition that is imposed upon the Sudanese by history and politics. Looking ahead, there is a need to reform the colonial state in both its public and customary spheres, thereby changing how the mass of the peasantry is organised, institute land reform laws that reconcile the question of rights with that of justice and find a political solution to conflict in the disputed regions. The task ahead is not impossible. It simply demands that South Sudanese mobilise to build their country. It demands political imagination to go beyond the colonial state and build unity in diversity among the many nationalities in the South. The Russian-born economist Alexander Gerschenkron used to say that there are increasing disadvantages in developing late, but the exception was the advent of technology which could enable countries to catch up from way behind (Gerschenkron 1962). The strength of the South Sudanese society is capable of propelling the country forward if leadership is capable of creating an environment conducive to the task.


* Christopher Zambakari is a candidate for a Law and Policy Doctorate (LPD) at the College of Professional Studies, Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts.
* Zambakari expresses his gratitude for the support and constructive feedback received on this article from Tammy Michele Washington, Anschaire Aveved, Noah Japhet and Tijana Gligorevic.
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.


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