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Decentralisation Hybridized

Annina Aeberli

3. Decentralisation as a right to self-rule

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  • 1  For this analysis, if it is note explicitly noted otherwise, I refer only to non-governmental inte (...)

1This chapter aims to illustrate how South Sudanese1 outside the various government structures understand decentralisation. In the first section (3.1), I present different elements people mention in the context of decentralisation, particularly an exclusionary understanding of self-rule. Then, I show how decentralisation as a right to self-rule is used in political debates (3.2), concluding with of the means by which decentralisation is instrumentalized to appropriate an abstract and distant state by connecting it to the local (3.3).

3.1. The exclusionary character of decentralisation as a form of self-rule

2“Decentralisation” is not an easy term to investigate in South Sudan, a country of several hundred local languages and dialects, where English is the official language (GoSS 2011c, Article 6), but where Arabic – or more precisely, a simple dialect of Arabic, called “Juba Arabic” – remains the dominant language in everyday communication (GoSS 2011b). As a direct corollary of decentralisation does not exist in many local languages, I had to rely on imperfect substitutes. Even the translation into Arabic was challenging and contested. A South Sudanese friend of mine could not think of a direct translation spontaneously. One interview partner (17) suggested the translation “la-markasia” where “markasia” refers to “central” and “la” means “no”. Thus, “la-markasia” literally means “no-centralisation”. An informant acting as a translator for another interview, conversely, suggested the approximation of “the way people govern themselves”. Correspondingly, “decentralisation”, as a specific term, is used virtually exclusively by English-speaking people. That said, not all English speakers know the term (such as, for example, interviewees 14, 15 and 20). The term “local government”, on the other hand, seems to be known by everyone. Most people I talked to had strong opinions what a local government is, or should be, or should do.

3Nevertheless, a two hours ride by boda-boda, as motorcycle taxis are called here, into the bush near Magwi to visit three communities of the Iyre revealed that in remote areas, the distinction between the GoSS, the government of the state, and the local government is blurred. During an interview with the community of the Iyire (22) located in EES, a teacher stated: “The government in Juba and the one in Torit, they are all our governments. We just need services from them”. Over the course of the conversation, it became clear that the people were desperate to finally be provided with services such as schools, hospitals, and clean water. No wonder, the only man-made things I could see there were two boreholes, and some huts, some of them not even covered with a roof or grass, respectively. I was told that one of the huts was a school. The best preserved hut seemed to be the polling station. It became evident that they were really disappointed with the government that seemed to have forgotten them. In one village in particular, I was confronted with noticeable aggressions against the government, of which, in their view, I was a member. They requested to be recorded, so that I could transmit their demands for services to other people in the government. Their demands were mainly directed towards the local government, which seemed to be the most present in their world, but they did not really care who provided these services, grouping all levels of government together. Most people I met, however, made distinctions between the different levels of government. The greater the geographical distance to all types of governments, it seemed, the greater the likelihood of putting all levels into the same category. In such situations, the local government seems to be more visible in comparison with the GoSS. Thus, people generally perceive the local government to be closer to them, and make clear distinctions between the different levels of government. In the case of the outlying Iyire community, however, the remoteness of all levels of government blurs the distinction between them, with the dominant government in their narratives becoming the local government.

3.1.1 The purposes of decentralisation

4The non-governmental South Sudanese (16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 23 and 25), similar to the previously-discussed government officials, explain decentralisation or local governments as a way to distribute the power down to the people. One (24), however, spoke less about distributing power down, but of “labour division” and the “deconcentration of powers and resources” in general. Decentralisation, furthermore, as the local government officers discovered during the development of the Local Government Framework (see chapter two), is also understood as closely connected to self-rule or self-governance. But what do the people mean when they say that power should be given to the people through decentralisation? What is self-rule about? Do the people share the same understanding of service delivery based on participatory assessments as the government?

5The aspect of service delivery and development does, in fact, seem to be evident in the people’s understanding of decentralisation. As seen above, service provision is the main demand made by the Iyire community of the local government, and/or the government in general. The Iyire community (22) has also demanded to change their affiliation from Magwi County to Torit County. They wish to belong to Torit because they feel that Magwi County does not care about them or provide them with services. They hope that Torit will be capable of delivering schools, health centres, boreholes, agricultural tools, and so on. Similarly, most of my interview partners (15, 16, 19, 21, 23 and 24) state clearly that decentralisation and/or local governments bring development and services. One (16) added that it should bring “equal wealth”. Another (19) suggested that the ministries of EES should be spread all over the state, so that people can actually see development. Spreading the ministries would, according to the interviewee, also result in fair distribution of development between the communities.

6Garang’s vision of “take the towns to the people” seems to be known by everyone. All of the interview partners I raised the topic with (16, 17, 19, 20, 21, 23 and 24) connected it closely to decentralisation, with the exception of one Boma Chief (15), who thinks that Garang meant that peace should be taken to the people in the villages. All interviewees who connected Garang’s phrase to decentralisation also stated, in one way or another, that Garang meant development and/or services should be brought from the towns to the villages through decentralisation. One (16), however, did not mention development, but explained that Garang’s statement implies that decentralisation is a way that people in villages, not only in towns, should experience government. Decentralisation, therefore, seems to be understood as a tool with which to bring different things, such as development and services, but also government itself, geographically closer to the people.

7Some people stated that decentralisation generally improves the quality of governance (15, 21 and 19), with others specifically mentioning that it leads to more participation (16, 20 and 24). One interview partner (21) noted that decentralisation makes people feel represented. Four of my interview partners (16, 17, 24 and 25), furthermore, clearly mentioned the element of self-rule. One (16) went further, in saying that decentralisation is a good system because people can govern themselves. Another (17) stated that “people of a certain place” would be given the space for “self-rule”, and equated decentralisation with “self-rule on a small scale level”. In his own words: “A group of people in a certain place were given the opportunity to take care of their things and administration on their own, without being dictated much from the centre of government above.” Such statements thus raise the question of what, for the interviewees, participation, representation, and self-rule mean.

3.1.2 The “us vs. them” dichotomy

8Firstly, the integration of traditional authorities seems to be an important factor in the people’s sense of representation in the state and self-rule. Many of my interview partners (16, 17, 19, 20, 21 and 24) expressed the importance of the traditional authorities. Several informal discussions conducted with local South Sudanese also indicated that people wish for the integration of the traditional authorities into the local government system. As such, my research supports the conclusions of the studies conducted under the Local Government Framework – the people demand that the traditional authorities are integrated into a decentralised state system. One interview partner (19) justified this position by saying “the chiefs know better” than the government, while another (21) argued that the chiefs are “the eye of the government”. Chapter two has previously shown how this demand was slowly been taken up by the SPLM/A during the 1990s, and later with the 2009 Local Government Act. As previously-discussed, such a policy implies the formation of administrative units along tribal lines, as the administrative units must correspond with the chiefdoms installed by the Local Government Act.

  • 2  Actually, these societies are not only acephalous, which refers to the lack of a central political (...)

9Johnson ([2003] 2007, 11–12), however, demonstrates that many of these “traditional” authorities are not actually culturally traditional, but were created during British colonialism under the label of “Native Administration”, or “Devolution”, as indirect rule was commonly called in Sudan. Indirect rule held that local administration should be based on indigenous structures of authority and indigenous customs, in so far as such practices were in accordance with the British understanding of justice and government. Chiefs were thus meant to play an important role. Historically, while such traditional authorities were found in centralised Southern kingdoms, such as the Shilluk or the Azande, the British had difficulty identifying hierarchical authority in most parts of Southern Sudan. This is because the South was predominantly characterized by so-called acephalous2 societies, such as the Dinka, Nuer, Murle, Toposa, and so on. In the absence of pre-existing hierarchical societal authorities, the British had to create these structures, along with new “customary” laws. The chiefs’ courts, active in Southern Sudan from the late 1920s on, trace back not only to indigenous customs, but also to British understandings of government and justice (Johnson [2003] 2007, 11–12). Mamdani (1996) refers to indirect rule as a form of “decentralised despotism”, a topic further developed in section 3.3.

10These structures were further modified under the SPLM/A, which introduced “SPLA chiefs”. These chiefs, who acted as intermediaries between the SPLA and the local community, are now contested authorities. As described by Leonardi (2007, 541 and 543), people are debating whether the SPLA chief, or that which fled the war (or was perhaps deposed by the SPLA), is the rightful chief. This discussion serves to question the origins of “traditional” in the term “traditional authority”. The legitimacy of these so-called traditional authorities, however, often derives from sources other than their supposedly traditional or indigenous character. As stated above, my interview partners all stressed that they should be given places in the decentralised state structure, suggests that the traditional authorities enjoy legitimacy. Additionally, political representation and participation are strongly based on an “us vs. them” dichotomy. Three interview partners (15, 17 and 24) stated that you must be born in a place, or be a member of a local tribe, in order to be allowed to vote or stand as a candidate in elections. Conversely, three others (14, 19 and 21) believed that you may get the right to vote in an area where you were not born after living there for a long time. Political participation is thus perceived as bound to a person’s place of birth. However, when speaking of participation and representation, people often do not stress formal political representation, but rather their people make up the staff of the administration. The Iyire people (22) expressed that they do not feel represented in the government, and in response to a question regarding their ideal form of representation, they answered that “they should take some of the people to work either in the county or the state”. Another interview partner (15) stated that only local people should get the opportunity to work in the administration. Some of my interview partners (17 and 19) further observed that non-local people have difficulties getting a job in a local administration, regardless of their level of qualifications. The interviewees felt this was a pity, because there is a potential contradiction between development and the demands to limit administration employment to locals. A man working for the GoSS put it most strongly:

“It’s like you are from Switzerland and then you are asked to work in Norway and then the Norwegians say go back to Switzerland. And then you start hating them, but no. So this is the scenario, this is what is happening. So, you are in Europe [...] no, you cannot work in Norway, but you have to work in your village in Sweden or Denmark. So, what happens, you cannot go to UK [...] then I begin hating the British, this is the problem with decentralisation. Some people think it is tribalistic, but it is not, it is a technic service system [...] people need decentralisation. [...]You’ll be in your house, we rule ourselves. If we are naked in our house, we are naked because we chose to be naked. [...] decentralisation is good because this is my tribe, I have my own authority there, so I control myself [...] I am happy that we are controlling ourselves.” (5)

11This person clearly compared South Sudan with the supra-state body of the European Union, which comprises several nations, an analogy he uses to justify the exclusion of people from other tribes in South Sudan from the job market, all under the label of self-rule.

12Two other statements further specified how self-rule is understood. One interview partner (24) said:

“Or how do you feel represented in the government? This is a very important question and this is how you can know whether decentralisation is a good model for South Sudan. Every South Sudanese in the streets, even the elites, they will give you a very simple answer. They will say: I will feel as part of the government if one of my community members is part of the government as a post holder. [...] We are not represented by political ideology, but we are represented by individuals of our community. So, society decentralisation is the best model because, one he is represented by the government, he is part of it, if there is a decentralised system, he is involved. We don’t believe in political ideology, we believe in ethnic representation. You see what is going on in the media: That people say that the government is Dinka, is a clear call for decentralisation.”

13Representation is thus understood as based not on political parties, but community. The other interviewee (25) stated: “The lifestyle is not the same, people in Kapoeta is not the same with people in Budi. We need our own system that regulates us, so that we don’t break the law [...] This is why decentralisation system is far better because people will express themselves better and they will participate in their own government.” The belief that different tribes under one government would result in people breaking the law is a clear statement of the perceived incompatibility of different tribes. So, decentralisation is understood as a right to self-rule, which encompasses the segregation of different tribes and lifestyles, making it possible for all to live together in one state.

14These statements are underscored by an apparent “us and them” dichotomy inherent to local understandings of self-rule. There are two dichotomies represented – that between natives and strangers at the local level, and that between different tribes, particularly the Dinka and others, at the national. The people’s opinion as to whether decentralisation brings peace or conflict is also closely connected to this issue. Some (for example, 21 and 24) thought that decentralisation brings peace between the tribes because every tribe can govern itself (and exclude foreigners) and therefore be free of domination by other tribes. Other interviewees, however, (for example, 17 and 23) said that experience shows that decentralisation divides the people of South Sudan exactly because one can exclude people, which then fuels conflict. At this point, it is worth mentioning that in 2009, more than 2,500 people were killed, and more than 350,000 were forced to flee, due to conflicts within the South. This is a greater number of casualties than in Darfur the same year (Oxfam 2010, 2). The situation was calmer before the Referendum, but has since deteriorated.

Natives vs. strangers

  • 3  The same phenomenon also in the context of land, especially concerning internally displaces person (...)

15Before turning to the alleged problem of Dinka domination on the national level, I will further discuss the dichotomy between natives and strangers on the local level. As we saw in the above statements, political participation and, often, administration employment, are understood as dependent upon being indigenous to a certain place. Thus, at the local level, decentralisation is interpreted as a means of guaranteeing the rights of natives over strangers with respect to jobs and political participation.3 For the case of decentralisation in Ghana, Lentz (2006, 917) describes how “the institution of the chieftaincy links political rights to the status of ‘natives’”. While it is too early to reach such a strong conclusion in South Sudan, as these issues are under negotiation and elections on the county level have not taken place, it is possible to identify a similar tendency to exclude strangers from political processes, especially at the Payam and the Boma level. The integration of traditional authorities into the decentralised system, in accordance with the Local Government Act, thus prepares the ground for the exclusion of non-natives in political participation. Moreover, decentralisation requires that boundaries be drawn in order to create administrative units. This often results in conflicts over particular boundaries wherein several groups claim to be the rightful owner of a certain area. As one example among the many taking place across South Sudan, the Payam of the Nyong in Torit County is currently involved in such a dispute with the neighbouring Payams of the Himodongo, the Imurok, the Bur, and, with particular vehemence, the Ifwotu. These conflicts would, of course, also likely occur in a centralised state, but in South Sudan they are currently taking place within the framework of decentralisation, which requires the demarcation of the boundaries between Payams. Such disputes serve to further reinforce the dichotomy between “us and them”.

  • 4  This is only a short description of the way in which these flexible identities became rigid and st (...)

16It is important to note that this dichotomy is rooted in history. Before the invasions of the Turks and the British, Sudanese tribes had a flexible and permeable organizational structure, wherein individuals could change groups easily (Zain 1996, 524). This correspondingly implies that the categories of “native” and “stranger” mattered little. This form of societal organization was fundamentally altered by the invasion of the Turks in 1821. The newly introduced centralised system was unable to cope with the fluid nature of tribal organization, and thus introduced stable and rigid power centres, curbing the exchange of people between tribes (Zain 1996: 524–525). The trends that emerged under the Turks were further intensified by several policies of British colonial rule (Zain 1996, 525). The British authorities distinguished between “native” and “settler” tribes, wherein native tribes were entitled to customary rights – such as land access, political participation, and appointment to key posts in the administration – which were denied to settler tribes. The tribe, therefore, became the “master identity in the [British] native administration”, and resulted in discrimination against settler tribes in comparison with their native counterparts. The passing of time has not reduced the negative implications of the “settler” label (Mamdani 2009, 167). The tribally-determined distinction between natives and strangers thus has a long tradition in South Sudan.4

Struggles between tribes

17At the national level, the dichotomy between natives and strangers manifests as various struggles between tribes. Here, decentralisation is interpreted as a way of avoiding interference by other tribes, particularly the Dinka. This fear of Dinka domination is pervasive in Equatoria. Many of my interview partners (3, 4, 9, 16 and 18) think “Payam” is a Dinka term – one interview partner (18) also thinks that “Boma” is Dinka – indicating a wariness of potential Dinka domination. It is difficult to determine the actual etymology of the term. A Dinka (1) explained that it is a common assumption that “Payam” is Dinka, but contested this, telling me that the root of the confusion may be that there is a similar word in Dinka – “Pan-Yam”, which means “New Home”. The theories of the origin of Payam vary widely: a new word (10 and 25), a communist term (24), an American (5) or British term (7), or, finally, that it comes from one of the ancient kingdoms of today’s (South) Sudan, such the Merowe (informal talk), Funj (a friend), or the Kush (1), respectively.

18A commonly reoccurring topic in the context of decentralisation and Dinka domination is “Kokora”. Kokora is a Bari word for “redivision” or “dividing” (1, 3, 18 and 24). Historically, Kokora stands for the redivision of Southern Sudan into three regions by Nimeiri in the early 1980s. Many of my interview partners referred to it, though not all used the term “Kokora”. Only one interviewee (20) was unfamiliar with Kokora. Two interview partners (5 and 24) closely connected it to decentralisation, without expressing particularly strong feelings, while all the others have strong opinions. They (1, 2, 3, 17, 25 and 18) primarily associate Kokora with the claim that everyone, particularly the Dinka, should return to their place of birth. My Dinka interviewees (1 and 2), furthermore, referred to Kokora as a strategy of Nimeiri to divide Southerners. For the Dinka, and also for two non-Dinka interviewees (17 and 25), Kokora has a negative connotation. One (25) said that it is like “chasing people”. Another (18), on the other hand, saw it more in a positive light, as a way to break with Dinka domination. The last (3) was ambivalent – in his view, Kokora or decentralisation may bring equal development, but it also leads to tribalism.

  • 5  It should be noted, however, that it is unclear whether the Dinka actually are one tribe. Lienhard (...)

19Many of the current arguments for or against decentralisation can be dated back to the discourse preceding Kokora. Before Nimeiri split the South into the three regions in 1983, a robust discussion regarding the advantages and disadvantages of different degrees of regionalization, or decentralisation, for the South took place. The argument for regionalization or decentralisation emerged from the sense that some, especially Equatorians, perceived themselves to be dominated by the Dinka. The Dinka are the largest tribe in South Sudan,5 followed by the Nuer. Both tribes, in contrast with many of the smaller, subsistence agriculture tribes in Greater Equatoria, are agro-pastoralist. Many Equatorians feared being overrun by the Dinka, and started speaking of “Dinka domination” toward the end of the 1970s (Johnson [2003] 2007, 51). Johnson ([2003] 2007, 52) acknowledges that the number of Dinka in public administration increased from the Addis Ababa Agreement in 1972 on, but at the same time stresses that the Dinka had long been underrepresented. Historical underrepresentation aside, however, there remained a strong perception of Dinka domination on the part of many Equatorians. This led to the publication of a manifesto entitled “decentralisation” by a proponent of this group, Lagu, a former Anyanya fighter and a Southern Sudanese politician. The publication did not focus on commonly-referenced features of decentralisation, such as development or governance, but mainly emphasized alleged Dinka domination in job distribution. As a result, redivision became synonymous with “anti-Dinka” politics (Tvedt 1994, 82), and decentralisation synonymous with regionalization (Johnson [2003] 2007, 54).

20Badal (1994) summarizes the arguments brought forward in this debate: The pro-side of redivision argued that the Government of Southern Sudan had failed to deliver basic services and developed a corrupt administration. It was thus claimed that redivision would allow for greater competition, forcing the elites closer to the people, leading to more participation, and accelerated development. This would also stem rural-urban migration and halt the purported Dinka domination (1994, 116–120). Those against redivision, on the other hand, questioned the economic viability of three regions in a situation where there was not sufficient money to maintain a unified Southern Government. In addition, they argued that the regionalization would fuel tribal thinking and conflicts. They also rejected the claim of Dinka domination by pointing to the election of a non-Dinka, Lagu, as president in 1978. Finally, the anti-redivision faction held that regionalization would not only weaken Southern unity, but would lead to the unconstitutional dissolution of the special status granted to the South in the Addis Ababa Peace Agreement (1994, 110–112).

21This historical overview shows that today’s decentralisation discussion is not new, but a repetition of the debates of the early 1980s. People in favour of decentralisation argued, and still argue, that it brings participation, development, services, better governance and, importantly, that it is crucial to forming a nation in a multi-ethnic context. The skeptics, similarly, echo the arguments of the past in stating that not only is it too expensive to maintain a decentralised structure, but also that it would fuel tribal thinking and/or resource disputes.

22To conclude, although decentralisation – or more commonly, local government – is also closely connected to service delivery and development in the people’s understanding, it has connotations beyond these policy objectives. It is interpreted as a right to self-rule without interference from outside, implying an understanding of inclusion and exclusion based on tribal, or native-stranger, lines. How this interpretation is actually used in political struggles is shown in the following section.

3.2. Making use of decentralisation

23The understanding of decentralisation as a right to self-rule is applied in political struggles. Decentralisation is powerful because most people agree that it is positive and necessary. This section will demonstrate how the right to self-rule is deployed in two political contestations – that regarding the establishment of more counties and the debate around the relocation of the capital.

3.2.1 The role of decentralisation in the proliferation of administrative units

24A recent report of the London School of Economics (Allen and Schomerus 2010, 9) describes the current proliferation of counties as such: “Decentralisation [sic], while theoretically the best way to govern Southern Sudan, has in reality often become an instrument to entrench ‘tribal’ lines over competition for resources, manifesting itself in a proliferation of new counties”. In the case of Eastern Equatoria, until recently, the state consisted of two districts, Torit and Kapoeta. Kapoeta then split into Kapoeta under the Toposa, and Budi under the Buya-Didinga. Subsequently, Kapoeta split again into Kapoeta North, Kapoeta South, and Kapoeta East. Similarly, Torit dissolved into Magwi of the Acholi and Madi, Ikotos of the Dongotona and Lango, Lafon/Lopa of the Lopit and the Pari, and Torit of the Lotuko. As the Acholi and the Madi, the Lopit and the Pari, and the Buya and the Didinga have each expressed a desire to further divide their counties, it is unlikely that the process of dissolution is complete (Allen and Schomerus 2010, 42). The report thus argues that decentralisation implies both division and land claims levied by local governments spurred by the interests of their own communities. This in turn reduces decentralisation to a matter of the local control of resources, rather than the devolution of real decision-making (Allen and Schomerus 2010, 39).

25My observations confirm their results. Throughout my interviews, it seemed as though no one wanted to be a minority in any given administrative unit. In situations where this is the case, the demand for a county or a payam of their majority, based on the right to self-rule within a framework of decentralisation, immediately emerges. The Commissioner of Magwi County (8) explains, for instance, that people always want to form their own county or payam, or join another county, if there is no development taking place in their current administrative unit. The creation of a locally-staffed administration of their own is understood to bring access to jobs and resources, and, correspondingly, development. In this context, decentralisation interpreted as the right to self-rule is accompanied by an assumption of the right of every tribe to an administrative unit, with access to state resources.

3.2.2 The role of decentralisation in the capital relocation debate

26Decentralisation is also referenced in a recent and intense debate surrounding the relocation of the capital from Juba to other places in South Sudan. The importance of this issue is reflected in the fact that the Transitional Constitution has been expanded by one article (GoSS 2011c, Article 50) to allow for the relocation of the capital from Juba to another city. All parties levy several arguments in order to justify their position, and the framing of the debate and means of argumentation are interesting in and of themselves, but would exceed the scope of this paper. Consequently, I focus only on the central concerns of the parties and the arguments connected to decentralisation. The GoSS is clearly in favour of relocating the capital, as they wish to build a “modern” capital city, a plan not possible in Juba. The GoSS wants a “modern capital” based on “a planned community as per international standards and modern urban planning”. The goal is to “engineer a planned social revolution led by sustained economic development that would become the hallmark of South Sudan in the next 200 years” (Ajak 2011a, 1–2). Two artist’s renderings of how the new capital city is envisioned are provided by Figures 2 and 3.

Figure 2: Outline of the new city with governmental buildings, residential and sports zone

Figure 2: Outline of the new city with governmental buildings, residential and sports zone

Source: Ajak 2011a, Annex 4.

  • 6  Tukuls are huts made from packed mud and straw. To the present, 83 per cent of the total populatio (...)
  • 7  96 per cent of all South Sudanese use firewood or charcoal as main fuel for cooking (Southern Suda (...)
  • 8  It is, of course, questionable whether such a city would be feasible anywhere in South Sudan.

27Obviously, such a city cannot realistically be implemented in Juba, where the existing layout of the city does not align with the planning pattern for the new modern capital. One of my interview partners (1) made precisely this point, saying that there is a need for a new capital if South Sudan wants to be modern because Juba is just not modern enough. Another interview partner (3) called the new planned capital an “electronic city”. In any case, it is difficult to deny that Juba cannot rapidly or easily be reformed to comply with the envisioned plan. Juba consists of a random mixture of tukuls6, shanty towns, and run-down shops combined with elaborate ministries, international compounds and restaurants. Some roads have been paved, but most are not, meaning that only 4x4 cars are able to manage. Those that can afford it keep water – which comes from the Nile, where much of the city’s garbage is thrown – in water tanks for daily use. The better-off also use generators, as most of the city is not connected to the power system, which itself functions only irregularly7. Juba has a strong rural character and lacks “modern” features, such as multi-storey buildings, sports stadiums, public gardens, and so on, of the proposed city plan.8

Figure 3: Plan of the future governmental zone of the new capital

Figure 3: Plan of the future governmental zone of the new capital

Source: Ajak 2011a, Annex 4.

  • 9  People commonly refer to their land rights with the phrase: “the land belongs to the people”. The (...)

28Furthermore, the GoSS sees the relocation of the capital as necessary to alleviate the existing tension between the GoSS and the Central Equatoria State (CES) regarding the city of Juba (Ajak 2011a, 2–3). A representative of the GoSS Ministry of Regional Cooperation (12) explained that the debate surrounding the relocation of the capital stems from the popular saying that the “land belongs to the people”,9 which contradicts the GoSS’ claims to the land. The GoSS asked CES for land, but, according to the GoSS, CES is unwilling to provide the GoSS with sufficient land. Decentralisation is highly relevant to this situation, as Juba cannot be the capital of South Sudan and CES at the same time. Some people (informal talks) stated that in a decentralised state, there is no space for a national capital, state capital, and county capital in the same city.

29With that in mind, where should the new capital be built? Garang proposed moving the capital to Rumshiel, which lies in the middle of South Sudan. This option, however, has been dismissed following a feasibility study that found the swampy nature of the terrain would be prohibitively challenging and costly for the construction of infrastructure (Ajak 2011a, 4, Annex 2). A recently-proposed area covers 19,000 km2, and lies partly in Central Equatoria, Eastern Equatoria, Jonglei, and Lakes (Ajak 2011a, 5). The government highlights several advantages of this location, including the economic and social benefits for the over 500,000 members of the indigenous communities. The construction of a new capital in this area would literally bring the towns to the people, envisioned by Garang (Ajak 2011a, 5 and 9). The GoSS has visualized this idea in a PowerPoint presentation (see Figure 4).

Figure 4: Visualization of “take the towns to the people” by the GoSS in the context of the relocation of the capital

Figure 4: Visualization of “take the towns to the people” by the GoSS in the context of the relocation of the capital

Source: Ajak 2011b.

30Whereas modernization seems to be the driving force behind the government’s plans to relocate the capital, the specter of “land grabbing”, for the local community, lies at the heart of the debate. The community of the Bari, which has traditionally lived in Juba, deplores the loss of their traditional land to the SPLM/A, GoSS, and/or Dinka, who allegedly illegally appropriated it for especially commercial reasons. Correspondingly, as the Bari wish to reclaim their land, or at least prevent further encroachment on the territory they retain, they support the relocation of the capital. As Bari communities would be affected and possibly further dispossessed of traditional territories by the selection of GoSS’ new site, the community is also opposed to the current proposal (Bari Community 2011; Bari Community in Diaspora 2011, informal talks).

31Arguments connected to decentralisation are utilized by all different parties to bolster demands in different ways. Interestingly, two of my non-Dinka interview partners clearly referenced Kokora in the context of the capital relocation debate. One (24) said that “the relocation of the capital is a renewal of Kokora, it is about fighting domination” while the other one (18) stated that “people say if the capital remains in Juba, the Dinka will come back and will continue to dominate as in the past” before Kokora. Both, a statement by the Bari (2011, 3) and a recent influential newspaper article (Paterno 2011) in which the issue of the capital is raised, extensively reference Kokora. Kokora is always mentioned in the context of Dinka domination, a situation which could assumingly be prevented by relocating the capital. The Bari people then argue that a real devolution of power has not taken place in Juba, as in other parts of the country, due to the presence of the GoSS. They argue that the GoSS interferes in the jurisdictions of the lower levels of government, especially the CES Government, undermining the authority of the CES (Bari Community 2011, 4–5).

32Interestingly, the Bari community has adopted Garang’s aphorism of “take the towns to the people”. They argue that the GoSS should focus on the equitable development of the ten states rather than developing excessive plans for the establishment of a huge and modern – as well as land intensive – capital that will profit only foreign investors. A relocation of the capital guided by the goal of equitable development will thus foster peace and harmony among the people of South Sudan. The Bari community stresses that they support the establishment of a capital in a new central location such that attendant development and investments may be distributed equally among all states (Bari Community 2011, 5–7). As explained by two representatives of Juba County (3 and 7), the County’s position on the relocation of the capital is based on the Bari people’s demands. The Deputy Governor of CES (13) dismissed the GoSS’ statement that CES is unwilling to provide them with land. He stated that CES has offered more land to the GoSS, but that the GoSS did not accept any of the suggestions. In sum, although the government of CES understands the people’s wariness of potential land grabbing, its position is that the government of CES and the GoSS should coexist in Juba. According to the government of CES, a compromise needs to be reached in consultations with local communities.

33Both the proliferation of counties and the capital relocation debate confirm the importance of self-rule along tribal lines to the South Sudanese, demonstrating how decentralisation may be used by the people in ways unintended by the government or the international community. Decentralisation may be interpreted as a right to self-rule – the right for non-interference by the GoSS – and to build an ethnically homogenous administrative unit. Additionally, the use of decentralisation-as-“take the towns to the people” as an argument for the establishment of a new “modern” capital was hardly foreseen by the international community. This shows how terms are adapted locally and that the government, the local population and the international community may not have the same thing in mind when talking about decentralisation.

3.3. Decentralisation as the appropriation of an abstract and distant state

34Within the broader debate regarding decentralisation in Africa, South Sudan is something of a special case. South Sudan’s history of war has prevented the emergence of state institutions that have developed in other African countries since their independence. Thus, Bierschenk and Olivier de Sardan’s (2003, 152, 158, and 167) description of the cumulative character of local political institutions, wherein decentralisation simply marks the introduction of one more political institution and facilitates “institution shopping”, has only limited explanatory power in the context of South Sudan. Quite simply, there are just fewer political institutions in South Sudan than other African contexts. That said, today’s movement towards decentralisation does not exist in a vacuum, but rather a local arena with more or less established actors and, an historical experience of decentralisation. Hahonou’s (2004, 70) contention that decentralisation allows for a local redistribution of power is borne out in South Sudan, but through processes connected to the general negotiations and power struggles over the character of the newly established state. The question as to the function of decentralisation within these ongoing negotiations is thus raised.

3.3.1 Legitimating exclusion from access to resouces

  • 10  For more information on the practice of “inventing tradition”, please refer to Section 3.1.

35Mamdani (1996, 26) explains that colonial rule bequeathed newly independent African countries two divisions – that between town and countryside and that between tribes. This bifurcated nature of the colonial state was created through the imposition of two forms of rule, direct and indirect. Direct rule was applied in towns, where, although everyone was subject to law, the “civilized” (non-natives) were granted both civil and political rights. Mamdani refers to this form of rule, based on the exclusion of native people from full citizenship, as “centralised despotism” (1996, 16–17). In contrast, indirect rule, as imposed in the countryside, is termed “decentralised despotism”. This practice was characterized by not only political, but civil, inequality, as each tribe was intended to have its own customary law and tribal or traditional leadership, based on either existing or invented authority (Mamdani 1996, 17).10 Thus, whereas direct rule, or centralised despotism, excluded natives from the “civil freedoms guaranteed to citizens”, indirect rule, or decentralised despotism, was thought to integrate natives into “a state-enforced customary order” (Mamdani 1996, 18). Consequently, the colonial powers left Africa not with European-style nation-states, but with a “multicultural and multiethnic state” model (Mamdani 1996, 287).

36Since then, however, Africa, in general, has wavered between centralisation policies designed to overcome ethnic division that risked exacerbating the urban-rural divide and decentralisation policies aimed at overcoming the urban-rural gap at the cost of further ethnic division. Neither policy, therefore can overcome what Mamdani refers to as the current “despotic” functioning of the state (Mamdani 1996, 26, 291). This observation seems highly applicable to South Sudan, where Garang’s vision of “taking the towns to the people”, clearly intended to overcome the urban-rural dichotomy, led to the interpretation of decentralisation as a form of self-rule based on tribal identities. Decentralisation is now used to claim resource rights for one’s own community at the exclusion of others. At this juncture, I want to emphasize that these disputes over resources and practices of exclusion are not somehow “African”, but human. The only difference between Africa and the West is that in the West these mechanisms of exclusion manifest along other forms of identity, such as the nation.

37Lykes Washburne (2010, 150) reasons that a significant section of South Sudan does not so much demand a representative government as one that is able to feed and educate them. In this way, decentralisation can improve the legitimacy of the government, as long as the local governments are able to paternalistically provide services. To this understanding of South Sudanese behaviour as rather passive, Allen and Schomerus (2010, 39) add that “[m]omentum for increased administrative fragmentation is developing at the same time as decision power is firmly held at the centre, creating a situation in which decentralisation [sic] seems to primarily signify a localised [sic] power grip over resources, rather than localised [sic] political decision-making”. In this reading, the South Sudanese are portrayed more actively. They grasp for resources and are, therefore, engaged in political discussions and/or competitions.

38While my data confirms their observation that, as people attempt to access resources such as jobs, money, and services through decentralisation, exploiting the state is a survival strategy in impoverished economic context, it also invites further conclusions. Although decentralisation has not (yet?) resulted in real local decision-making power, it still increases the influence of the community over the state. Decentralisation is a way to make the state more accessible, bringing it from the abstract to the concrete through increased connections with both physical localities and the community. Chabal (2009, 26–27), for instance, finds that literature on African politics always refers to ethnicity, but pays little attention to the importance of origin, or “location”, in the geographical sense. In the African context, places of birth and burial are of exceptionally strong significance to a person’s identity. Location, in terms of land, forms the environment where people grew up and became what they are today. Similarly, peoples’ origin myths also reference land and location, understood as the connection between the living and the dead, or ancestors. As a result, a particular geographical location forms the basis of a people’s belief system or religion (Chabal 2009, 27–29). For Chabal (2009, 27), “the place of origin is less a marker of ethnic identity than it is a marker of community”. This implies that “politics and politicians cannot be dissociated from their link to a concrete physical location, a place of origin to which they belong” (Chabal 2009, 30).

3.3.2 Localizing and personalizing the state

39To this argument I would add that decentralisation presents a unique opportunity to bind politics and the state to a particular location and community. Chabal (2009, 30) also refers to the relationship between location and community in order to explain the phenomenon of corruption, also known as patronage or clientelism. In short, as identity is so closely connected to location and community, politicians tend to be partial to their home communities. As such, in the context of community and a particular location, clientelism, wherein relationships are based on various forms of (often asymmetrical) reciprocity, has been traditionally understood as a legitimate governance practice. Such reciprocity constituted a way of holding chiefs accountable. Similarly, a chief’s behaviour was governed by a common moral framework which, as “[p]olitics and religion were of the same realm” (Chabal 2009, 93), bonded the community. In this context, chiefs personally embodied both power, the potential for coercion, and authority, the “force of persuasion” based on trust and wisdom.

40This personification of political governance meant that challenges to the chiefs’ authority also threatened their ability to exercise coercive power. The British practice of appointing, creating, and replacing chiefs, thus, broke this association between authority and power, as the chiefs’ coercive power was now understood as delegated by the colonizer. Communities were now able to bestow only trust and authority, rather than coercive power (Chabal 2009, 40). The form of governance most familiar to the South Sudanese thus traces back to these personal and local ties. A system of democracy and political representation that requires the transfer of power to a person in the absence of a direct reciprocal relationship and shared belief system, or common moral framework, thus often lacks persuasive power in the eyes of the people. Demands for governments to employ community members are a way of humanizing the state and integrating it into local structures. Relationships of reciprocity and social control do not exist with an abstract state, but rather with people whom are known and trusted. Thus, if an individual needs an identity card, for instance, he or she will not turn to the state, but to someone they know, and with whom they may engage in a form of social control via relationships.

  • 11  This personalization of government in South Sudan, in the context of British colonial rule, has be (...)

41Chabal (2009, 87) calls this form of participation “partaking”, which he defines as to simultaneously “take part in” and “make use of”. Partaking is the people’s way of dealing with politics in a context where formal political representation is limited or, I would add, unfamiliar. By referring to Mamdani’s (1996) distinction between citizens and subjects, Chabal (2009, 91) sees clientelism as a means of coping with “subjecthood” in a context where options for political representation are limited, as is the case of the, in effect, one party-system of South Sudan. Mamdani (1996, 20) refers to this phenomenon as “patrimonialism”, “a form of politics that restored an urban-rural link in the context of a bifurcated state” explaining (289) that “[w]here despotism is presumed, clientelism is the only noncoercive way of linking the rural and the urban”. Clientelism is a means of tying political representatives to a particular community and place, such that people may exercise an otherwise-lacking form of control. In many ways, this may be understood as a form of accountability.11

42Clientelism, just as decentralisation, is used as a tool to localize the state. Whereas clientelism binds politics and the state to the local through the officials at the centre being at the same time persons coming from certain locations, however, decentralisation brings the state to the local, where it may then become personalized. Processurally, then, decentralisation is the obverse of clientelism. While in the case of centralisation, the state manifests primarily at the centre and is bound to the local through clientelism, decentralisation creates an abundance of smaller state centres in the periphery which can be occupied by the communities at that location. As a result, decentralisation makes the state more accessible for people living far from the centre. Decentralisation is a means of localizing the abstract and distant state – it brings the state geographically closer, which allows the people to take the state over and occupy it physically. In other words, decentralisation is a form of self-rule that allows for a certain amount of control over the state by the people, thus serving to humanize it.

43So, Garang’s famous call to “take the town to the people” may stand for “bringing the state to the local, or community, and making it accessible”. Such a framing, however, implies that decentralisation does not change the way the state functions, such as, in this case, on a clientelist basis. Accordingly, if a centralised state does not bring peace and development and is not democratic or efficient, decentralisation is not a cure-all. Decentralisation only works to decentralise existing problems. Thus, when the state functions along clientelist networks, decentralisation will not dissolve them, or bring democratic governance, but act as a means of wresting control of contested resources away from the centre. At the local level, however, the resources will still be distributed on a clientelist base. Consequently, decentralisation does not change the way the state functions, but may provide peripheral areas with more resources. While this may be interpreted as a positive development, local distribution continues to occur according to a clientelist logic, and questions of equity and social justice are ignored. The only factors that change, therefore, are the categories of inclusion and exclusion. Without decentralisation, people would likely simply legitimate in- and exclusions with reference to other identities. Such practices, for instance, may manifest more along Mamdani’s rural-urban lines.

44In summary, decentralisation-as-self-rule may be understood as a particular model for the distribution of resources within the broader negotiations as to the nature of the South Sudanese state. Resource disputes appear along the lines of tribes, communities, or geographic location, underscored by a native-stranger, rather than for example a rural-urban, dichotomy. Furthermore, in a context where political representation is understood as the presence of one’s own community members within all posts of the government from the legislative and executive up to the formal administration, decentralisation should be seen as a means of localizing and personalizing the state, increasing community control over resources. Decentralisation thus makes it possible to integrate a distant and abstract state into the people’s local, community reality.


1  For this analysis, if it is note explicitly noted otherwise, I refer only to non-governmental interview partners. The sole exceptions to this practice are in the context of Kokora, and of the origin of the term “Payam”, where the perceptions are clearly more influenced by tribal affiliation, or perhaps also educational background, than with a governmental position.

2  Actually, these societies are not only acephalous, which refers to the lack of a central political authority (Sigrist [1967] 1979, 30), but also segmentary, as authors such as Lienhardt (1958), Evans-Pritchard (1940), and Sigrist ([1967] 1979) explain. Sigrist ([1967] 1979, 30) defines a segmentary society as a acephalous society based on politically coequal, multistage groups as their primary form of political organization. These segments are commonly known as clans and lineages. This does not imply that there are no authorities, but that no political or public authority could enforce its control through publicly accepted physical sanctions.

3  The same phenomenon also in the context of land, especially concerning internally displaces persons. However, as this topic is not regularly mentioned in the context of decentralisation, it will not be discussed here.

4  This is only a short description of the way in which these flexible identities became rigid and strict. For further information, please see Zain (1996) and Mamdani (2009).

5  It should be noted, however, that it is unclear whether the Dinka actually are one tribe. Lienhardt stresses that the people of the Dinka encompass twenty-five tribal groups, consisting again of several tribes (1958, 102). So, in this reading, the Dinka are not one, but many tribes.

6  Tukuls are huts made from packed mud and straw. To the present, 83 per cent of the total population of South Sudan lives in these traditional huts (Southern Sudan Centre for Census, Statistics and Evaluation 2010, 3).

7  96 per cent of all South Sudanese use firewood or charcoal as main fuel for cooking (Southern Sudan Centre for Census, Statistics and Evaluation 2010, 3)

8  It is, of course, questionable whether such a city would be feasible anywhere in South Sudan.

9  People commonly refer to their land rights with the phrase: “the land belongs to the people”. The Interim Constitution of Southern Sudan provides the following in Article 180(4): “All lands traditionally and historically held or used by local communities or their members shall be defined, held, managed and protected by law in Southern Sudan”.

10  For more information on the practice of “inventing tradition”, please refer to Section 3.1.

11  This personalization of government in South Sudan, in the context of British colonial rule, has been described at length by Collins and Herzog (1961, 124–125).

Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 2: Outline of the new city with governmental buildings, residential and sports zone
Crédits Source: Ajak 2011a, Annex 4.
Fichier image/png, 112k
Titre Figure 3: Plan of the future governmental zone of the new capital
Crédits Source: Ajak 2011a, Annex 4.
Fichier image/png, 133k
Titre Figure 4: Visualization of “take the towns to the people” by the GoSS in the context of the relocation of the capital
Crédits Source: Ajak 2011b.
Fichier image/jpeg, 668k


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