South Sudanese: Ignore Internet forums at your own peril

In the wake of the Stephen Baak fiasco two months ago, in which British authorities at Heathrow Airport confiscated US $137,000 belonging to GOSS, the ministry of regional cooperation issued a strongly worded statement criticising “idol voices” on the Internet who spend their time fabricating issues.

The exasperation with the often hostile opinions against GOSS has of late reached the highest echelons of the SPLM. On a visit to Washington DC, early this year, none other than President Salva Kirr expressed disdain at the way his administration is portrayed on Southern Sudanese discussion forums on the web. Writing on, Peter Adwok Nyaba, an SPLM minister in the government of national unity, also echoed Kirr’s concerns.

Both gentlemen’s concerns are real. Southern Sudanese forums on the web gather a motley of strange bedfellows. Some are highly educated and capable of expressing themselves properly in writ. Others are barely literate, unaware of decent communication manners and generally use the forums for hostile debates and for soiling people’s reputations. As a result, it is not uncommon to find these forums oozing in a name-calling fest, sometimes laced with ethnic slurs. In addition, GOSS seems to take the worst of it. Sometimes the opinions that filter through, unrealistically paint GOSS as a government of inept goons whose main mission is to loot the public coffers.

But it would be unfair to claim that patrons of these sites don’t engage in constructive criticism of GOSS. In the same vein, it would be ridiculous to deny the presence of the sycophants, the blind cheer-leaders of the government, who mistake any criticism for a vendetta against the Dinka ethnic group.
The end result of the disparate opinions between the Southern Sudanese Internet community and GOSS is mistrust. But I want to argue that it would be naive of GOSS to entirely dismiss these discussion forums on the Internet because of a misplaced notion that the people who patronize them are “idol” and pampered Southerners in the diaspora with lots of time to waste.

It would be prudent of GOSS officials to recognise the opportunities of the Internet, embrace this medium, and use it to their advantage. This should be accepted with the recognition that the Internet has changed the way we behave and communicate. Communication scholars say the Internet has resulted in the “death of distance.” Like instant coffee, we are now able to access information fast as long as we are hooked up to a modem, and spread this information to a multitude in ways we never imagined before.

Notice that the Baak scandal was first leaked to an Internet site by an irate “insider” while GOSS tried to keep a lid on the affair—and succeeded to do so for two months. At first, it was dismissed as a case of sour grapes, a disgruntled employee who had an axe to grind. But when GOSS responded with a statement, it cemented the fact that not all corruption allegations against GOSS are the work of an imaginative mind.
Notice that it was also through the Internet that GOSS tried to contain and explain the fiasco. If anything, the irony should inspire GOSS to recognize the power of the Internet. I want to say we haven’t seen the last of stories similar to Baak’s.

The Internet forums have replaced the big tree in the village, under which all the men gather to discuss affairs. The forums have replaced the Kwete Andaya, the bar, the funeral place, and the club. The forums are fertile with a variety of information and opinions. GOSS should learn to grasp the useful information and discard the useless. In South Sudan, the poor standards of journalism ensure that the government and the people do not have an adequate forum from which to gather public opinion.

The forums are a pool from which to pick what the public thinks of GOSS’s actions. The forums represent the Southern Street. SPLM forum, for instance, has over 2,000 members—and growing—registering an average of 300 new posts daily. This is a healthy sample for observing public opinion which any government would be naive to ignore.

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