The New Nation of South Sudan cannot afford cultural exclusion

(Juba, South Sudan) – South Sudan, without a doubt, will become one of the most ethno-culturally diverse countries of the world. We have over 67 major ethnic nationalities in this young country of some 8-10 million people. These groups have many similarities and dissimilarities in the field of cultural practices such as marriage systems, folkloric arts, livelihoods and means of production, religious traditions and a variety of other areas of socio-cultural, political, and economic life. But while we undoubtedly hail from such disparate regions as the plains of Bahr el-Ghazal, the swamps of Upper Nile, the hills of Eastern and Central Equatoria and thick forests of Western Equatoria, there is no question that we all have one thing in common. We all belong to a single polity called South Sudan and it belongs to all of us. This sounds obvious, but belonging to a nation comes with rights and obligations. We have a long history of oneness, be it the shared negative experiences of slavery, colonization, exclusion from distribution of the national cake, political marginalization, disdain for our cultural identity by Khartoum’s successive governments, forced Arabicization and Islamicization, or our collective struggle against this external domination, a struggle that spanned 191 years, which will now culminate in independence. The trick is now how to take our anticipated transformation and turn it into a sense of nationhood, a guarantee for citizenship rights, and source of pride for us all.


There are several things that we, the political leadership, the civil service, and civil society, can do to make the dream of nationhood possible. We can start with an effort to avoid the usual temptation in emerging states to think of development, infrastructure, and delivery of services as more important than a project to create a citizenry that is loyal to the nation. This is a political project that aims to cultivate a culture of dialogue between the citizens and their government. The need to respond to the expectations of our people to receive these services as the peace dividend is extremely important, but it is crucial to underline the fact that our success in serving our citizens hinges upon the recognition of the importance of culture as the ingredient that forms a nation. We need to recognize that nation-building and state-building are related but are two different projects, and that the idea of nation-building is a concern of everyone throughout South Sudan.


To forge a collective national identity, so that the citizens are able to see their citizenship in the nation as more important than citizenship in ethnic nationalities, it is important to view cultural diversity as an asset and must be put to use in order to build a colorful nation in such a way that each one of us sees him or herself as part of the body politics. To do this, our nation has to be inclusive in its promotion of our cultural heritage. We need to be reflective on our recent past so we do not forget that cultural marginalization was among the main reasons for the long liberation wars we have fought with the north. We must not go in for the same practices that had driven us out of the union with the north. We must be conscious of our diversity in policy decisions that we make every day, so that no citizen or ethnic group feels unrepresented.


With the realization that all nations are made, not born, now is our chance to demonstrate to the world that ethno-cultural diversity does not have to be a liability that it has become in many countries of the world, including our own old Sudan. To practice policies of inclusivity, our new nation has to celebrate our various cultural practices and do so equitably on a national stage. For example, the national media outlets have to produce cultural programs that reflect the cultural mix that makes up South Sudan. All our cultures have to be considered national cultures, to be promoted, displayed and celebrated equitably in museums, archives, memorials, cultural centers, music, film, arts, and educational curriculum. Failure to recognize this important practice can only lead to citizens’ discontent, and eventually produce ethnic discord and risking civil wars, as some ethnic groups develop a feeling of marginalization.  Our own history has revealed that exclusionary practices such as the ones practiced by Khartoum are unsustainable and can cause break up of countries. Domination of the national platform by certain ethnic groups at the expense of others can only produce citizens who give no loyalty to the nation. And for a country that suffers a legacy of discord and political violence, South Sudan has to embark on a project of reconciliation, and cultural diversity is one strong area that contributes to either conflict when it is poorly managed or stability when cultural commonalities are celebrated and differences recognized. But beyond culture, there are other diversities that have to be put into account if the aim of nation-building is to construct a stable and harmonious society. The other differentials that need to be noted and included in this project are gender, age, and professions.


From the traditional cultural perspective, these differentials have the tendency to negatively affect these groups. It does not take long before cultural marginalization translates into exclusion from services, jobs and citizenship rights.


*Dr. Jok Madut Jok is J. Randolph Senior Fellow, United States Institute of Peace. He’s also Undersecretary at the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, Government of Southern Sudan. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.



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