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By Lilian Riziq - 17 Jul 2023

Opinion| Decolonizing South Sudanese identity from ethnic divisions

Although colonial oppression officially ended in the late 1950s when Sudan gained independence, the lingering effects of colonialism continued to shape the minds of South Sudanese. Even after South Sudan separated from Sudan, the remnants of colonial influence remained, impacting how individuals perceived themselves and others. Now, centuries after the colonial era, South Sudanese have a unique opportunity to decolonize their minds from the enduring consequences of colonialism and overcome the ethnic divisions imposed upon them in the 1800s.

When the colonial powers arrived in Southern Sudan by then, they introduced the concept of ethnicity and drew tribal boundaries, profoundly impacting people's views of themselves and others. Consequently, individuals started identifying primarily based on their tribal affiliations rather than embracing a shared humanity. Unfortunately, this mindset has persisted across generations. Even today, many South Sudanese primarily identify themselves based on their ethnic membership. Some even harbour beliefs of superiority, regarding those from different ethnicities as inferior or minorities and marginalize them based on that. This has perpetuated a cycle of oppression and discrimination built on baseless assumptions.

Renowned Kenyan scholar Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o describes decolonization of the mind as rejecting the fallacy that knowledge produced solely from a Western perspective is the only valid form of knowledge. South Sudanese scholars, such as Jane Kani Edward and Amir Idris, have written about the colonial history of identity formation in Sudan and South Sudan. For instance, in her recent article titled “Reframing the “liberation” narrative for inclusive South Sudan,” Jane Kani Edward pointed out the danger of this mindset in causing exclusion in South Sudan after independence. Therefore, it is vital to embrace alternative viewpoints and diverse forms of knowledge to foster a more inclusive society.

In my personal experience, the ethnicity of my best friend was never a matter of importance during my upbringing. It held no relevance to our friendship. Only recently, after more than thirty years, I discovered her tribe. I was astonished to realize that many people from my generation grew up without questioning each other's ethnicities or treating each other differently based on tribal affiliations. South Sudanese now have the opportunity to unite and construct a national identity, envisioning a brighter future. However, this endeavour requires a complex process of decolonizing our minds.

We must unlearn the beliefs ingrained in our ancestors and passed down to us. Our primary identification should be as South Sudanese, with ethnic affiliations assuming secondary importance, if necessary. If a South Sudanese leader emerges with a campaign that embraces the decolonization of the South Sudanese mind, I will vote for such a candidate and actively mobilize others to support them. This transformative shift in mindset is crucial for our collective progress and for building a unified and inclusive South Sudan. Therefore, by decolonizing our minds, we can transcend the divisive legacy of colonialism and pave the way for a more harmonious and prosperous future, benefiting all South Sudanese.

The author, Lilian Riziq, is a scholar at Georgetown University, and a civil society activist in South Sudan's women's movement.

The views expressed in ‘opinion’ articles published by Radio Tamazuj are solely those of the writer. The veracity of any claims made is the responsibility of the author, not Radio Tamazuj.