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Sunday 14 July 2024


South Sudanese now joke that the country needs liberation from the liberators

23 March, 2024
South Sudan's president Salva Kiir Mayardit, October 25th 2017. (Albert Gonzalez Farran/AFP via Getty Images)

South Sudanese fought bitterly for independence from Sudan, but leadership failures and ethnic divisions have undermined attempts to forge a nation for Africa’s youngest state.

It is common to hear South Sudanese lamenting on the history of the struggle for independence, sometimes in the form of songs that were used to celebrate their valor and raise morale for battle and at times talking fondly of the military battalions that bore animal names in Jieng language, like Timsah (crocodile), Jamus (buffalo) or Muor Muor (fire ant). There are also personal memories of hard and testing times people passed through or to decry histories of exploitation and abuse by Khartoum-based governments. Others talk of battles where they lost their limbs, where they escaped death. Some keep records of episodes of deadly war-induced famines of 1988, 1998 and 2002 when hundreds of thousands of people perished in Bahr el Ghazal and the Upper Nile regions. Aerial attacks by Sudanese army from high-altitude Russian-made bombers were particularly horrific events that, once experienced, never leave one’s memory.  

Also ubiquitous in collective memory are episodes of helicopter gunships launching missiles into crowds of desperately hungry people while receiving humanitarian aid at United Nations food distribution sites, which were common and most menacing and deadly. One such incident that occurred in the village of Bieh, Western Upper Nile, on February 21, 2002, hit huge crowds of emaciated bodies, killed scores at once, and has remained in the memory of people who witnessed it.  

When independence came in 2011, the euphoria surrounding this moment was rooted in the end to the long and bloody struggle for self-determination and the expectation that lives would change for the best. But the new country confronted everything a country emerging from protracted conflict always faces; the need to build infrastructure, political transition, economic reconstruction, provision of security, aiding the returning refugees, ensuring transitional justice and mending the wounds that the war had stamped on the relationships between various communities. Nearly 20 years since the war ended, South Sudan has spectacularly failed at each of these endeavors, making peace and security unreachable and communal violence a continuing daily occurrence throughout the country.  

South Sudan is still embroiled in fighting between government and numerous armed opposition groups, which consume resources, stifle development, destroy livelihoods and continue to displace people. This has dimmed the ecstasy of independence. 

These ongoing wars are rooted in political mistakes that the liberators made during the big war against Sudan in which South Sudanese also inflicted unspeakable suffering onto each other, often through factional fighting among the liberation fighters along ethnic lines and violent political disagreements. Stories of displacement and refuge to northern Sudan, to Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda spanning three decades became subject of many heart-wrenching journalistic reports and books, some written by survivors themselves. All these make South Sudan’s current social fabric, cultural landscape and historical narrative, a story of human resilience, greed, military setbacks, ambiguous liberation goals, blurred visions for the future and a capacity for violence, even as people concurrently searched and cried for peace.  

At independence, the struggle to be free may have achieved its primary goal – to have a sovereign state – but this history has stamped visible wounds on the bodies of both fighters and ordinary civilians. When wounded veterans march on the streets to celebrate historic dates, their sheer numbers and sense of resilience they maintain, can arouse emotions. It also seems to have left a massive burden on the shoulders of the citizens in terms of shattered livelihoods, trauma and loss of social capital, and on the collective conscience in terms of the responsibility to transform the young country into the stable, unified, prosperous and open society that generations of South Sudanese had yearned for.  

There are ways in which the history of liberation has become an albatross around the neck of the new country. And now, South Sudanese are either fighting each other because of this history or are constantly debating about it in forums, through song, in oral stories or through the written word, which can be poetic and beautiful, because this is their way of coming to terms with or offloading the burden of memory. The question is whether talking about it eases the burden or aggravates the wounds. 

I have been doing social science research for many years in South Sudan and I have always asked my interlocutors why they seem to cling to these stories of the past so tightly! They often tell me the usual cliché of the need to remember history as a reminder of mistakes made, so one avoids repeating them. They talk of history as part of the foundation of a nation, reflecting on the cost they have incurred to achieve their country, indeed, an enormous price that should remind the leaders of how much the citizens of this country have suffered and why they need to see tangible liberation dividends in the form of public goods and services and equitable distribution of national resources.  

For decades, the people of South Sudan endured marginalization, oppression, and violence at the hands of the Sudanese government in Khartoum. Consequently, the words such as equity, unity, security, human dignity, quality education, healthcare, food production, infrastructure and stability were on the lips of all South Sudanese at the time of independence. These were the basic minimum expected rewards for what they saw as their contribution to freeing their country.  

However, a new and most potent force against progress creeped in, and that is that the liberators developed a sense of entitlement to government jobs and public resources, saying they had made the ultimate sacrifices to free the country and now the time has come to get paid. As William Blake put it in his poem, The Grey Monk, “The iron hand crush’d the tyrant's head, and became a Tyrant in his stead.” 

This manifested itself in embezzlement of public resources and other forms of maleficence, including fraudulent contracts, bloated government payroll, inflated claims for medical treatment abroad and siphoning of cash off to foreign countries. A UN commission report found that a “staggering $36 million” had been misappropriated since 2016. “It is worth noting this is just what we were able to trace and may not reflect the whole picture,” the commission’s chair, Yasmin Sooka warned.  

This quickly created economic disparities between well-placed liberators and the ordinary citizens, and in turn produced a ghastly corruption-conflict nexus. South Sudanese are carefree people and do not tolerate oppression. They now joke that the country needs liberation from the liberators. 

I was in Juba, South Sudan’s capital, on the day the referendum results were announced in January 2011 showing that the vote was 98% in favor of separation from Sudan and again at independence on July 9, 2011.  

On both occasions, celebrations throughout the city were overwhelming. Slogans such as “South Sudan will be born in six months,” or “at long last, we are free,” or “bye-bye Sudan” adorned the town’s roundabouts and street corners. The city of more than half a million people, the majority of them poor returning refugees,came alive. No other event had brought South Sudanese together like this in their entire recorded history. There was an expression of a profound sense of unity. There was palpable euphoria and strong promise that South Sudan would become a tale of prosperity, given the abundance of resources. However, despite this apparent unity, the fact that the country is home to a diverse array of ethnic groups, each vying for power, resources, and influence, meant that deep-seated ethnic divisions within society simmered below the surface.  

This weighed down the country and it suddenly descended into war on the night of December 15, 2013, just over a year after independence.  

Though triggered by the political rivalry between President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar, the conflict took on ethnic overtones. It pitted the country’s two biggest ethnic nations, the Jieng (Dinka) and the Naath (Nuer), against each other, escalating into a full-fledged ethnic-based civil war, characterized by widespread violence, atrocities, and displacement of millions of people. The whole world was shocked!  

Discerning South Sudanese were not surprised, but they were still shocked by the scale and viciousness of that war. International and regional efforts to broker peace agreements have been fraught with setbacks, and the country has remained mired in a cycle of violence and instability. The consequences of this war are perhaps the most devastating challenges facing South Sudan today. Parties to the war and the political contestants who triggered it all kept describing it as “the senseless war”; a war whose root causes were a puzzle, even to the participants in it. The question that almost everyone asked was why and how a country that was born of tragic tale of a protracted liberation struggle against a formidable foe, achieved through massive sacrifice in human lives and material resources, so quickly and spectacularly fell.  

The answer is sprinkled all over the long road to statehood, in South Sudan’s ethnic structure and in the behavior of individual leaders who championed the liberation drive and who took the helms of power when the liberation war ended.  

Part of the answer lies in the liberation era lapses in foresight. The failure to consider ethnic make-up as a potential risk for example and whether the war-time political unity was likely to endure after independence. Liberation was pursued without any clarity or discussion of what would make South Sudan a nation, beyond statehood, once it became independent.  

Most people who participated in the liberation effort were more preoccupied with a sense of grievance towards north Sudan; they felt they were victims of alien exploitation since the slave trade and wanted to rectify that. Liberation leaders seemed less concerned with the question of what would glue the disparate ethnic communities together to forge a unified nation.  

The spectacular implosion of South Sudan was a direct product of this political reality, that South Sudan became a country but not a nation. Given the strong rallying around separation, the leaders took unity for granted and there was no investment made to set up programs that would imbue the people with a sense of collective citizenship in the nation-state and less in the ethnic-nations. But South Sudan's instability and failure are also economic. The economy, heavily reliant on oil revenue, turned the liberators into a kleptocracy that has captured the state and has no conception of how to use the country’s resources for the people’s welfare. The politico-military leadership effectively failed to govern the country and meet the citizens’ needs because it lacked coherent policies and institutional capacity. 

To conclude, South Sudan’s journey from the euphoria of independence to the reality of a failed state serves as a cautionary tale of the complexities and challenges of nation-building. Despite the initial optimism, deep-rooted internal divisions, leadership squabbles, corruption and prolonged conflict connived to thwart the country’s aspirations for peace and development. As South Sudan continues to grapple with its myriad challenges, the path to stability and prosperity remains elusive, underscoring the need for dialogue to address the root causes of her predicament. The foundations upon which the new country is built are superficial, only an outward appearance. 

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