Commentary: South Sudan needs steady leadership to save it from collapse


Salva Kiir_Machar 


“After years in which millions were kept outside looking in, lacking access to basic services, there is a deep feeling of betrayal by Kiir and Machar government,” writes New Sudan Vision President, Joseph Deng Garang. “It prompts one to ask the epic question: what happened to the People’s Liberation Movement (now the governing Party) that single handedly bested the mighty regimes in Khartoum? What happened to the empathy and the heart that we grew during the war of liberation?”


(OMAHA, USA) – IN August 2005, days after the mysterious death of South Sudan founding father Dr. John Garang de Mabior, a certain local journalist wrote, “With Salva Kiir, South Sudan is in right hands.”  Fast forward seven years and South Sudan looks like a nation bereft of hope and vision. It is a nation mired in a sea of challenges. This month one of the war heroes who helped free the country was dragged from his house and shot execution style. Days later, over 20 people were killed by security forces after citizens protested in Wau.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the people of South Sudan need no expertise in the business of polling to conclude that their country is veering off badly. All the hue and cry over the tragedies unfolding in the country lead to only one conclusion—the country is manifestly in need of a steady hand to steer it toward greater tolerance, that it is in need of a stable hand, a clear vision, a direction and a unity of purpose — a steady leadership aimed at wresting us from the abyss of darkness. In fact many citizens reached this conclusion a long time ago in an unspoken citizen verdict that we risk losing the first republic to corruption and intolerance.

For some the outrage has been over the endemic corruption. If you Google corruption in South Sudan, you get a whopping over 16, 000, 000 results. Sixteen million!—that is twice the number of our population. And after the recent scandal regarding the 4 billion stolen by our public officials, you wonder if we will be the first nation in history to be the unfortunate holders of the World Guinness of Records at this early stage of our nationhood.

But for others, the tipping point came on December 5, 2012 when the world woke up to news of the assassination of the war hero turned political commentator Maj. Isaiah Diing Abraham Chan Awuol. His death has now galvanized millions of South Sudanese, young and old, around an expression of outrage never before seen since the death of Dr. John Garang, whose untimely death in 2005, shook the entire Sudan to its core (it was the heaviest loss suffered in East Africa that year, in fact there is no comparison or precedent in modern human history where the leader of a revolution was lost at the time people really needed him).

The late Isaiah Abraham is believed to have been killed for questioning the veracity of the now controversial ‘14 mile’ area that was included in the Cooperation Agreement signed on September 27 by both presidents of Sudan and South Sudan in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. And, even with  those barbarians and bastards having taken Isaiah away from us, people are still asking: was the Cooperation Agreement a pyrrhic victory or a charm offensive by President Bashir?

For a look at the current level of outrage regarding the assassination, look no further than the heartfelt eulogies South Sudanese are offering both online as well as in private conversations. What young country starts by killing off its citizens especially for engaging the public in the battle of ideas? Even the scripture says a people without a vision perish.

Abandoned vision



“From day one John Garang (photo) was intent on making South Sudan an agricultural superpower on the African continent. He used to speak with pride and confidence as he would beam at the prospect of making South Sudan a potential breadbasket across Sub-Saharan Africa. He knew that with steady leadership, our people have that capacity to be for Africa what other prosperous nations are for the first and second worlds”. 

Nearly thirty years ago South Sudanese braved the entrenched forces of oppression in Sudan by starting an experiment in African revolutionary politics. They aptly named it the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). The Movement captured the imagination of all those who were yearning for liberty and human dignity and sure it delivered in a 2005 peace treaty. A new wave of political consciousness was born in South Sudan when the hallmark of that treaty culminated in the independence of South Sudan in July 2011. The independence was celebrated with great fanfare by those who bore witnesses to its birth only to turn into epic disappointment.

Now there is nostalgia for the way Garang framed the question of our existence—one anchored in our history, in our inherent ability as a people, and, yes, in the unspeakable abundance of our God given natural resources chief among them, our exceptionally lush land. From day one John Garang was intent on making South Sudan an agricultural superpower on the African continent. He used to speak with pride and confidence as he would beam at the prospect of making South Sudan a potential breadbasket across Sub-Saharan Africa. He knew that with steady leadership, our people have that capacity to be for Africa what other prosperous nations are for the first and second worlds. He knew the revenues from oil during the interim period would be used to fuel this agricultural endeavor or enterprise.

He was a fierce believer that a nation as small as ours, with now over 8 million, could be fed from the abundance of our resources. But we know where those revenues ended up.  As soon as we went to Juba, our leaders were overwhelmed by their newfound opportunities and the vision thing died–or got tossed back to the crucible of civil war.  For our leaders, paying huge salaries won the priority. Many started writing dubious contracts masquerading as foreign companies thereby winning millions in government contracts which were then stashed away in foreign accounts. Some resorted to building mansions outside the country, all while insulting our citizens as lazy people refusing to cultivate crops even in the thick of insecurity from violence that kept shattering the security of those communities.

Now the depths and levels of despair in South Sudan are unimaginable. Communities across South Sudan are full of broken spirits, but they are still holding on to every ounce of decency and resilience—the strength of character of once a beautiful society where people projected grace under whatever circumstance.

After years in which millions were kept outside looking in, lacking access to basic services, there is a deep feeling of betrayal by Kiir and Machar government. It prompts one to ask the epic question: what happened to the People’s Liberation Movement (now the governing Party) that single handedly bested the mighty regimes in Khartoum? What happened to the empathy and the heart that we grew during the war of liberation?

Have we as citizens of South Sudan been patient with our leaders to a fault? Did we fail to hold them to account early enough or were we just victims of circumstances? I know we had 6 years in which we were forbidden to talk harshly of leaders because the only stated goal was to wait for self-determination, something many of our so called leaders took as God sent opportunity to loot with impunity.

But, hey, it is not like we were not forewarned. In the guerrilla days, John Garang said quite candidly that he had found everyone to do the job except the one person who would distribute the national resources equitably and selflessly. And sadly his prophecy has come to pass.

South Sudan since Garang–Let’s unpack the epic fail

In our search for a country that might have been, there are three schools of thought for what is the trouble with South Sudan. The first school of thought is advanced by those with a liberation entitlement mentality. Their intricate association was recently captured by a colleague in a piece about their inner workings, describing the SPLM (the governing party) as made up of a bunch of “competing interests” irrespective of their ethnicity. It is an interesting expose’. This group is also full of those with reptilian brains; which probably may be the reason major decision making has been hard to come by over the years.  Have you heard of any major policy priorities or consequential laws passed by the parliament that are improving the lives and status of ordinary citizens? None whatsoever!

This group doesn’t give a rap about the posture of the country whether politically or socio-economically. Some of them are fine or seem complacent with the fact that we have a place called South Sudan and that is it. This group recoils at the words of advice that drip profusely from fellow citizens who are concerned about the political future.They have surrounded themselves with bootlickers who are bent on silencing the masses especially those who dare speak against the government.When the government was formed in Juba, their first test was money. But the allure of money became so irresistibly tempting that all policy priorities were inadvertently pushed to the back burner. The leaders became more obsessed with getting rich at the expense of country. Now that they are millionaires, with no institutional infrastructure to show, the reality is beginning to catch up with them. 

Since 2005 Kiir has experimented with the government. He has surrounded himself with fairly loyal crowd.  In 2006 he was praised for incorporating over 60, 000 militiamen who came from Khartoum with the late Gen. Paulino Matip. According to one of the top generals who disagreed with Kiir on the integration process at the time, the whole thing should have been handled gradually and with more thoughtfulness. Ever since, various militia groups have taken advantage of that model.

The second school of thought is advanced by those with anti-Dinka attitudes. Those are the ones who are calling SPLM’s bluff. They have the advantage of calling the government a Dinka property thanks to the weak leadership of Kiir. It is a bunch of weak oppositions masquerading as political parties. Their goal, God forbid, will be nothing short of settling old and imaginary scores by meting out some sort of payback. They are consumed with bitterness. Their argument goes something like this: South Sudan is a small country of 8 million citizens who have been left outside looking in by those in Juba and if they are given a chance they can improve people’s lot. They have a point except that the nation knows their track record or lack thereof. They are right to point out how miserably the SPLM has failed to deliver given its stellar revolutionary credo and national resources. The heavy weights in this camp include Dr. Lam Akol, and a couple of opinion writers such as Dr. James Okuk, Dr. Justin Ambago, and El Hag Paul.

The third school of thought is advanced by those in the government who have less faith in the ability of young South Sudanese to do the job. Many leaders refused to hire qualified people and instead surrounded themselves with those with limited skills. The resultant effect over the years: poor productivity and more cards playing at work. South Sudan has a population of over 70 percent as youth, who by the way are the majority. The leadership has forgotten to invest in the youth and children. Educational opportunities only go to relatives of those in government. Children whose parents have been killed are left holding the bag. What could be more scandalous or morally bankrupt for a society? The youth unemployment before the erratic decision that shut down the oil production without alternatives was high. Many of the youth are in South Sudan. Some are in the Diaspora. The lack of acceptance has led to anti-Diaspora sentiments or a growing gap between those at home and in the Diaspora. You may be aware of the thousands of South Sudanese across the globe and many of them have talent that is going to waste because the people running the government would rather hire foreigners, or next of kin. The usual lecture given to expatriates goes like this: Go back to school, get experience or wait for your time because the adults will have to put things in place first. Are we youth becoming persona non grata in our country?

Mind you, many of these people in the Diaspora have college degrees. Some of them are veterans of the SPLA; some are the very children of the revolution otherwise known as the Lost Boys who acted as the first ambassadors before South Sudan even became a country. What with advocacy, because when most of them set foot in Europe, North America or Australia, they informed the world about the carnage in their home country. When the Lost Boys arrived in America in 2000 and 2001, they made it a priority to passionately educate Americans including the United States Congress about the horrors of war in Sudan, thereby resulting in the signing of the Sudan Peace Act of 2002, which slapped Sudan with crippling sanctions. I think not a single official in the current Kiir administration is aware of that important contribution.

Leadership attitudes and judgment

Our top leadership has, of late, resorted to their usual reactionary tone, this time blaming citizens. They have realized that their failure to communicate to the country a sense of nationalism and to articulate a clear direction, a vision and unity of purpose is hurting the country. We are a nation on the horns of dilemma, groping in the dark for its national identity and character. So they are looking for people to scapegoat. For example the big three (Kiir, Riek and Pagan) began insulting citizens as a bunch of ‘misinformed’ after the protest over the cooperation agreement. As if that was not enough, Kiir and Machar doubled down on the talk about trauma of war, saying that many people are suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. Did it just dawn on them that the trauma and the toll of civil war are real and can be measured in those scars like the lost limbs or the emotional wounds over loss of loved ones? Did anyone notice a pattern of diversion, detraction and contempt here? First it was oil shutdown after public outcry over fiasco on Panthou, then it is ‘you guys are misinformed on the cooperation agreemnt’, now it is those talking points on trauma.

Trauma is the price we survivors paid for liberation, and must not be talked about lightly. The whole country suffers from it including Kiir and Machar, unless they did not lose any relatives or are in denial. The way our leaders have decided to mock the public as if war trauma is some isolated stigma or disease affecting a few hundreds or thousands is shameful. The vice President Riek Machar shamelessly went around the United States saying people are traumatized. What are you doing about it after seven years? Will the speeches heal the whole country?  Is the truth just getting to Kiir and Machar this late or is this their thinly veiled attempt to silence the public after their shoddy performance on the post independence deals?

 At any rate it is backfiring. The way President Kiir and Vice President Machar contemptuously talk about this national tragedy calls into question their judgment and leadership qualities for that matter. Gentlemen, you owe South Sudanese an apology. Who will rally the nation around a common soul -searching and fight the culture of intolerance that has led to organized crime and  killing of our citizens?

The vice president also in a talk to foreign investors in New York recently complained about our people having too many expectations. Well, Mr. Vice President, you are right. Our people are aiming higher. They have ambitions that are equivalent in size to the vision that was set forth by the SPLM or did Garang set too higher a bar for us including the current administration to climb?

Looking back seven years, and looking at President Kiir, who came in as someone who was going to be a consensus-builder, you wonder whether there was an adequate contingency plan or some sort of social protection for the most vulnerable: IDPs, women and children who came from various refugee camps like Kakuma or Labone displaced camp, after they were haphazardly relocated. You wonder whether all the logistical nightmares surrounding repatriation of IDPS and refugees from Khartoum would have been mitigated. You wonder whether physical infrastructure/institutional infrastructure/enforcement of the rule of law and order, impartial judicial system would have been laid as the first foundation stone of our republic. You wonder whether the entire bloodbath from recent ethnic conflicts in Jonglei would have been avoided especially after the fact that we emerged from a civil war that cost over 2.5 million lives. You wonder aloud whether we are instituting a police state, were life has become so expendable that someone can just take it with impunity. Look at Juba, where killing is becoming a sport. Someone says it looks and sounds like a city right out of George Orwell novels or should I say right out of the Middle Ages?

So how did this happen?  And whose legacy will it be?  It will be the Kiir and Machar administration, without a doubt. And who will dig us out of that black hole we are in and put us on a path toward progress? The answer is not President Kiir Mayardit,. It is not Vice President Riek Machar, nor is it Pagan Amum, the Party’s Secretary General, because when push came to shove, these leaders acquiesced to political malfeasance.

Youth verdict —the way forward in redefining South Sudan

The hardest thing we have had to endure as youths over the last seven years is how our leaders continued to underperform. They have not been seen as trying hard. This is the battle cry of a people in whose DNA exist a deep sense of an appreciation for every bit of hard work. The historic 2011 independence may have granted us freedom but the behavior of the so called leaders has left us wanting, calling into question the very efficacy of the liberation of mankind. The citizens of South Sudan are smarter than their leaders would give them credit. They are ahead of many decision makers. They have expressed greater interest in seeing things change for the better. At times during the last seven years they have taken a beating on their souls because of the way the leaders talked at each other instead of to each other.

It is why the next two years will be so crucial if we ever are going to save South Sudan from itself. As we head into 2013, three things are beckoning: the SPLM Convention, constitutional convention to ratify a permanent constitution, and the recent talk of a national reconciliation. How we handle or cross the three conceptual bridge (I call it the Threshold Triangle) will determine whether we lose the first republic all together after which the second republic will have to be painstakingly crafted. While it is long overdue for South Sudan to conduct a national reconciliation, the questions on everyone’s lips are: will it be a genuine one?  Or will it be used by some as a stepping stone – a springboard to power? Will it be an opportunity to resurrect SSIM as a party? I’m just asking.

To the youth of South Sudan, the onerous now falls on all of you, particularly you the Jesh el Amer, to start recruiting the best minds from among yourselves and all those who believe in public service, those who believe that there is a decent intersection of politics and policy, those who understand politics and policy in the best sense of the word. Those aspiring for office must start organizing by attending the SPLM conventions with a simple message of accountability to people not loyalty to Kiir or Machar and start by engaging our citizens at grassroots levels. This will be a wakeup call to all leaders that says, look, if you are not doing your job, we will throw you out in 2015.

You may not know this but I think the young people of South Sudan taught Africa and the world an inspiration in 2011. Before there was Arab Spring which has now taken over as the most sensational news in western media, there was referendum in South Sudan and the images of young people creating a new country with their votes were iconic. I know in Tunisia the protests were set off by the self-immolation by Mohammed Bouazizi –the fruit vendor who set himself on fire over outrage at the pace of things in his country. But when young people in Egypt saw that and what we did next door, in January referendum,  they said, if  the young people of South Sudan could face down the mighty enemy in Khartoum and create a new country then why not us. Sadly, their reaction came 30 years too late.

As youth let us not wait sheepishly for our time to come as some of our leaders have tricked us into believing because that time will not come, or even if it comes it will be too late by then because it is always important to get things right the first time especially when it is something as historic and consequential as building a new country. The tomorrow -is –your- time- leadership motto of the past is vanishing. Will it ever come? Go figure.

A legacy to protect

I think I speak for most young writers when I say that one of the best things the late Isaiah Abraham has taught us is the ability to rise above the usual pettiness of tribal politics. Many, including me, became aware of his ethnic background after he had died. He transcended tribal politics. He will be remembered as a voice of reason and a model for what we need in a true citizenship.  It is with a heavy heart that I say the nation will dearly miss him during these important times of national debates, whether it is on constitutional convention, the likelihood of national reconciliation or most importantly, the elections of 2015, the first since independence. Imagine the kinds of questions he would have asked. Imagine the kind of analysis, insights or backdrop he would have provided. Just imagine!

If those heartless assassins had given the late Isaiah a chance to share a few parting words with us, some of those might have read like this: to you all the passionate writers out there, who have kept the flame of national discourse burning, don’t retreat into some literary refuge because of intimidation. Continue engaging the public because South Sudan will be built with ideas and the sheer embrace of the diversity of opinions.

Aside from the independence, which came thanks to the overwhelming votes of our citizens, future historians will also say, inarguably, that the one economic term that will be will be tied in juxtaposition with the last seven years will be the loss in terms of opportunity cost.

Few global lessons compare to our liberation experience. It took us 21 years to get here. Mamphela Ramphele, one of the leading anti-Apartheid activists in South Africa was recently quoted in The New York Times as saying, “freedom has to be won over and over.” It doesn’t end with one liberation trial. I think the same will be true for our case. And this is how South Sudan will be saved.

It is equally instructive to also say, at least incidentally, that it took Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan 22 years to build the Taj Mahal in memory of his wife, a museum in India, which to this day remains one of the wonders of the world. It was named world heritage site by UNESCO in 1983, the same year we started our guerilla war. Built 380 years ago, people say its architectural design is still the finest. It is unrivaled.

During the war we were used to hearing about Jallaba questioning our ability to self-govern. Now will be the time to stop that from becoming a self fulfilling prophecy. Now will be the time while we have little patience left to save the republic.

Because I know this, 100 years from now it is not going to matter much who our leader was today, instead it will matter what that leader built to improve the lot of his fellow countrymen. After we are all gone, and if we did not deliver, the question that will also be asked of our generation is: how did they allow self-interest to belie the vision millions gave their lives for?

For a liberation Movement that was once equipped both in terms of a program and vision, near flawless execution of the war, and able men, the question now is, will this current generation of leaders allow the country to fall into the same curse that dogs transitional democracies or will someone ultimately muster the courage to manage this transition and steer it to greater heights?

We have seen enough Acts of Junub tragedies played out over the years and the last thing we want to see is the repeat of that.

As for all our martyrs, their memory will always be the immortal thread on the quintessential fabric of our flag and country. Building a better country from the ashes of the civil war will even serve as a worthy monument to their heroic sacrifices!

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