Violence, Sacrifice and Chiefship in Central Equatoria, Southern Sudan

By Leonardi, Cherry | Africa, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Violence, Sacrifice and Chiefship in Central Equatoria, Southern Sudan


Leonardi, Cherry, Africa


ABSTRACT

This article explores specific oral histories and chiefship debates in the aftermath of the SPLA war in two Southern Sudanese chiefdoms. It argues that these local histories reveal much about the historical relationship between state and society--and in particular the mediation with external violence--which is central to understanding the legitimacy of local authority. Rather than being the strong arm of the state, chiefs have ideally mediated and deflected state (and rebel) violence. Unlike other African examples, they have been marginal both in landowning and patrician structures, so that chiefship has offered a more inclusive and pragmatic definition of community than have patrilineal discourses. As elsewhere in Southern Sudan, the early chiefs were often proxy mediators with marginal or outside origins and their access to government force has been balanced by the continuing authority of rain chiefs, elders, senior lineages and 'maternal uncles'. Current governance interventions which treat chiefs as sole custodians of community land and customs may not be compatible with local understandings of the role of the chief. Oral histories of chiefship origins reflect a symbolic bargain made with government and with chiefs, whereby the latter use their 'good speech' to mediate violence, and if necessary sacrifice themselves to 'bail' people from external/government force.

RESUME

Cet article etudie des histoires orales et des debats de chefs specifiques aux lendemains de la guerre de la SPLA au sein de deux chefferies du Sud du Soudan. Il soutient que ces histoires locales sont tres revelatrices de la relation historique entre l'Etat et la societe (et notamment la mediation de la violence externe), qui est centrale pour comprendre la legitimite de l'autorite locale. Au lieu d'etre le bras fort de l'Etat, les chefs ont idealement joue le role de mediateurs et detourne la violence d'Etat (et des rebelles). Contrairement a d'autres exemples africains, ils ont ete marginaux en termes de structures de propriete fonciere et de patriclan, de sorte que la chefferie a offert une definition plus inclusive et pragmatique de la communaute que ne l'ont fait les discours patrilineaires. Comme ailleurs dans le Sud du Soudan, les premiers chefs etaient souvent des mediateurs indirects avec des origines marginales ou exterieures, et leur acces a la force gouvernementale a ete contrebalance par l'autorite continue des chefs de pluie, des anciens, des lignages superieurs et des "oncles maternels". Les actions de gouvernance actuelles qui traitent les chefs comme les gardiens exclusifs des terres et des coutumes de la communaute peuvent etre en contradiction avec les interpretations locales du role du chef. Les histoires orales des origines des chefs refletent un accord symbolique passe avec le gouvernement et avec les chefs, par lequel ces derniers utilisent leur "bon parler" pour regler les problemes de violence par la mediation et, si necessaire, se sacrifient pour "sauver" les personnes de la force exterieure/gouvernementale.

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Two elderly chiefs from the same clan of the Sudanese Kakwa came to live in Yei Town, after it was captured in 1997 by the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) from Government of Sudan (GoS) forces. One of them, 'Simon', suffers from chest complaints, which he attributes to his torture by SPLA soldiers in the early 1990s: according to witnesses, he was tied and stretched with ropes as well as beaten. (1) As a mere headman, he is bitter about the attempted self-promotion to full chiefship of his neighbouring sub-chief and town court member, 'Ezekia'. Ezekia became a chief around the same time that Simon suffered his torture; when the majority of people fled from the SPLA to take refuge in the town or in nearby Uganda, the remaining rural population were told that the SPLA 'worked with someone called a chief', and Ezekia was duly selected to perform this role.

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