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35. Nepotism and tribalism

Issues facing Christians in Sudan and South Sudan today. Tribalism, ethnicity and culture section.

by Thomas Maluit Hoth

Nepotism and Tribalism are two poisonous diseases at large in our society and nation:

Nepotism is “favouritism shown to relatives or close friends by those with power or influence”.

Tribalism is positively, “loyalty to a tribe or tribal values”. Negatively, tribalism is “a way of thinking or behaving in which people are more loyal to their tribe than to their friends, their country, or any other social group”. Their dangers and negative effects towards Sudan’s social and political transformation are so conspicuous in all aspects of life I am sure my reader has examples from his or her life.

Before the independence of our country, those who ruled us for 55 years did not care from which tribe or section of the community we came. They were only interested in our qualifications and our allegiance to the British rule and government.

As soon as Sudan gained its political independence, the whole system which I have hinted at above started to change. Jobs were misused by a minority clique and given especially to people who came from one particular region or province. As a result of this unjust distribution of jobs and resources, there was general discontent in many other parts of the country. Especially in Southern Sudan a rebellion started in protest against this unjust rule and the post-independence marginalisation of its people. That rebellion was a direct result of tribalism, sectionalism4 and nepotism. These evils are the root cause of many other nationwide problems.

Cultural divide

People who come from outside our Sudanese culture need to know that in our society there exist already internal cultures and their associated cultural norms. Some of these can be considered divisive. They reflect big differences between one tribe and another.

For instance, in Southern Sudan where you find many different ethnic groups, every visitor can easily identify some sort of difference among the people simply by the way the people appear in public. There are people who have distinct marks on their faces, marks representing their particular tribe. Marks vary from tribe to tribe and, sometimes, you find differences between sections of the same tribe.

The Nuer for example have six marks all over the Nuer lands. The Shilluk also have one marking system which is different from any other ethnic group in Southern Sudan. The Dinka have different ways of marking the foreheads of their male boys even within themselves. Dinka from Bahr El Gazal have at least three ways of marking, while Dinka from the Upper Nile Region have three other ways of marking. These markings on the foreheads of Dinka men and women are signs of identification with their own ethnic group. The Nuer only mark men, and for them it shows the separation from boyhood to manhood.

Many of us who come from these ethnic groups see these markings, or signs of tribal identification, as one of the social divides among Sudanese people. We feel they should be discouraged and even abolished, because of the adverse effects they can have.

In recruiting people for certain jobs the boss, whether he is marked or not, may identify an applicant just by looking during the recruitment. He sees who is from his own ethnic group and who is not. He may only recruit those he sees as from his own tribe. This may happen even if no words in an ethnic language are spoken!

A second problem face markings bring occurs during rioting between ethnic groups. People who join the fight just have to look at the faces of the rioters. Faces show ethnic divisions. People can then join those with similar marks to themselves without asking why are these people fighting! It can be seen at a glance which tribes are involved in the fight and on which side they are.

These are just two of the problems which encourage tribalism and nepotism. Tribalism and nepotism also encourage these things! As they feed on themselves they become destructive social or political divisions in our single Sudanese society.

There is some nepotism in Sudan, but it is not as serious or dangerous as widespread tribalism. Those who only favour their blood relatives are few in urban areas and in Christian society. I have not yet witnessed any serious problem as far as nepotism is concerned. However, it is going to appear soon as long as educated people are asked to help their poorer relatives find work in our towns and cities. While poverty grows some people may choose to put their close relatives in key positions (rather than better qualified people). When this happens trouble may be anticipated.

My Personal Experience of Nepotism and Tribalism

I became aware of my own personal surroundings when I started to work in the church for the first time in 1976. When I finished my initial seminary training at St. Paul's Theological College I was first assigned to be Youth Pastor. I started my first contacts with different young people, people who came from a variety of ethnic groups. Before that moment I did not have any sense of tribal division. I was so innocent about all differences that other people had in mind. My objectives were to organise the youth, both boys and girls, and to have more effective Christian activities in our church and in wider society.

As I went deeper into my responsibility as a Youth Secretary of the Presbyterian Church of Sudan, I came across one important question from the youth themselves. The question was: “what language could the youth use for communication in their business meetings and correspondence, since there were a number of different ethnic groups who spoke different tribal languages?” This question was my first encounter with the differences between the people I was asked to lead. It took me time to give an answer. In the next meeting the Arabic language was chosen for internal correspondence.

Although I am a Nuer, during my leadership of youth I never had a feeling of being different from anyone else. But one problem arose as we continued to organise ourselves. The problem was that the pastors of each ethnic group in our town wanted to have a separate youth group where people should use their tribal language in the general youth activities. As a result, the entire united youth progress was halted. The youth were divided into tribal congregations. It was not until some years later that the youth themselves realised the mistake. They regrouped themselves once more and called themselves the "Presbyterian Youth Association in Sudan".

As you can see, that good work was interrupted by tribal division. In our Christian society we must be very careful when language differences, tribal differences, and different cultural markings, are allowed to become impediments to our Christian unity and our Christian values.

Language Problems in our Church Services

In Sudan’s Protestant churches one of the problems promoting disunity is still the barrier of language in our church services. Language makes it difficult to unite all the ethnic groups of any one church under one pastor. This is true in most Protestant churches including the Presbyterian church from where I come.

When you attend worship you want to feel comfortable. So you choose to go where you can understand everything. If the service is in the Dinka language, and you are Dinka, you are most likely to go there. If the service is in the Shilluk language you may well disappear and go elsewhere. So a Dinka pastor is most likely to have all Dinka people in his congregation, and a Shilluk pastor most likely to have all Shilluk. Tribal languages makes it almost impossible for one single pastor to be followed by all ethnic groups. This applies equally to Nuer, Murlei, Anuak, and every other tribe.

Thus the language barrier is another impediment in the one African Christian society. A gesture of change has recently started to appear. Those who have had their education in the Arabic language are prepared to accept Arabic as the language of public communication. Such groups meet together in our Christian churches and societies. As they sit and converse they use Arabic as their common language, despite coming originally from different ethnic and tribal groupings.

In Southern Sudan it seems that the English language is the fast growing language. It is being used on the streets and in offices especially by older aged people and those who have come from East Africa. They probably had English as the language in which they learned at school.

Nepotism and Discrimination

In Southern Sudan, as I said earlier, nepotism has not yet reached a dangerous or worry-some stage. In Northern Sudan however, nepotism is rather widespread in the states, the provinces and even in the capital city, Khartoum.

In the north people ask themselves whether they have stepbrothers, relatives etc. in the departments should they need something done or be trying to get a job. Some of our neighbours in Khartoum used to tell us stories about nepotism in government and non-government institutions. If you have no relatives in any of these institutions you cannot get a job. Only relatives are appointed. Therefore, this practice of nepotism is responsible to some extent for the high unemployment of graduates in the Sudan.

Because of discriminatory nepotism many young men and women who have better certificates and degrees than others are turned away from jobs, while people who have relatives responsible for employment are taken on and employed. Nepotism destroys fair competition for jobs. This practice in our society, whether amongst Christians or non-

Christians, destroys the hope and confidence of Sudanese young people in their own country.

Tribalism and Nepotism in Public Institutions

In our public institutions these destructive practices are obviously becoming more widespread. It is a step backwards in our country’s development, not a step forward. In South Sudan you find many offices are occupied by one ethnic group to the exclusion of others. This is because the boss is from one particular ethnic group or tribe. Bosses would prefer to have their supporting staff come from their own tribe. When other people do come in, people from other ethnic groups, they find themselves alien. They discover themselves unwelcome and soon leave disappointed, due to the simple fact that everybody around them speaks in the tribal language of the office boss – which they do not know. This is a big and growing social and political problem. It divides people rather than unites people, who are all from the same nation.

If such practice is not abandoned by our society, it will create more of the unfortunate spirit of negative tribalism and hatred. This crushes the national spirit whether inside the Christian church or in the wider social community. We are all Sudanese.

One reason why our people do not value peace, although peace agreements have been signed and implementation is in the process of being completed, is because they do not see any initiative from their churches or from their political leaders to unite the people of the South across their various communities and societies. Tribalism and the emerging nepotism are becoming the generally accepted way of life. This is divisive and not constructive for our longer term future. Strongly held divisions are always a threat to peace. Christian love and respect for all people will build peace.

I fear that unless the churches and the southern political parties initiate programmes that unite the people of the south, north, east and west Sudan, bringing them altogether in activities across all sectors of life, the Bible’s statement will prove true once again: “ Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand”, Matthew 12:25.

Look at the practical example of Somalia. Falling into the trap set by the evil dangers of tribalism, the Somali people have divided themselves into different ethnicity, continually disputing the interests of different clans. All this despite the fact they are one race who profess to follow the one religion, Islam.

Tribalism and nepotism bring dangers to any national community. Where countries, societies and churches want to be peaceful, united and strong, these progressing evils should be eliminated once and for good. Tribalism and nepotism bring real problems for peace and stability, whether the country is Christian or non-Christian. When they become the way of life in society, and especially in the public works, state and non-state institutions, they usually deprive the institutions of finding the right persons for the right positions when they are employing or recruiting. This breeds resentment, mistrust and hopelessness.

Tribalism and Nepotism in Educational Institutions

In the 1970’s and 1980’s there was rampant fighting in most of our southern schools. At that time I was in Malakal town and in those years it happened that there was a riot inside the campus of the secondary school. Some students used pistols, alleged to have been provided by their relatives who were responsible people in society and state, and were also members of Christian churches and denominations in the town. Because of tribalism a lot of people were injured and many more lost their chance to finish their education in the school.

Another example which points out injustice in our society was a cartoon in the Khartoum Monitor newspaper on 17th June 2008, where an employer was interviewing people who applied for the job advertised. The boss's first question to the candidates was: "What is your tribe"? Such a question in any public or private company, any non-governmental organisation, or any government office, is unfair. It can cause discontent leading to tensions in the society and our country. We all live together in Sudan! If the official criteria of employment include questions like: "what is your tribe?" or “what is your religion?” then Sudan is unwittingly promoting division along tribal or religious lines. This can be true in positive as well as negative discrimination. I think that the country could be in danger of falling apart if such unpopular policies and practices continue. There should be new ways of approaching these matters, using questions about skills, qualifications, job-vision, and personal experience of the applicant, rather than simply tribe.

Tribalism and nepotism within our Christian church leadership

In past years, even after the Christian church became indigenous to Sudan, requirements to assess the suitability of a person for service in the church were both clear and biblically oriented. The existing church leadership would try to ensure that any new person added to their team had experienced a "call" from the Lord Jesus to the work. Likewise, the people in the general congregation of the church would recognise the call of the person to Christian service. Subsequently they would send him to be trained in seminary or Bible School.

Nowadays many new things are beginning to emerge. To send someone to the seminary he or she must be recommended by his tribal congregation or her tribal sectional church. This way of using tribal allegiance is disuniting the larger Christian community and church. Tribal distinctions should be discouraged or minimised by the church authorities wherever possible.

Nepotism and tribalism in Christian Society

There are two types of Christian groups in Sudan. Pastors and clergy from our Protestant churches know the secret of the two Christian sects or factions. The first group are ordinary Christians who come to church every Sunday. They are seen as devoted Christians. With their families they pay and contribute to the Church when asked to do so. The second group is composed of youth from different walks of life. This group calls itself “born again”, and everybody who joins them is considered to be a “born again” Christian. They call members “brothers and sisters”. Within them you rarely see signs of ethnic differences or tribal feelings despite the fact they are a diverse group from many different backgrounds.

We can see from this how Christian society is beginning to change as the word of the Lord Jesus goes deeper into the Christian communities. Tribalism and nepotism may eventually go away as new life begins to enter our churches. Traditional Christianity seems too archaic for the newly born again Christians. They have realised that divisive traditions between tribes, sections, races, youth and the elderly are not being renewed but are fading away as spiritual life flows in. Nepotism also has no room in the born again communities because they have already discovered its evils in their previous society.

Christianity as such has helped in spiritual salvation all over the world. But in many parts of the world – not just here in Sudan – it has not continued to eradicate the evils of nepotism and tribalism even within it’s own Christian Society. Why not? Because it is not enough just to take the name Christian and add it to your list of loyalties. Christian discipleship challenges all other loyalties to accept their limitations. It is through the renewal of our faith in the Lord Jesus we see and discover the stifling evil of these two subjects in our midst. Once we acknowledge them, we can choose to reject them and live all of life honouring the living Lord Jesus Christ.

Nepotism and Tribalism among the Intellectual and Elite Communities of South Sudan

Natives in the countryside do not believe that townspeople can become conscious of village cultural beliefs surrounding tribal separation. They think that someone who goes to school and receives education becomes a different person. To them all townspeople are one tribe and it speaks one language which is different from their native languages. Arabic and English are seen as the languages of the educated elite of Sudan.

But to the contrary, these natives now discover that some ethnic groups in the towns have become even more tribalistic than those who are in the countryside! This is dangerous and presents a challenge to the stability, reconciliation and peace of Sudan. An elite person is generally believed to be a peacemaker. When this belief turns out to be false then hopes for reconciliation and peace become remote. In almost all of our towns and cities our various tribes live together – but separately! One tribe is in this area of town and another in that area of the same town.

Some ethnic groups have even written books and other literature in their tribal languages encouraging their communities to remember bad things. They write that during the war, it was “so and so” tribe who took our cows, our food, and destroyed our land, etc. The purpose is to alert their own children and youth never to forget whatever wrongs were done to them.

If such attitudes are not discouraged, they will breed and foster a living hatred with jealousy between the many people of our one nation. This will last a long time and it will bring much sadness.



If my young daughter had a poisoned bite on her foot I would do everything in my power to have her treated. I may buy and use traditional remedies. I may pay the higher price and visit the doctor for medicine. I may even end up taking her to the hospital for an amputation as a drastic, last, life-saving resort. The spread of poison can be deadly serious. My love for my daughter and my love for our family will make me do whatever is necessary .

I take this present opportunity to urge the church leadership of every Christian denomination in Sudan, and all the leaders of various types of community, plus the political forces of the Sudan and of Southern Sudan in particular, to help us develop genuine future peace in our country. Act now to remove these highlighted social and political poisons – negative tribalism and nepotism – wherever they are found throughout Sudanese society.

“Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people”, Proverbs 15:34.

“For lack of guidance a nation falls, but many advisers make victory sure”, Proverbs 11:14.

“Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people He chose for His inheritance”, Psalm 33:12.

Discussion Guide

Using this chapter and the Scriptures quoted:

1. Share experiences of nepotism or tribalism you have encountered personally.

Would you describe these as positive or negative experiences?


2. “We must be very careful when language differences, tribal differences, and different

cultural markings, are allowed to become impediments to our Christian unity and our

Christian values”. Why must we be careful?

What damage can be caused by wrongful division?

Consider Ephesians 4:1-6; Romans 16:17-18; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Titus 3:10-11.

3. Apply Paul’s stated desire from 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 to Christians who want church

services only in their own tribal language.

How would you explain to these Christians the need to consider other people as well

as themselves?

4. List the positives and the negatives of single language church meetings.

Do the positives outweigh the negatives, or the other way around?

Explain why!

5. How does James’ teaching about “favouritism” challenge both nepotism and tribalism?

James 2:1-13.

While this teaching is given to Christians and the church, how can Christians apply it

to wider society? Give practical examples if you can.

6. Discuss how these two statements impact on each other:

“We are all Sudanese”, and “you are all one in Christ Jesus”, Galatians 3:28.

What divisions should a Christian see and recognise in Sudanese society?


What divisions that Christians see should they do their best to ignore?


7. Explain how you think the Christian church can set an example to wider society in dealing with tribalism and nepotism.

First think locally.

Then think on a wider scale.

What difficulties are there in implementing such an example?

How can these be overcome?

8. “Christian discipleship challenges all other loyalties to accept their limitations”.

Using Bible advice or example, confirm this truth as it applies to your own life.

What past or present poor attitudes demand repentance?

How can you plan to live more Christianly in relation to other people?

1 Corinthians 2:2.


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