Addressing The Land And Citizenship Questions In South-Sudan

By Christopher Zambakari – Without resolving the crisis of citizenship, reforming land tenure laws, and resolving the conflict in the border regions, South Sudan will remain in a perpetual state of war.

Today, Sudan has the largest number of internally displaced persons in the world. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre puts the estimates around 5 million. Khartoum continues its policy of ethnic cleansing in the disputed regions with its systematic policy of driving out the Dinkas and replacing them with Misseriya in Abyei.

In Southern Kordofan, a report quotes key members of the National Congress Party (NCP) explicitly demanding the ethnic cleansing of the Nubian people from their homeland. Land allocation for returning Internally Displaced Persons, IDPs is crucial for survival. This has been a particularly difficult process in relation to access to land, a vital source of livelihood for most Southern Sudanese, pastoralists, agriculturalists and nomads. One report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre and the Norwegian Refugee Council puts the challenge as follows:

‘Returnees are only allocated residential plots, but for their livelihoods they would also need agricultural land; however this is not being demarcated. The returnees have generally been told that they can cultivate any available land that they find. However, some returnees told IDMC that they would need permission from the local chiefs to acquire agricultural land; this would not be easy for those who were not returning to their original village.’

Without resolving the crisis of citizenship, reforming land tenure laws and resolving the conflict in the border regions, South Sudan will remain in a perpetual state of war. Success hinges upon those unresolved, yet related, issues: citizenship and access to land, Abyei, Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile. These issues also hold the key to a successful nation-building project in the new republic.

Land Question: The land question is one of the most tested in Sudan. The citizenship question and the land question are related. The definition of citizenship is either based on ethnicity or it is based on residence. These two claims converge in the area of representation in the state as well as claims made to access land and resources. Those who claim citizenship also claim that access to land be based on ethnicity, which is defined as those who are indigenous to the country. Here, Sudan is like its neighbors. When one asks the question, ‘Who are these indigenes?’ The immediate answer is ‘those of us who have always been here’ – in other words, the natives.

The second claim comes from migrant workers, immigrants, refugees and internally displaced persons. These groups claim that citizenship based on ethnicity is unacceptable. They claim that every citizen should have similar rights. Anyone with the remotest background on African history will notice something, which is consistent throughout the continent. Migration has always taken place across Africa – both voluntary and forced. Africa is the original continent of migration. The colonial state was particularly harsh and discriminatory towards those who move out of the demarcated tribal homeland in search of better living conditions, e.g., migrant workers or those forcefully displaced or internally displaced persons. The cases of the Banyarwanda in Uganda and in eastern Congo, the Ghanaians in Nigeria and the Burkinabe in Côte d’Ivoire are illustrative of these tendencies in the post-colonial period. In each of the mentioned situations, violence has been the outcome of a conflict that pitted those defined as natives – or indigenes – to those branded as non-native or non-indigene. Both claims should not be dismissed uncritically but understood to be based on the history of state formation in Africa. The first demand is rooted in the colonial period, reproduced by the post-colonial state, and the other rooted in the concept of nation-state, which provides for equal rights to all citizens, with its genesis in the French Revolution.

Citizenship Question:
South Sudan and North Sudan will need to develop a legal framework to address the question of citizenship, particularly the problem of nomads and pastoralists in Sudan and elsewhere to avoid stateless people throughout the region. It demands the political imagination of de-emphasizing descent and emphasizing residence as the basis of a common citizenship. In the first instance, this is a shift from exclusion to inclusion, which broadens the definition of the political community. The need to reform citizenship laws in the post-CPA era was pointed out in a report by a scholar based at the Open Society Foundation who wrote that ‘Non-discrimination on ethnic, racial and religious grounds is the foundation for a stable state while exclusion and discrimination sow seeds of political unrest, economic collapse and war.’

Christopher Zambakari, originally from South-Sudan, is a candidate for a Law and Policy Doctorate at the College of Professional Studies, Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts. Email:

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