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SUDAN: Re-empowering the Southern chiefs
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Dec 22, 2010 - 5:41:09 AM

SUDAN: Re-empowering the Southern chiefs

Hail to the chiefs: local administrators are seen as key players in Southern Sudan’s hybrid justice system
KUAJOK , 22 December 2010 (IRIN) - The guest list was impressive for the mere inauguration of a conference hall. But the presence of a US ambassador, the state governor and other senior officials bore testament to the recognition that chiefs have a key role to play in conflict resolution in Warrap State and in Southern Sudan’s hybrid justice system.

Of the 10 states in Southern Sudan, Warrap is not only one of the poorest but also among the worst affected by inter-communal violence.

In a single incident in January 2010, for example, 140 people were killed in a cattle raid and several thousand head of livestock were stolen.

Such raids, and less deadly disputes between different communities and individuals, create a huge demand for mechanisms to deliver compensation, punitive justice and forums for the negotiated return of stolen property.

Chiefs – in effect the most local of government administrators – were given such duties by Sudan’s colonial powers, working at the lower end of a judicial hierarchy that combined elements of both customary and statutory law.

But during the decades of civil conflict that followed Sudan’s independence in 1956, and which continued with only one interruption until 2005, the more formal legal system collapsed almost entirely in the South, and the ability of chiefs to dispense justice and resolve disputes was severely compromised amid the fog of war.


Yet in many parts of Southern Sudan, chiefs’ courts are the only functioning part of the judicial system. According to a recent report by the Rift Valley Institute and the United States Institute for Peace, they are “accessible, well-known, efficient, and relatively cheap, ensuring that basic access to justice is surprisingly good in the general context”.

“People frequently express preference for just such negotiated, flexible settlements [provided in chiefs’ courts] that take into account the particular social contexts of disputes, rather than any rigid application of written laws,” the report stated.

Since coming into being after the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, the government of Southern Sudan, currently semi-autonomous but likely to be fully independent after a referendum in January has been working, notably through the 2009 Local Government Act, to resurrect and strengthen a legal system in which chiefs and their courts play a crucial part.

With the opening of the conference hall in Kuajok, capital of Warrap, chiefs finally have a physical space, paid in part from their own salaries, where their Council of Traditional Authority Leaders can meet to discuss pressing issues and share ideas about the dispensation of local justice.

Photo: UN Photo/Tim McKulka
Several thousand head of livestock were stolen in a single incident in January in Warrap State (file photo)
Reconciliation role

“In 2010, Warrap was hit harder than most by internal communal violence,” Barrie Walkley, the US Consul-General in Southern Sudan, told IRIN at the inauguration. “And chiefs need to have a big role in reconciliation efforts.”

Jok Madut Jok, a professor of history at an American university, originally from Warrap state and a seasoned analyst on the dynamics of conflict in his country, echoed this view.

“Chiefs are important as custodians of tradition,” says Jok, who is now serving as an under-secretary in the Southern government’s Ministry of Culture. “They have an understanding of leadership that is based on their closeness to the people. The government regards them as a bridge between rural people and the central government.”

“As a chief, you have to understand the things that lead to disagreement, that potentially result in crimes,” Executive Chief Goon Madol Goon from Gogrial West County, said, citing issues within families over dowry and adultery as frequent cases he adjudicates in his local customary court.

Importance of tradition

“As head of the Warrap state government, I’m aware that traditional authorities are important,” said Warrap State Governor Nyandeng Malek, the only woman to serve in such a role.

“We should give them their rights back in order to fight for human rights,” she said, pledging to work closely with the more than 800 chiefs across Warrap to promote peace and stability before and after the referendum.

Del Rumdeng, part of the Southern government’s Local Government Board, said chiefs had a duty to “prevent and resolve tribal conflicts by applying peaceful customary law and traditional conflict resolution mechanisms and mediation”.


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