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SOUTH SUDAN: Traditional Authority Seeks Its Place

Skye Wheeler

TONJ, Oct 2 2008 (IPS) - A lion attempted to devour Dinka chief Makom Majong Makom once. It was during the long years of Sudan's north-south conflict that also saw a militia attack nearly destroy his rural South Sudanese community.

Chiefs in South Sudan are trying to re-assert their authority in the new order. Credit:  Skye Wheeler/IPS

Chiefs in South Sudan are trying to re-assert their authority in the new order. Credit: Skye Wheeler/IPS

The chief shot the animal as it leapt on top of him.

Makom sees his survival as a result of inherited power. His great-great-grandfather was one of tens of thousands of Southerners sold into slavery in the 17th century. But at the end of his life he managed to make his way back home from the depths of Europe.

"The spirit power is great. We still believe in it," Makom said, matter-of-factly showing the deep scar the lion left on his neck.

Makom's paternal line is a succession of spearmasters. These are the Dinka's traditional spiritual leaders, responsible for the well-being of a community that used to be firmly under their control.

This inherited power is how his father still cures sick members of their community. And Makom believes this power is central to his authority as president of a traditional court, although his job is very different from his predecessors'.

"(Before) the spearmaster could work freely because he was a man of god. This was before the people worshipped the government as the new system," Makom described, explaining that fear of a spearmaster's curse kept the community in order. But government arrived with Anglo-Egyptian rule in the late 19th century and later the Dinka wrote their Wanh Alel law code, introducing fines and imprisonment.

The chief-judges became crucial parts of colonial government.

Like all the other chiefs attending a meeting of traditional authority in South Sudan's Warrap State at the end of September, Makom wore a hat. His was bright red and sparkled. Others had more traditional khaki safari hats or fake-fur Russian-style ones or cowboy hats, embroidered caps and even the occasional Moroccan fez.

All the chiefs were looking for clarity from the South's three-year-old government as to what their roles will be now, whether and how they will be paid and to form a council to strengthen their position, still uncertain, in peacetime.

The first government

Chiefs are respected in South Sudan. Politicians rely on them as key links to their far-flung ethnic communities and will likely be looking to strengthen bonds with them further before national elections set for next year.

"Historically the chiefs were the government, in the Greek sense of the word, the kind of governance where everybody is involved," Dr. Alfred Lokuji, a Southern political scientist, said. "And today they are still the first interaction with government: most of the population is rural."

During the long civil war, chiefs kept rural communities together and also collected food and recruits for the South's large army.

But their judicial role was challenged by fierce military courts set up by the rebels and respect for their positions weakened as the South steadily filled with Kalashnikovs and the new power that came with them to every owner, no matter how young. The chiefs believed they would be reinstituted when the rebellion was over.

"(And) we were told we would be paid when peace comes. We expected that this would happen at the same time as the soldiers began to be paid," said Joseph Brown Lomose, paramount chief of the Kakwa.

They were also to be custodians of the culture that the southern rebels fought to protect from Khartoum's attempt to spread Islam. In their courts and leadership, they would keep alive the fire of traditional laws and customs.

But a Local Government law that would give the chiefs clearer judicial and administrative roles as the lowest level of government with salaries, still has not been passed.

A 2005 peace deal ended Sudan's north-south conflict, giving South Sudan a share in Sudan's oil revenues and its own semi-autonomous government including a judiciary, separate from the legislative body and the executive.

South Sudan's President Salva Kiir told the Warrap chiefs it was this judiciary, not the executive arm of the government, which had taken power away from the chiefs.

"Matters are being taken up by judges that are supposed to be addressed by the chiefs who know about what is happening to their people," Kiir said, explaining that in this way the chiefs have been sidelined as administrators of justice even on family problems.

A short-staffed judiciary with limited capacity (many lawyers were trained in Khartoum and the South now rejects Shariah Law) has led to other problems as well. "The chiefs should be empowered to deal with cases that are about their own community," Nicodemo Arou Man, from the Local Government Board, said. "There is confusion, a feeling the chiefs are too mild, but the judiciary also delay cases."

One chief at the conference said there were 53 remand prisoners who had waited months for their murder trials in the new judicial system.

Differences between how these judges work and traditional authority has also caused some stress. "For example, instead of trying to make reconciliation between married couples, they will just give them a divorce," Makom said disapprovingly.

Tension between old and new

Chiefs will have to look to the South's government for help in disarming the large proportion of the civilian population that carry guns. Cattle raiding, often between tribes and clans, has killed thousands since the 2005 accord and deprived areas of much-needed development and destroyed relations between communities.

But although chiefs need the cleanup to be able to control the war-affected youth, prior patchy disarmament efforts have left some communities totally vulnerable to attack and chiefs angry with central government. While they desperately want their positions in government to be clearly set out, the chiefs also need some kind of autonomy to be able to do their job properly.

Chiefs used to take a cut from the poll tax they collected, rather than a government salary, thus retaining some freedom. "(But) the revenues are too small now to cover the chief's salaries and some development," Man said, explaining that government will have to foot the bill, even though with the new legislation all the chiefs will again start collecting tax. He hopes that as the South develops, chiefs will slowly go back to getting reparation from the community rather than from above, giving them more autonomy.

Lokuji believes this autonomy is essential for the chiefs to remain true representatives of their communities. "The bad thing that could happen is that the chiefs become just extensions of government rather than playing a role in their own right."

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