How Unity Works in a Divided Nation

By Dr. Akec Khoc
First South Sudan Ambassador to the United States
For the 4th Annual Coalition of Advocates for South Sudan Conference
October 12-14, 2018, Minneapolis, Minnesota

What is Unity? Merriam Webster dictionary defines unity as oneness of a people; having harmony or accord within the nation.

What is a divided nation? It is defined as one which is broken up, fragmented, disunited or lacking harmony.

Overview: Many nations in the world suffer from division, either currently or in the past, as a result of multiethnicity, having faith in more than one religion and speaking different dialects or languages, amongst others. It is therefore not a strange or new phenomenon. Looking to Africa, you may start with South Sudan but continue to South Africa, Nigeria, Cameroun, Egypt and Rwanda, to mention but a few. Even one can say that about America. In Asia, India, Indonesia, China are other examples of divided nations. In Europe, Ireland, Spain, Germany and Belgium provide some examples of division within a nation.

What is important is how a nation manages the division within itself. Most nations continue to struggle to control or eliminate divisions within themselves while a few have managed to fully eradicate it or accepted to live with it, relatively at peace.

The nations that have managed to either eradicate divisions within their citizenry or greatly minimized the impact of such divisions have studied root causes, widely consulted with stakeholders and together, crafted policies to counter the division or encourage unity and harmony. These policies have worked for example in Rwanda, where a completely fractured society has resumed to live together, side by side, in harmony. It is equally noted in Indonesia where national policies has been adhered to by the community, bringing back full identity as one people, one culture.

It is worth noting who the stakeholders are, in nation building. They become important actors for positive change, resulting in unity or harmony, when involved in a policy to eradicate or mitigate against the negative impact of division within the community. They are real drivers of unity.

1)      The State (Nation) meaning the Institutions of government is a primary actor. This is represented by the political elites, executive, legislative and judiciary branches of government. The organized forces are included as well.

2)      The Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), the media outlets, faith-based Organizations, Community based organizations, Youth groups and traditional leaders.

3)      The International Community; other friendly nations, the United Nations bodies and parastatals.

How unity works in a divided nation?

A.  State level or Government Policy: As one of the stakeholders, government plays a critical role in making unity work in most pluralistic nations in different ways.

(i) Inclusive national identity: Enacting a policy of identifying citizens of a country based on NATIONALITY ONLY, rather than Ethnic or Tribal identities could lead, in the long run, to a high level of integration and oneness. Many Countries world-wide are composed of various groups (ethic, cultural, religious e.t.c). Identification on ethnic lines may lead to what we saw in Rwanda, genocide. However, when a country’s leadership decides to eliminate ethnic identification on the documents of the citizens, the possibility of creating a unified population remains real and reduces the chance for conflict. Other methods have been employed in South Africa to create harmony within the composite communities while they maintain their ethnic identities. No single solution fits all situations.

Separation on religious grounds has bad examples in Ireland, India, Yemen, Iraq…. It is difficult to suppress one religion or all of them. Therefore, other methods including but not limited to the encouragement of inter-faith dialogue and cooperation could and should be employed.

(ii) National Language and culture: Though not easy to craft, Indonesia has succeeded in creating unity of citizens by choosing a minority language to be adopted as the national language and culture. It has become the medium of instruction in school and the official language in the country. However, while this decision was taken following a concerted effort to find unifying factors, even larger linguistic communities agreed. That accord, provides a fertile ground for the implementation of the policy.

(iii) Encouragement and facilitation of sports: Sports in general has always been and will continue forever, as a great unifying factor in any society. Team spirit and mutual respect for each team member creates a bridging of divides, social integration and oneness of the team, society, community and nation. A number of examples validate this concept. In post-apartheid South Africa, the first unifying factor, visible to outsiders, was the bafana bafana, and the Rugby team. Even President Nelson Mandela, could put on his national team dress to encourage the team.

At the last world cup, the French national team received a lot of support and encouragement from all the French nationals, regardless of their origin. The team became a symbol of national identity, pride and hope. Earlier on, when Yannick Noah and Marie-Joe Perrec were champions of their respective sportive events, they created a similar emotion amongst the French.

Imagine your University team playing against another team and how you would feel either about the success or defeat of your team. Precisely, that’s how a nation or community is united by sportive events around them.

(iv) Interethnic marriage: When communities live close to each other, share services together, like schools, clinics or hospitals, community gathering, dance, sportive or cultural activities, the youth come in contact and can develop love for each other. When such relations reach marriage level, the communities become united, like families. Therefore, they engage in mutual defense, one for another. This is very common across South Sudan. While it was limited to citizens living in towns before the outbreak of the wars of liberation (Anyanya and SPLA), it spread widely during the SPLA to areas where the liberation fighters found themselves. It was most unlikely for a Latuko man to marry a village Nuer, Shilluk, Dinka or Nuba girl. This happened frequently during the struggle. This became possible for a man from Bhar-el-Ghazal to marry a Murle girl. The essence here is that you are creating understanding and blood relationships across cultural divide, thus cementing unity in a divided nation. Through such interethnic marriages, fighters could travel across hostile communities, and claim or announce relationship to the one who is married within that community. Blood relatives are culturally not supposed to kill each other. Once a member of a community related to the other, learns about an impending threat to the other community, he/she alerts the other community if he/she cannot thwart the plot within own community. This becomes highly appreciated by the community thus informed and waits for an opportunity to render a similar service in her turn, cultivating confidence, mutual respect and unity.

(v) Provision of services for more communities: Schools are centers where cross-cultural relations are built and over years. When children live together, friendships are cultivated and that extends to their families and communities. Families visit each other, drawing attention from the host community, engulfing the whole community. In my village school which was serving four villages and drawing pupils from those communities and beyond, we lived together for two wonderful years. Though very young some contacts were forged, developed and continued to adulthood. The higher we got in the educational system, we met others from ethnicities we never encountered during earlier education schools/institutions, and the larger our relations extended across geographical regions to engulf the whole nation, the world at University level.

This is equally applicable to health services where you encounter patients and their relatives from neighboring communities, forge sympathies for each other and finally establish understanding and friendship.

When professionals (teachers, health service staff, police officers, veterinarians) are sent to work in distant communities, the cultures of individual staff member, interacts with host community ones, providing a learning opportunity for each of them.  Wherever and whenever practiced, harmonious relations are built, and unity is made to reign, even in a divided nation.

(vi) Other policies like land allotment for housing and agriculture and media coverage and respectful language could be elements in national policy favoring unity in a divided nation.

(vii) Youth provide the single most reliable and means for government to transmit it’s unity program in a divided nation. We have already seen that in schools and sports. When equipped with adequate means to carry out their duties, they can transform a divided nation to be a better place to live in for all the component communities. They are vehicle to unite individuals, communities, nationalities, regions and eventually, the world. They are in spirit and actions. The youth of a nation, divided or united, shapes it’s present and charts it’s future. The economy of a nation depends on youth education; creative thinking, critical analysis of situations and eventually on it’s ability to identify right from wrong. In our African societies, where values emanate from tradition and custom, education, particularly of the largest segment of society, the youth, should be the mode to effect a change in the peoples’ mind-set.

In addition to school and sports, additional methods could include local, regional and national scouting events lasting for period annually. This encourages exposure at an early age and time, stimulating awareness, tolerance, curiosity and many more.

Equally, summer youth camps are another method of cultivating understanding amongst the youth, building leadership qualities and respect for one another in exchanging responsibilities and duties. Where summer camps is practiced, youth eagerly anticipate the time, craft programs they would like implemented, helping the local areas, regions and national authorities.

B. Traditional leadership and faith-based Organizations: The two entities act in tandem. Traditional practices worshiping God through idols, have become history in most parts of the world, notably in Africa. In South Sudan, such practices were dealt with during the liberation struggle and Christianity (mainly), Islam to some extent, have been largely embraced. Therefore, traditional leaders have largely integrated into the faith-based organizations and act together. Since faith-based organizations desire unity, love, peaceful existence, one with his/her God, they act together towards the same objective. The youth are mainly part of the faith-based organizations and are it’s dynamo.

Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) usually come to render service to the community through churches, traditional leaders or both. Since they render humanitarian services through either or both institutions, they work towards creating conditions of unity even in a divided community or nation. They garner harmony within communities.

Traditional leaders, faith-based organizations and NGOs support efforts aimed at reaching harmony with groups, communities, regions or nations by complementing state level actions.

C. International Community, the UN bodies and Parastatals: Friendly nations assist divided nations by implementing programs favoring national unity. This means political support in conflict resolution, humanitarian and disaster management assistance and capacity building in most areas of governance, amongst others. Offering scholarships to citizens of the divided nation is a method of building cadres sharing values with the supporting country or institution.  Over time, that assistance pays off through influence on the divided nation’s governance system. In the long term, it is the most valuable support to offer, and appreciated not only by the recipients, but equally by sending institutions and the population at large.

The UN bodies and Parastatals assist the divided nation on similar ways to those offered by friendly nations, but on a larger scale and dimension. The UN and bodies, usually present on the ground in a nation, offer the most urgent support needed by a country. Above all, depending on the level of coordination between those bodies and the national authorities, prepare favorable or unfavorable reports about the needs, their magnitude elevated or minimized and use personal contacts to expedite or impede the required help. However, overall, it is expected to be favorable and supportive to the host country and her people.