Calgary, Alberta, Canada - The unfortunate suppression of freedom of expression and the nagging prevelance of insecurity in the last one year of independence crowned by the recent heartless and barbaric assassination of a vocal government critic, Ding Chan Awuol, popularly known by penname as Isaiah Abraham, make one to think that there is a systematic failure and that a quick action is needed to save the country from the onslaught of bad news.
Late Diing used words powerfully to express his thoughts, which transcended regional and tribal divide in South Sudan. Born in 1962, Diing was a veteran of the South Sudanese liberation war, former United Nations humanitarian worker and a pastor in the Episcopal Church of the Sudan. Since 2005, Diing had distinguished himself as a vocal and fierce South Sudanese leadership critic and advocate of good governance and rule of law through his numerous articles. In October 2012, he wrote an article in which he asked for the president to “be removed” for his failures. Many people now believe this article might have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
Status of free press
Based on a report from Reporters without Borders, South Sudan ranked 111 out of 179 countries on the 2011 -2012 press freedom index. Incidents of suppression of freedom of expression are many. For example last year, Dengdit Ayok, a columnist and Ngor Arol Garang, Editor in Chief of the Destiny Newspaper were arrested, and their paper was suspended by the South Sudan National Security on charges of publishing an article which criticized the president for allowing his daughter to be married to an Ethiopian. In addition, Mading Ngor, a popular journalist, host of Radio Bakhita’s Wake up Juba show, and Chief Editor and Co-founder of the NewSudanVision.com, was harassed and thrown out of South Sudan National Legislative Assembly by security this year. Mading, before he left the country, had faced numerous threats for bringing people critical of the government to express their views freely at his show. Deng Athuai, a civil society leader and activist critical of the government, was this year kidnapped, tortured and left almost dead on the roadside outside Juba. Dr. James Okuk, a fiery critic of the government was arrested, detained and tortured on accusation of writing articles critical of the government.
These episodes remind me of the words of Sir Winston Churchill, a revered British Former Prime Minister, who said that dictators “are afraid of words and thoughts! Words spoken abroad, thoughts stirring at home, all the more powerful because they are forbidden.” They do not like criticism because they fear to lose power if their weaknesses are exposed. Like leaders in the fictional country of Oceania in the British author, George Orwell’s novel, 1984, our leaders seem “not interested in the good of others,” but "interested solely in power, pure power.” They are interested in power for the sake of it. Power is an end in itself, for if it wasn't, why would they not use it to protect people from the rampant crimes in the country?
Significance of freedom of expression
South Sudanese need freedom of expression not because it is an inalienable right but because it is one of the best tools to develop this war ravaged country. Media, which facilitates freedom of expression, is a tool for building a democratic and economically progressive society. For example, research studies have shown that free independent media institutions are great tools in the development process of a country. According to the BBC Worldwide Service, studies by the World Bank and the United Nations have demonstrated “that the more free journalists the greater the control over corruption and the greater the focus of resources on priority development issues.” Some of human development studies have also shown that “the weaker the constraints on the press, the more developed the country will be, and the more heavily the press is gagged, the poorer the country will be.”
Former World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn once said that “a free press is at the absolute core of equitable development, if you cannot enfranchise poor people. If they do not have a right to expression, if there is no searchlight on corruption and inequitable practices, you cannot build the public consensus needed to bring about change.”
Grave systematc failure
Whether Diing’s monstrous assassination is one of the common killings in Juba, which have been happening on regular basis or it is a politically motivated assassination (as many suspect), it shows a grave systematic failure by Kiir's government. However, it isn't too late for Mr. President to be brave and accept some of his failures and change the course! It is not too late to make tough decisions and take tough actions to save South Sudan. President Kiir is respected for his steadfastness during the liberation war and for steering Southern Sudan to independence where many people consider him a national hero. But this political capital is diminishing very fast. It is not too late to rescue his legacy and this country. What the country needs now is a rule of law and accountability.
Mr. President, let the criminals pay regardless of their walks of lives. If Juba's residents get killed regularly at night and the culprits are not caught and held accountable, it means someone isn't doing his job. If children and women are abducted and cattle raided and innocent people killed in Jonglei State and the criminals who commit these crimes are not held to account, it means someone isn't doing his job. If 4 billions US dollars went missing from the South Sudanese public coffers, and those who stole them aren't brought to account, it means someone isn't doing his job. If journalists, political and civil rights activists and writers are harassed, intimidated, beaten, tortured and killed and those who commit those crimes aren't arrested or punished, it means someone isn't doing his job.
Country's age shouldn't be an excuse for lack of action
We shouldn't be told that things aren't going on well because the country is young. There isn't such a thing as a country in the real sense, there are people, and our South Sudanese people weren't born on July 9, 2011 when South Sudan was born as a country.
President Kiir and those in the leadership are old enough by age and experience to institute quick legal measures to ensure security and control crimes. Being old means South Sudanese know what's morally right and wrong, how to institute morally acceptable measures to control unacceptable actions and obey those morally acceptable measures as they have done since time immemorial.
Resigning to the notion of a “baby country” as an excuse for why things aren't going well in the country is for President Kiir to discount's own experience as a liberation war hero who fought for freedom and knows how to ensure it is exercised and enjoyed. Unless Mr.President wants to tell us that his joining the struggle wasn't motivated by a desire to bring freedom when he took up arms but a desire for power for the sake of it which I do not believe.
I know it personally hurts to be called names but the President shouldn't take it personally. As he knows, leaders are subjected to public criticism and that is actually what makes nations develop. US President Barack Obama declared during his address to the United Nations General Assembly this year that “As president of our country, and commander-in-chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day, and I will defend their right to do so.” It doesn't make President Obama a lesser person to accept and tolerate criticisms. Like President Obama, President Kiir should defend South Sudanese rights to criticize him. He shouldn't have allowed those of Dengdit Ayok, Ngor Arol Garang and Dr. James Okuk to be subjected to suffering just because they criticised him. Taking them to court if there is such a law which prohibits them to do so would have been a better option.
Kiir's government should counter criticisms by disproving substantively how misguided our criticisms are. The President can in fact maintain power by allowing critical voices because these voices can be his mirror. The reason why President Kiir took up arms and used war as a mean to attain the independence of South Sudan was because Khartoum couldn't allow South Sudanese to freely express themselves in asking for change.The fact that the president seems to be indifferent to this ideal is a big irony. I believe he can take quick assuring actions to save the country. And if the President doesn't take immediate actions, we should do so otherwise our country risks becoming a pariah state.