Home | Comment & Analysis    Tuesday 26 April 2011

Don’t blame federalism for tribalism

By Dr. Justin Ambago Ramba.

April 26, 2011 — I do not intend to write much on the details of the Equatoria Conference that took place in Juba lately, because I simply don’t know much about it. And although being from Equatoria I intend to approach this very topic here in a way that will only represent my personal and political views which others regardless of where they come from will have to agree or disagree for what I write and not where I come from. This said, the conference have so far already attracted criticisms from those who disapprove of it, to those who saw no need for it at this particular time. But of course you want to know what I would say for probably you are already acquainted with what the others had to say. So you are welcome on board.

The quest for a federal system of governance out dates the resent Equatoria Conference as we should all rightly know that it was what our fathers requested for in 1947 when the ‘Closed District Act’ was finally repealed and South Sudan became part of the united Sudan for the past sixty years or so. Today in 2011 South Sudan remains a multinational society, where the maintenance of our different heritages remains issues of contention.

What I read from the other critics has to do with the call for a federal system of government in the emerging independent republic of South Sudan. There is already a criticism that a federal system will be a recipe for tribalism and thus preventing the evolvement of our new nation into a unified people. Others say that such a system would lead to regionalism or may even fail to offer equal development in the country.

However the truth of the matter is—and experience has been the teacher—that some ‘federal’ systems fail, some do not;...some inhibit economic growth, some do not;...some promote a great measure of civil liberty, some do not; some are highly adaptive, some are not...whatever their condition at any one time...it is rarely clear that it is so because of their federalness, or the particular character of their federal institutions, or the special way they practice federalism, or in spite of their federalness.

If the above analysis is right, then federalism may be associated in some cases with a rise in the frequency and intensity of ethnic problems and in other cases with a decline in the frequency and intensity of such problems. That is, no consistent relationship would exist between federalism and the rise or decline of ethnic problems.

Although federalism continues to be viewed by some leaders of minority groups in Africa as a solution to, and by some leaders of majority groups as a cause of, such problems, the preponderance of scholarly work on this issue in Africa and elsewhere supports the above facts, i.e., it suggests that federalism is not consistently related to the promotion or settlement of ethnic problems. So why would people advocate or oppose something which has not proved to consistently cause or solve ethnic problems?

There is much to help us contend that federalism’s impact has never been consistently harmful: “the Nigerian evidence shows that federalism can either exacerbate or mitigate ethnic conflict. Much depends on the number of component states in a federation, their boundaries, and their ethnic composition.

At the start of the Second Republic the new Nigerian federal framework...utilized all five mechanisms of conflict reduction.... First, the proliferation of states /dispersed some of the conflict into more parochial forums. Second, the new states provided arenas in which intra-ethnic conflict might also occur. Third, a result of this was to enhance the position of some political parties at the expense of others, especially in the North, paving the way for greater inter-ethnic cooperation in the all-Nigerian arena. Fourth, as the new states fought to advance their interests, a few non-ethnic issues and actors were also introduced. And, fifth, the separate state bureaucracies provided career opportunities for groups not well represented in the federal civil service, probably what the Equatoria Conference aims to achieve.

However because we in south Sudan like anywhere else in Africa are obsessed with ethnicity there will be a strong urge to discuss what others may refer to as the “Ethnic Problems” under federal system.

The impreciseness in the concept of “ethnic problems” derives from the diversity of meanings given to both words in the expression. In many cases

It can be noted that the concept of conflict is contested. “The main distinction is between those who advocate a broad definition of conflict, including both latent and manifest conflict, and those who advocate a narrow definition encompassing only manifest conflict….Our definition is…simply… ‘perceived divergence of interest’….A national conflict, then, involves conflict between two or more nation-groups. Our use of the word “problems” corresponds to broad definition of conflict, i.e., one including both manifest and latent forms.

Although such conflict involves many possible issues, the distinguishing feature is the adjective which precedes it.

It can be argued further that the term ‘ethnic conflict’ covers a wide range of situations. In fact, it might be argued that ethnic conflict as such does not exist. What does exist is social, political and economic conflict between groups of people who identify each other in ethnic terms: colour, race, religion, language, national origin.

Very often such ethnic characteristics as mentioned above may mask other distinguishing features, such as class interests and political power, which on analysis may turn out to be the more important elements in the conflict. Still, when ethnic differences are used consciously or unconsciously to distinguish the opposing actors in a conflict situation—particularly when they become powerful mobilizing symbols, as is so often the case—then ethnicity does become a determining factor in the nature and dynamic of the conflict.

We south Sudanese should know better throughout our short history together, that “the phenomenon of ethnicity....has been used to cover a range of types of political conflict that are differentiated not merely by the dynamics of competition between rival groups but also by the very significance of ethnicity itself....The reality is that the same label is used here as an umbrella for a great diversity of types of conflict.”

I am not claiming here that I know it all however some sense can still be made of the relationship between federalism and ethnic problems if we focus on (a) the general phenomenon of which both federalism and ethnic groups are manifestations and (b) their use as political tools.

Federalism is one mechanism for the distribution of power within a political system; ethnic problems are the outcome of competition among groups representing different types of identity. The distribution of power can be used for a variety of purposes, as can identity. Just as a carpenter can use tools to produce many different products, so can those who manipulate the distribution of power and employ identity. The tool may marginally affect what can be built, but what is built depends more on the intentions and skills of those able to use the tool.

So to link ethnic problems when they can even exist under unitary centralised systems of governance and blame it on federalism is just bull shit. Federalism serves the purpose it is meant to achieve, and that is the distribution of power. However in the absence of accountability, transparency, rule of law, freedom of press, multipartysm and the respect to Human Rights ……in the absence of democracy any system fails, call it whatever.

The author: Dr. Justin Ambago Ramba. Secretary General - United South Sudan Party (USSP). He can be reached at: justinramba@aol.co.uk or justinramba@doctors.net.uk