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Challenges and Opportunities: The Crucial Role of Traditional Leadership in South Sudan – PaanLuel Wël Media Ltd


By Joseph Aciech Mathen, Juba, South Sudan


Wednesday, August 12, 2021 (PW) — According to Max Weber, traditional leadership is a style of leadership where power is given to the leader based on traditions of the past. In essence, it is perceived to be centered on the cultures and traditions of the people. He also defined traditional leader as a ‘person who was a leader by dint of hereditary and class.’ In other words, such a person only acts as a custodian of local authority, customs, cultures and traditions, and is answerable to their social and community base. The main reason for the state of affairs is that it has always been done that way. Hence, people respect such a leader not because of his personality, but due to their allegiances to cultures and traditions.

In the past, leadership was perceived to be a divine gift and any person who elevates to the position of authority was seen by the people as a God’s representative among them. Traditional Leadership traits are the ability to use ‘power’ and ‘influence’ in order to lead. Decision making abilities and a willingness to act are important skills and ingredients for a traditional leader (Max Weber). Followers are respectful and loyal to the position and what it represents rather than who happens to be holding a particular position.

This explains why if the people are furious, for instance, dissatisfied with the chief, the latter can easily be impeached. Because all powers are vested in the people and should be exercised according to the cultures and traditions of that particular society. The other trait is that all efforts are directed at achieving what is expected and results are the most crucial evidences of success (Max Weber).

Historical Background

Like all other African countries, people in South Sudan were organized and governed on the path or lines of their traditional kings, chiefs and elders in their respective communities. These leaders, like expounded before, were the custodians of their cultures and traditions. They were often on the verge of spearheading resistances against the external forces who attempted to wage ravages on their peoples. They would make preparations for recruitments and organize their local warriors against any aggressor. In South Sudan, the need for the traditional leaders to organize resistances against any assailant emanated since antiquity and as long as there was an external attack on the people.

For instance, the major attack which occurred during the Colonial Conquest and Occupation of the Sudan by the external forces of Mohamed Ali Pasha which established Turko-Egyptian Rule in the Sudan in 1821. Although our people were defeated in this expedition, our traditional leaders made past successful resistances against the Northern chauvinists. The most imperative was the rise of the powerful Theban leaders in 1645 BC, where Kamose emerged and launched the liberation war and established the 17 dynasty in 1645 BC – 1567 BC, after defeating the Hykos (Dr. Amon Wantok). Also among this was that of queen Nefartari. She was the first powerful woman to ever rule in the Sudan.

Still with the advent of the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium Rule in 1898 which brought down the Mahadist State, our traditional leaders didn’t lose their fate. The hope to protect and remain custodians of their own people were held firm. They continued to wage battles in an attempt to resist any foreign intervention. As a result, the Condominium government stressed the need to recognize the role of Traditional Leadership for the first time. It vested the authority in the hands of the chiefs to administer on their behalf under the armpits of the so called ‘indirect Rule’. So during the 1947 Juba Conference, both the British and the Northern intelligentsia assigned the national political role of leading people in Southern Sudan to traditional leaders. After the agreement, the status quo was still maintained with regards to the role of Traditional Leadership with the chiefs to act as the ambassadors for the Central Government.

The Aftermath of Independence, 1956

The formation of the ‘Any-nya 1’ movement in 1955 was explicitly and entirely on the support of the traditional leaders. Though they were illiterate, they consciously embraced the cause and managed to mobilize manpower, food and all other logistics required to sustain guerilla warfare. Mou Tong of China once quoted that, ‘a guerilla force without peasant support is like a fish without wate.’ So our freedom fighters weren’t myopic to neglect traditional leaders and the proletariats in their quest for secession in the Sudan without their support. The role of Traditional Leadership was also clear after the signing of the 1972 Addis Ababa Agreement. The ‘Anya-nya 2’, whose remnants founded SPLM, was also started with the initial support from the local people under the umbrella of Traditional Leadership.

Hence, the SPLM leadership under the chairmanship of Dr. John Garang recognized the role and the need to strengthen Traditional Leadership at the grassroots. This was in order to act as a bridge between the Movement and the people in the countryside. The SPLM only adopted and strengthened the Traditional Leadership structures set up by the British Administration in 1898. For example, ‘The Sheikls Authorities Ordinance’ which was adopted by the British in 1927 majorly to transfer the judicial and security powers to tribal chiefs for easy administration in the remote and inaccessible areas in Southern Sudan. The case in point were the nomads who were highly mobile. The SPLM didn’t have the capacity to administer the liberated territories of Southern Sudan and therefore it was forced in 1988 to use the native provincial structures and some areas to be vested in the military command.

After the 1994 Chukudum convention, the SPLM established a local system essentially based on the civil authority of the New Sudan. A system of local government was formalized with five levels; Boma, Payam, County, Region and Central. Some laws like the ‘New Sudan Penal Code Act’ were enacted to strengthen the Traditional Leadership in the liberated zones of Southern Sudan. In the local government of such zones, a County was headed by an appointed Commissioner deputized by an executive director. This kind of Administration was directly linked to the Traditional Leadership at the grassroots. For instance, the County Commissioner would frequently held meetings with traditional chiefs and elders to brief them and also be updated about the affairs in the villages.

The Composition of Traditional Leadership

Traditional Leadership in South Sudan since the British time in 1898 was composed of;

1. The Executive Chiefs at the top as the heads of the castes.  In Dinka, he’s called ‘Alama Thiith’ which denotes a ‘red strip’ of a cloth worn by the chief. The Executive Chief is identified as the paramount chief of the area with other sub sectional chiefs in his command. All the powers and authority were invested in him.

2. The Assistant Executive Chief. He was the chief of the sub-caste. In the ancient days he would wear ‘white and black strip’ for easy identification. His duty was to deputize the executive chief.  

3. The chief. He is the sub-sectional traditional chief. His functions always center on the activities entrusted in him by the paramount chief. He is assigned to run the quotidian activities within the community.

4. The sub-chief. His role is solely equidistant on the direct management and administration of the diurnal activities of the clan and the sub clan up to the family level.

5. Coterminous to the leadership hierarchy were the elders. They always form a crucial group around the chiefs during communal discussions as well as deciding cases in the courts. Since they are acquainted with the historical facts about the customs, they are tasked with the role of indoctrinating the young folks so that they become fruitful generations. The elders also tackled and settled summary disputes at the family level.

6. The spiritual leaders. This group is essentially influential within the society especially in the hamlets where over 80% of the population believe in the Traditional African Religion. The sizable role of the spiritual leaders was to inform the people about their mystical beliefs and guard them about the way forward. The chiefs wouldn’t do anything without their divine guidance.

7. The youths. In South Sudan, youths played a tremendous role during the liberation struggle. In Dinka, ‘Riic’ which denotes the ‘youths’ are those in the age group ranging from 15-20 years old. It’s slightly different from the English setting which may range from 16-35 years. Most of the recruitments during the war efforts was from the youth.

What Should the Government Do?

Having recently reconstituted the parliament, there is a need to look at the question of traditional leadership in South Sudan. Today, the role of Traditional Leadership has been rendered ineffective by the government’s attitude towards its strengthening. With the increased insecurity, which has besieged the whole country, the traditional leaders; notably the chiefs and elders have been identified as potential victims as well as perpetuators of the communal violence. They are believed to be the brains behind the senseless raiding in the cattle camps; they arm and encourage their youth to loot cattle and sometimes seek vengeance against their perceived enemies. This is ubiquitous in pastoral communities like Lakes State, Warrap State and some parts of Upper Nile. However, the Traditional Leadership, if and well strengthened like in the past, can help the government in the management and administration of the people efficiently at the grass roots level.

Before suggesting how the government should intervene to strengthen its role, allow me drag into your notice that our constitution clearly stipulates the role of Traditional Leadership. Article 167 of the constitution (2011 constitution as amended) provides for the institutions, status and role of traditional authority according to the customary law. Clause 2 provides for the functioning of traditional authority not only with the National constitution but with state constitutions.

In essence, all state governments should incorporate and recognize the role of Traditional Leadership, and must respect the doctrine of Separation of Powers. This is in accordance with Article 149 which provides for inter-governmental linkages; where the linkage between National Government and the Local Government should be through the government of the relevant state. And in their relationship should observe respect for each other’s powers and competence.

There is also a need to empower the traditional leaders. Article 168 empowers legislators to provide for establishment, composition, functions and duties of councils for traditional leaders. Hence, with the hopes that the New Government will bring peace to the people, it should empower the traditional leaders just like in the past. This can be done through the Rule of Law; where they can preside over their traditional courts without external interferences. State security apparatus should always be in a position to protect them and implement their policies and directives.

In addition, traditional leaders; notably the chiefs who preside over the courts should be paid efficiently in order to deter them from bribery and impunity. However, there is also a need to clean up the traditional system by organizing informal elections. This is because the system has been diluted with corruption where some of the current chiefs were appointed based on acquaintanceship or nepotism instead of the will of the people. It has indeed been long without elections in the Traditional Leadership. For that reason there is deep mistrust between chiefs and their subjects.


(a). Peace and Reconciliation .If the New Government develops a will and changes gears towards strengthening the Traditional Leadership, it will achieve its objectives of local government enshrined under Article 166 about promotion of peace, reconciliation and peaceful coexistence among the various communities. Since it has been identified that the elders are the minds behind the communal conflicts, the antidotes still rest on their shoulders. Hence, their inclusion in the governance can enhance the process of reconciliation because they can easily identify those who defy the peace process.  

(b). Successful disarmament. Since disarmament has become a song among the South Sudanese, the chiefs and elders can help the government in the campaign because there are closer to the people. They know where the civilians get their ammunitions, where they hide them, and how to trick them if the disarmament is to be perpetually successful. However, that should be subsequent after embracing peace through the reconciliation.

(c). Taxation. In the long run, these chiefs may also assist the government in levying taxes like in the past when they were tasked with the role of recruitment. Article 179 provides for sources of revenue of the states and some of the sources are; state land, property tax and royalties, and agricultural production tax. For people to pay these kind of taxes, there must be close supervision. Hence, the chiefs and elders can easily enforce that directive on behalf of the State government.


The role of Traditional Leadership is imperative especially in assisting the National Government administer effectively and transparently at the grass roots. Traditional leaders have been instrumental in that capacity since antiquity. After celebrating independence in 2011, the SPLM deliberately decided to shy away from traditional leaders. That increased insecurity and moral decay in our local areas.

Because the local leaders have been left inactive in the national role of leading their peoples, they have been diluted by the acts of revenge and impunity hence impelled to become sharks amongst their subjects. Therefore, if the government is to revive their crucial role like in the past, they must be recognized in the New Government through the various ways I proposed.

The author, Joseph Aciech Mathen, is a concerned South Sudanese 3rd year Law Student in Nkumba University, Uganda, and can be reached via [email protected]

The opinion expressed here is solely the view of the writer. The veracity of any claim made is the responsibility of the author, not PaanLuel Wël Media (PW) website. If you want to submit an opinion article, commentary or news analysis, please email it to the editor: [email protected] or [email protected]. PaanLuel Wël Media (PW) website do reserve the right to edit or reject material before publication. Please include your full name, a short biography, email address, city and the country you are writing from.

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