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Department of History

History Services and Consultancy

Local Justice in South Sudan


Dr Cherry Leonardi, Dr Leben Nelson Moro, Martina Santschi, Deborah H. Isser

This study is the result of collaboration between the United States Institute of Peace and the Rift Valley Institute (RVI). The overall concept and methodology was developed jointly by Cherry Leonardi of Durham University, Deborah Isser of USIP, and John Ryle of RVI. Dr. Leonardi was also director of the research team and lead author of the report, and she conducted field work in Wau and Jur River Counties.

South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011, after experiencing decades of civil war in the last half-century. It is also the recipient of massive international aid and intervention, including in its government structures and judicial and legal systems. Unfortunately some of these programmes tend to assume either that the war had destroyed all social structures and local institutions, or that the authorities that have survived are ancient institutions. Dr Leonardi's research focuses instead on both the continuities and the adaptation of local forms of authority and justice since the mid-nineteenth century, and particularly on the emergence and evolution of institutions for mediating relations with the state, namely the 'chiefs'. The US Institute for Peace and the Rift Valley Institute provided an opportunity to relate this historical research to the present and to conduct research on the current local justice system in South Sudan.

The findings showed that current approaches to justice reform largely fail to understand the nature of customary law in practice, which involves the creative, flexible and dynamic amalgamation of both indigenous and government laws, procedures and cultures. The local justice system has long been one of the main ways that people experience government, but attempts to exercise great central regulation over its laws and practices may remove the contingency and flexibility that litigants also value.

For the full report, see here.