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.  

MagkaSama Project Interview Series: Sudan

Interview Series: Sudan – Part 3: Interview with Esther Sprague (Sudan Unlimited)

MagkaSama Team - September 19, 2018

The MagkaSama Project Interview Series: Sudan is an ongoing collection of interviews with experts, organizations and journalists. Our first interview featured independent researcher specialized in Sudan, South Sudan and Chad Jerome Tubiana. You can read his interview (in French) on this page. Last week we published the interview with Radio Dabanga, the independent radio station is reaching over 2 000 000 listeners a day in Darfur and Sudan. They gave powerful answers and a great insight on their hard work, read their full interview here.

This time we wanted to learn more about Sudanese (and South Sudanese) living in the United States, so we asked Sudan Unlimited founder Esther Sprague about her work.

Après la première partie avec l’interview en français de Jérôme Tubiana, journaliste, chercheur et spécialiste de la Corne de l’Afrique et du Sahel à lire sur cette page, dans la seconde partie nous avons tenu à poser nos questions à Radio Dabanga, la seule radio indépendante à émettre au Soudan. Leurs réponses nous ont apporté un éclairage précieux sur leur fonctionnement et ce qu’il se passe au Soudan, vous pouvez retrouver cette interview ici. Pour cette 3ème partie, nous allons outre-Atlantique avec Esther Sprague, fondatrice de l’association Sudan Unlimited qui vient en aide à la diaspora Soudanaise et Sud-soudanaise aux Etats-Unis.

Interview Series: Sudan – Part 3: Interview with Esther Sprague (Sudan Unlimited)

MagkaSamaYou are the founder of Sudan Unlimited, can you please tell us what is your professional background and why you started the organization? 

Esther Sprague: I started Sudan Unlimited in 2006 for the purpose of supporting Sudanese and southern Sudanese who were working to end violence and build peace in Sudan. I tend to work behind the scenes to provide administrative and organizational support for various projects, events and advocacy campaigns. I have a degree in business and am finishing up a master’s degree in international studies. I have managed a restaurant equipment company, provided administrative support for an organization providing transitional housing and employment opportunities for homeless men, managed a law firm, served as the administrator for my church, and currently, I coordinate the international summer externship and semester exchange programs for a law school.

You know many Sudanese coming from war-torn regions like Darfur and South Kordofan in Sudan, but also from South Sudan. Could you tell us some of their stories to better understand what was their life and why they left their country? 

I was introduced to Sudan in 2003 by Mamer Kuer Ajak, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan.  Mamer and other Lost Boys and Girls were forced out of their country due to attacks by the Sudan regime. These children walked across southern Sudan to Ethiopia, where they were later forced out by a new government. Those who survived eventually settled in Kenya in the Kakuma refugee camp. Some were later invited to the United States. Mamer attended Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, California. I heard him speak at an annual meeting for our church denomination and our pastor invited him to spend the summer with our community. Besides finding his family, one of Mamer’s primary concerns was the unfolding genocide in Darfur, because it mirrored what he had experienced as a child, and so together we became activists. 

The Sudan regime seeks to change the demographics of Sudan and to steal the resources of the country by either killing or violently displacing Sudanese. In addition, it detains and tortures anyone who dares to oppose the regime, and it tightly controls access to the country, leaving millions without food, medicine and basic necessities.

Europe is confronted with what is referred to as a ‘migrant crisis’. To stop the waves of African refugees, the EU has allocated over $200 million to help Sudan stem migration since 2015. On their side, the United States has lifted key Sudan sanctions and is now collaborating with the Sudanese regime to counter terrorism. What do Sudanese people living in the United States tell you about these deals, and in regard to how the United States is currently dealing with migrants on its territory? How do they feel about the global situation? 

It is hard for the Sudanese that I talk with to understand these polices of Europe and the U.S. In the past, both have been strong allies of the people of Sudan in their efforts to secure freedom, equal citizenship and a just peace. It does not make sense to Sudanese for the E.U. to provide resources that benefit the regime or for the U.S. to open up opportunities for the regime. Not only does the Sudan regime openly violates the values of the E.U. and U.S., but its support and engagement with terrorist organizations and its destabilizing influence in the region, such as in South Sudan and the Central African Republic, present security risks for the E.U. and U.S.

In a recent tweet by Eric Reeves, the Sudan researcher and analyst wrote: ‘The Sudanese economy continues to implode without significant int’l news coverage. But the vast crisis, affecting all of #Sudan, is causing increasing suffering and political unrest. Only a change in regime by the people of Sudan can lead to a reversal of economic fortunes’. On your website, we can read it ‘is only a matter of time before they [the people of Sudan and South Sudan] reclaim and rebuild their great countries’. Do you see any sign of change from Sudan/South Sudan or from the diaspora? How can they make this change happen? 

Change takes time, especially when the playing field is so uneven; but the people of Sudan are resilient and they have a long history of civic and political engagement. In Sudan, we are seeing opposition groups sitting together to forge a common agenda, we are seeing youth taking great risks to question the status quo, and we are seeing Sudanese intellectuals in Sudan and in the Diaspora propose alternatives, such as the work provided at

In June, the Never Again Coalition sent an open letter to the UN Security Council regarding the proposed reduction to the UNAMID mandate in Darfur, urging the ‘Security Council members to “recognize the vital importance of UNAMID’s presence in Darfur and consider the catastrophic impacts that further reductions in peacekeeping forces would have on civilian protection and peacebuilding’. Can you tell us what is the role of UNAMID in Darfur and why is it so important not to scale down the mission? Can UNAMID alone bring peace in Darfur? 

UNAMID is a witness to atrocities committed and sponsored by the Sudan regime in Darfur, and to a certain degree, UNAMID serves as deterrence. UNAMID cannot bring peace to Darfur, but without UNAMID, the regime will commit its crimes completely unchecked. These crimes include burning down villages, beating, raping and killing men, women and children, blocking humanitarian aid from reaching those in need, and stealing land and handing it over to foreigners among other crimes.

As Eric Reeves pointed out in his tweet, there is almost no international news coverage about what is happening in Sudan. If some media reported on Sudanese officials invited to Belgium (and to France) to review the cases of Sudanese refugees before they were deported and tortured upon their return, the news didn’t make headlinesVery few media reported Sudan’s President Omar Al Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court for genocide and war crimes, was invited by Vladimir Putin to attend the recent World Cup final. Why is media coverage on Sudan so scarce and why are these events of little (or no) consequence on U.S. / EU policy in Sudan?

The events in Belgium and France did get some attention by media because civil society organizations and some citizens mobilized and expressed their outrage at these blatant violations of international law. In the U.S., the media is mesmerized by the actions of the current U.S. administration and so little else is covered. In the Sudan regime, the E.U. has found a partner to curb immigration and the U.S. has found a source of intelligence on the war on terror. The U.S. and E.U. are willing to look the other way with regard to the crimes of the Sudan regime in order to achieve their own interests. This short-sighted approach that tolerates genocide and promotes impunity ultimately puts everyone at risk.

The media but also the public opinion don’t seem too concerned by what is happening in Sudan and South Sudan. Even though the global petition to overturn Noura Hussein’s sentence to death has received a million signatures and gained the endorsement of celebrities, the attention on Sudan has already faded away.Nevertheless, protests against the Sudan regime are still organized, like the one by the Sudanese Diaspora in the UK, Waging Peace and HART carried out in various cities around the world last June. We know from experience how hard it is to mobilize support for a cause and as Sudan Unlimited seeks to amplify Sudanese and South Sudanese voices, do you think they’re heard enough?

People are inundated with information and the crisis in Sudan is one of many serious crisis in the world. While it is harder to be heard, Sudanese, South Sudanese and their friends have a grave responsibility to keep advocating for justice and change.

We offer an opinion to the interviewee. Feel free to share with our readers something that you consider important to mention, to explain or to point out.

It is in the best interest of international peace and security for the E.U. and U.S. to hold the Sudan regime accountable for its crimes, including its support of terrorism, and to invest the resources necessary to address the root causes of violence, displacement and poverty in Sudan. The current approach of engagement with the Sudan regime is just the latest example of the regime outsmarting the international community. The Sudan regime will say and do whatever is necessary to stay in power and to maintain control of Sudan’s resources. The test of whether the Sudan regime is a legitimate partner is whether or not we see significant improvements in the day to day lives of all Sudanese.