Southern Communities

Sudan Table of Contents

In preindependence Sudan, most southern communities were small, except for the large conglomerate of Nilotes, Dinka, and Nuer who dominated the Bahr al Ghazal and the Aali an Nil provinces and the Azande people of Al Istiwai Province. During the condominium, the colonial administration imposed stronger local authority on the communities. It made local leaders chiefs or headmen and gave them executive and judicial powers--tempered by local councils, usually of elders--to administer their people, under the scrutiny of a British district commissioner. As in the north, the relatively fluid relationships and boundaries among southern Sudanese became more stabilized.

There is no systematic record of how independence, civil war, and famine have affected the social order of southern peoples. The gradual incorporation of southerners into the national system--if only as migrant laborers and as local craftpeople--and increased opportunities for education have, however, affected social arrangements, ideas of status, and political views.

An educated elite had emerged in the south, and in 1991, some members of this elite were important politicians and administrators at the regional and national levels; however, other members had emigrated to escape northern discrimination. How the newer elite was linked to the older one was not clear. Secular chieftainships had been mostly gifts of the colonial authorities, but the sons of chiefs took advantage of their positions to get a Western education and to create family ties among local and regional elites.

Southern Sudan's development of an elite based on education and government office was facilitated by the absence of an indigenous trading and entrepreneurial class, who might have challenged the educated elite. Southern merchants were mostly Arabs or others of nonsouthern origin. In addition, the south lacked the equivalent of the northern Muslim leaders of religious orders, who also might have claimed a share of influence. Instead of several elites owing their status and power to varied sources and constituencies, the south developed an elite that looked for its support to persons of its own ethnic background and to those who identified with the south's African heritage. It was difficult to assess in the early 1990s, however, whether the civil war still allowed any elite southerners to gain much advantage.

In traditional Nilotic society clans were of two kinds. One kind, a minority but a large one, consisted of clans whose members had religious functions and furnished the priests of subtribes, sections, and sometimes of tribes. These priests have been called chiefs or masters of the fishing spear, a reference to the ritual importance of that instrument. Clans of the other kind were warrior groupings. The difference was one of function rather than rank. A spearmaster prayed for his people going to war or in other difficult situations and mediated between quarreling groups. He could function as a leader, but his powers lay in persuasion, not coercion. A spearmaster with a considerable reputation for spiritual power was deferred to on many issues. In rare cases--the most important was that of the Shilluk--one of the ritual offices gained influence over an entire people, and its holder was assigned the attributes of a divine king.

A special religious figure--commonly called a prophet--has arisen among some of the Nilotic peoples from time to time. Such prophets, thought to be possessed by a sky spirit, often had much wider influence than the ritual officeholders, who were confined to specific territorial segments. They gained substantial reputations as healers and used those reputations to rally their people against other ethnic groups and sometimes against the Arabs and the Europeans. The condominium authorities considered prophets subversive even when their message did not apparently oppose authority, and suppressed them.

Another social pattern common to the Nilotes was the age-set system. Traditionally, males were periodically initiated into sets according to age; with the set, they moved through a series of stages, assuming and shedding rights and responsibilities as the group advanced in age. The system was closely linked to warfare and raiding, which diminished during the condominium. In modern times the civil war and famine further undermined the system, and its remnants seemed likely to fade as formal education became more accessible.

Historically, the Dinka have been the most populous Nilotic people, so numerous that social and political patterns varied from one tribal group to another. Among the Dinka, the tribal group was composed of a set of independent tribes that settled in a continuous area. The tribe, which ranged in size from 1,000 to 25,000 persons, traditionally had only two political functions. First, it controlled and defended the dry season pastures of its constituent subtribes; second, if a member of the tribe killed another member, the issue would be resolved peacefully. Homicide committed by someone outside the tribe was avenged, but not by the tribe as a whole. The colonial administration, seeking equitable access to adequate pasturage for all tribes, introduced a different system and thus eliminated one of the tribe's two responsibilities. In postindependence Sudan, the handling of homicide as a crime against the state made the tribe's second function also irrelevant. The utilization and politicization of ethnic groups as units of local government have supported the continuation of tribal structures into the 1990s; however, the tribal chiefs lacked any traditional functions, except as sage advisers to their people in personal and family matters. In the contemporary period, some attempts have been made to transform these ethnic tribal structures in order to produce a national or at least a greater subnational identity. For instance, in the early formation of the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), one of the main ideological tenets was the need to produce a new nonnorthern riverine area solidarity based on the mobilization of diverse ethnic groups in deprived areas. Although its success has been limited, to achieve this new sense of solidarity it has attempted to recruit not only southerners, but also the Fur, Funj, Nuba, and Beja communities.

The subtribes were the largest significant political segments, and they were converted into subchiefdoms by the colonial government. Although the subchiefs were stripped of most of their administrative authority during the Nimeiri regime (1969-85) and replaced by loyal members of the Sudan Socialist Union, the advice of subchiefs was sought on local matters. Thus, a three-tiered system was created: the traditional authorities, the Sudanese civil service, and the political bureaucrats from Khartoum. During the 1980s, this confused system of administration dissolved into virtual anarchy as a result of the replacement of one regime by another, civil war, and famine. In the south, however, the SPLM created new local administrative structures in areas under its control. In general, thus, although severely damaged, the traditional structure of Nilotic society remained relatively unchanged. Loyalties to one's rural ethnic community were deeply rooted and were not forgotten even by those who fled for refuge to northern urban centers.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress