By Kuir ë Garang
June 20, 2019 (SSNA) — This article addresses some issues in Dr. Nyaba’s article, Letting the Cat out: Jieng Dinka Attempt to Impose Hegemony and Domination in South Sudan!! [SSN, June 03, 2019]. Note that this is not a rebuttal to the central idea of the article but a reminder about some arguments that risk undermining our collective fight against political and tribalized totalitarianism in South Sudan.
Essentially, there are many fundamental sociopolitical issues all conscientious South Sudanese can agree on. Certainly, the Jiëëng elites, especially the infamous JCE, are to blame for most of the problems in South Sudan since 2013. It’s equally reasonable to argue that these Jiëëng elites have a chauvinistic attitude they’ve tried and continue to impose on the multiplicity of tribal nationalities in the country. All conscientious Jiëëng intellectuals would agree with this. While different ethnic communities have committed heinous atrocities against one another, it is still reasonable to put the blame on the Jiëëng community (minimally) and JCE especially because of power imbalance and strategic positionality in the structures of power and leadership machinery.
Other unproblematic issues are the questions of land, tribal marginalization and persecution of those whose views diverge from the official narrative. A nation of a single opinion is what JCE would want to institutionalize into our national consciousness.
So, admittedly, the ideological state apparatuses (ISAs) as Marxist theorist, Louis Althusser, would call them, are guided by Jiëëng elites and operationalized by a militarist tradition staffed mostly by Jiëëng military officers. “But there are other tribes in the army, the government and all the law enforcement agencies!” someone might say. Yes! But there is this thing.
Yes, this: I would see the tokenized non-Jiëëng elites and officers as ineffective survivalists. Indeed, the superstructure informing the ruling national consciousness is informed by Jiëëng elite’s ideas because of the legacy of SPLM/SPLA and the manner in which state-building materialized (or failed) in the hands of men and women who got lost in the sea of petro-dollars between 2005 and 2012.
As a confession, I have in the past questioned the silence of these non-Jiëëng officials and military officers; however, I have come to understand that hegemony, as Antonio Gramsci tells us, can work by consensus. There are cases in which people are dominated with their consent either because they have been forced into silence, or they have been duped to accept the ruling narratives as the ultimate truth. So I would tell Dr. Nyaba that hegemony doesn’t have to be imposed.
So far, these are the issues on which I can say I agree with Dr. Nyaba.
Moral Responsibility of a Writer
However, there is something that we, as writers, need to answer. Do we write for the sake of writing? Do we write because we feel good writing the things we write regardless of their moral content? Reasonable writers would say that a writer must have a message and a social responsibility. Some writers even write for social justice; to ‘speak truth to power’ as Edward Said argued in Orientalism. So, admittedly, we have a social and a moral responsibility, I take it. However, Dr. Nyaba, as an imminent intellectual and elder in our community sometimes seems to forget the ethics of his writing. It is one thing to criticize JCE because this monstrous tribal organization has done a lot to harm us and destroy the country.
However, we have an ethical responsibility not to blur the line between Jiëëng as a community and JCE as a chauvinistic lobbying group with vested interests. A quote below confuses Nyaba’s message. Is this meant for Jiëëng community or Jiëëng chauvinists?
“Not that many of us didn’t know the consequences of this Jieng parochial vanity, but we’d hoped the logic and imperatives of constructing a state in modern times would impel prudence on the part of these Jieng chauvinists to prevent backward drift towards savagery.” (emphasis mine)
JCE works for its members not Jiëëng as a community and that should be clearly stated by any serious writer. Nyaba’s part quoted above makes no such attempt. If JCE worked for the interest of Jiëëng and for Jiëëng to dominate as a community, then how come they don’t stop the bloody internal conflicts in the former Lakes state and between Apuk, Aguok and Awan of former Warrap state? How come they’ve not developed any Jiëëng towns? It’s our moral responsibility to make distinctions as writers.
No reasonable Jiëëng intellectual would defend what JCE has done even if we understand that they have their right to exist. While Dr. Nyaba doesn’t necessarily blame Jiëëng as a community, his writing doesn’t make matters clear and it’s his responsibility as a writer to strike an unequivocal sense of moral clarity.
Archaic, Colonialist and Anthropological Language
It is reasonable to argue that unhelpful and dangerous ideologies need to be discarded or reformed. However, it is sad to see that Dr. Nyaba is using the same language and state of mind 18th and 19th century racist European anthropologists used in rationalizing African sociopolitical and socioeconomic realities. They generalized and denigrated Africans before studying them. The use of archaic anthropological terms like ‘primitive’ is both unfortunate and worrying. What exactly does ‘primitive’ mean in this sense? Does it mean useless, outdated, or does it simply mean inappropriate for our time? Dr. Nyaba owes his readers an explanation.
In a way, this reminds me of what Kwesi Prah said in Beyond the Color Line about African elite who adopt European attitude toward fellow Africans. ‘It accepts,’ Prah writes, ‘the ideology of primitivism of African culture and removes itself away from its historical belonging.’ Calling fellow South Sudanese ways ‘primitive’ is to fit into what Fanon calls colonial and racist pre-set framework. For someone like me, Collo, Jiëëng , Nuer and other tribal nationalities have something to learn from one another instead of amplifying conflictual climates.
Besides, the manner in which acephalous communities are rationalized in the article is both misleading and archaic. ‘As an acephalous society …’ Dr. Nyaba writes, ‘the Jieng [sic] are in a state of perpetual segmentation and therefore never evolved a tradition of indigenous statehood or centralized authority.’ From the outset, this assumes that tribal nationalities with centralized tribal authorities (like Zande & Collo) have no ‘perpetual fragmentation.’ This flies on the face of historical facts. So, the quote either means Dr. Nyaba doesn’t understand how acephalous communities operate or he’s being intentionally misleading for I don’t think someone of his caliber doesn’t know.
Essentially, statehood and government of the people are social constructs not naturally occurring realities. There was a reason for which people decided to come together as a collective community. Statehood is not a natural necessity but an instrument that can be used to govern people. However, some communities developed a way in which they can govern themselves without making one man as ‘the know all.’ Societal government, whether understood in a Hobbesian sense or in a Rousseauean sense, presupposes an idea meant to deal with a human problem: conflict. A centralized authority is not a necessity if there is a way to govern society. In the west now, too much centralized government, referred pejoratively as statism, is frowned upon. Some even call for its abolition.
Truly, Nyaba’s primitivist denigration is the same conceptual mistake anthropologists used to make until they studied the traditions of the so-called acephalous communities. These communities are socially egalitarian (but mostly value personal autonomy) and regard social norms and traditions as sufficient to govern the people. Even the term ‘acephalous’ wildly assumes that a ‘head’ of the community is a natural necessity.
This is an erroneous conceptualization that has been discarded even by anthropologists. When Europeans anthropologists met the Collo or Zande people, they noted that they had kings, so they immediately associated with that sociopolitical reality because they had Kings in Europe. However, when they met the likes of Nuer and Jiëëng, who had no kings, they assumed that these people have no concept of organization, so they considered them anarchic. Not until they conscientiously studied these communities did they realize that the system of kingship is unnecessary for these people. As David Ronfeldt writes, ‘a tribe’s members are deemed roughly equal to each other. The aim is not so much absolute equality as respect for individual autonomy, especially the autonomy of individual households.’
In the same vein, late Dr. Wal Duany, in Neither Palaces Nor Prison, echoes this invisible organizational and governance structure as Douglas Johnson calls them: “..Persons are divided among political units without any single administrative hierarchy of officials and without any single person to direct all of common affairs of the society. Although Nuer lack the machinery of centralized government, this does not lead to mere anarchy and indiscriminate violence. There are regulative ideas at work-being acted upon which are constitutive of a way of life.”
Primitive Mode of Production
Most of Africa is using the pre-capitalist mode of production so I’m not sure why the Marxist phrase ‘primitive mode of production’ should be restricted to Jiëëng. And I am not sure how pastoralism is a primitive mode of production and farming using rudimentary farm equipment not a ‘primitive mode of production’. During colonization in Rwanda, Tutsis, who were mostly nomadic, were wrongly regarded as more ‘civilized’ than the Hutus, who were farmers. So, Dr. Nyaba’s use of pastoral life of Jiëëng to explain the madness in Juba is both regrettable and worrying.
In that case, the statements below make no coherent contribution to our critique of JCE:
‘The reason is simple; being a backward class, in terms of primitive mode of production, they didn’t plough into productive enterprises the billions of dollars they stole; instead they stashed it in foreign lands in the forms of real estate, cash in banks, luxurious cars or froze this money in form of cattle.’
Remember, some of these so-called elders are politicians and ‘intellectuals’ so assuming that they are in tune with the Jiëëng’s sociocultural way of life is preposterous at best or ignorant at worst. The JCE men have more in common with Dr. Nyaba than they have with the average Jiëëng in the villages in terms of their socialization. And most of the internal fighting among some Jiëëng communities is fueled by Juba politicians.
The cultural and experiential dissonance between self-styled ‘elders’ in Juba and the actual way of life of Jiëëng is considerable and a well-meaning writer cannot ignore that. Throughout postcolonial Africa, post-independent leaders turned from liberators-to-oppressors.
These compradors, as Marxists would call them, or ‘nationalist bourgeoisie’ as Fanon calls them, are a grand problem in Africa. We should unite to excise these cancerous elements in our society rather than make arguments that undermine the unity of all conscientious South Sudanese.
There is no doubt that the current tribal government in Juba needs to be dismantled and an inclusive one put in place. We also need to work against any chauvinistic attitude in the country, especially among the Jiëëng who assume that they ‘liberated’ the country, to fashion a sense of ‘South Sudaneseness.” Those of us who read history carefully know that the first liberation war was initiated and run mostly by Equatorians. We also know that the first two battalions of the SPLA [104, 105 & Tiger and Timsah) were mostly Nuer. Not until Koryom, did the Jiëëng start to have large numbers in the SPLA liberation struggle. So, history is there to correct pernicious revisionists.
However, we need to be responsible as writers so that we don’t spread the same disease we are trying to cure. People like Daniel Awet Akot cannot even sing the national anthem. Remember, South Sudan would be a better place if these JCE people used Jiëëng traditional values. So, blaming Jiëëng way of life and values instead of attacking the vile way in which they are being subverted by JCE is something any respectable South Sudanese intellectual should avoid. Using a tribal language in the process of fighting tribalism is both an ethical and a logical contradiction.
Kuir ë Garang is a PhD student at York University, Toronto. He’s the author of South Sudan Ideologically. Follow him on Twitter @Kuirthiy or www.kuirthiy.com