OMAHA-- In July 2005, Dr. John Garang de Mabior, longtime leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), who had just become the first vice president of Sudan following the north-south peace treaty, met his untimely death when the chopper he was in crashed en route from Uganda. And South Sudan, as we now know it, was changed forever. I remember sitting through those darkest hours after that fateful day that saw the demise of South Sudanese liberation icon and wondering aloud. The day was July 30, 2005...one of the longest days in South Sudanese liberation history. The evening had finally arrived, either on July 31 or on August 1. I had just joined a small group of friends and colleagues, as we gathered outside, if helplessly. A deep sense of foreboding had enveloped those entire days, as Diasporians were sifting through confusion and the gravity of the news that was unfolding tens of thousands of miles and worlds away.
And, of all the questions one voice could muster that day, of all the unanswered questions and thoughts that were racing through my mind that very hour, one was particularly poignant: whether South Sudanese would get a leader like John Garang ever again, a champion known for looking out for the vulnerable populations and the long suffering people of South Sudan—a steady hand who would guarantee the fragile hopes, the dreams and the security of our people.
But nothing was quite making sense those hours. Then word came, amid such uncertainty, that the Political Bureau/National Liberation Council of the SPLM had called an emergency meeting to choose a new leader. I could only imagine how wrenching that meeting must have been for those who assembled that hour.
To those of us familiar with the Liberation Days, the very nature of that ‘emergency’ or crisis management meeting was in keeping with how the SPLA/SPLM used to handle its affairs and/or resolve key liberation issues (Read: Chukudum '94 and Rumbek '04). The Movement had such an impeccably mature approach to problem solving, which traces it its roots to the very humble beginnings of the People’s Movement in 1983. It all began with that improvable call to arms by small cadres of courageous leaders who set out on behalf of millions of oppressed South Sudanese to launch a revolutionary experiment in self-government. In years that followed, South Sudanese became so united against the north, with the sole purpose to bring about total self-determination and political transformation—to change the failed, old political ideology, beliefs and attitudes, and o change the way governments and individuals do things—basically to bring about equitable distribution of national resources.
To wit: both the Jesh el Asuot and Jesh el Amer would soon follow suit with their knack for legendary revolutionary songs which were composed primarily to boost morale, and also as a nod to the kind of future of liberty that all South Sudanese could imagine. Those revolutionary songs were also sung against entrenched and oppressive systems in Khartoum, as well as a stern warning and as a cautionary tales against all kinds of purveyors of oppression, corruption and bourgeoisie—past, present and future. And, yes, the People’s Movement stuck through it, fought gallantly, and never looked backed until the goal was achieved in January 2005.
And, even on that fateful day in July 2005, as uncertain as what the future would look like, our people remained united in grief and especially by the immortal words of Rebecca Garang who summoned tremendous courage to comfort the nation during those toughest times.
And, yet, despite that entire revolutionary ethos, the erstwhile mighty liberation movement turned political party in its current hyphenated forms—ig, io and dc.—now seems woefully prepared to solve the intractable problems facing South Sudan, 11 years later. It was not long before my initial fears were confirmed. Throughout the years that followed, my heart has always ached for the millions of vulnerable women and children who would be displaced and condemned to starvation by political violence. Maybe something as earth shattering could only save South Sudan from itself.
So how did we get here?
The simplest explanation or hypothesis is that if South Sudanese and their political leaders had lived up to the revolutionary principles the way they spent decades fighting their sworn enemy, South Sudan would not be in such a mess. But people chose the easiest route—that of acquiescence and abdication of moral responsibility to one another, allowing a once in a life time historical opportunity to go to waste.
When leaders started off by turning people on each other and not offer them guidance or a political vision, when leaders began with the aim of settling of old scores and by targeting and fueling ethnic animosity, if the citizenry are not given adequate information to make informed decisions, if fear, pride and paranoia become a substitute for a political strategy, then the sum total is the current sorry state of affairs in South Sudan, or as I would like to call them: the chronicles of accidental presidency.
In our short political history as a country, we have become more polarized. The country has gone through scandals and betrayals of historical proportions. Our political leaders have been manipulating and setting people against one another..targeting opponents...paving the way for what has become known in Juba parlance as deaths by ‘unknown gunmen’—basically the equivalence of anarchy and organized crime in our beloved capital city. We have talked ourselves out of any sensible approach to solving our issues. Our body politics is damaged beyond repair. There is no single credible, trusted institution, although there is the physical parliament in Juba and a virtual parliament on social media, all finding it hard to realign policy and politics.
So the question becomes, have we lived up to our revolutionary principles? Did we ever imagine a future in which sectarian politics would always beget sectarian violence and accepted as a norm? Did we ever imagine that we would live through an entire decade in which people won’t dare to demand to see excellent performance from their leaders? Did we ever imagine that the citizens would easily tune out after few years of trying to offer practical advice and concrete proposals that felt on deaf ears? And that some of those same young professionals who labored to offer those ideas would just tune out, resort to singing praises to the failed leaders as a way to get ahead or as a matter of loyalty verging on tribal relations. That we would see a South Sudan in which normalization of violence and mediocrity would be encouraged. Did we not get the memo on what oppression truly meant or were we fighting to institute the same tactics from Khartoum’s oppressive playbook? Just go figure.
I know there is too much hatred and cynicism in South Sudan these days, but it would serve our country well if our people could sometimes take a moment to reflect and appreciate all that we did during the war of liberation—by revisiting what Garang said and did, especially now that we are scrambling to find our way out of the political labyrinths.
It is why I sometimes think that whoever killed Dr. John Garang succeeded in robbing South Sudanese of a chance at greatness. His loss denied Africa and the world its 21st century success story—considering SPLM was the last revolutionary experiment of the 20th century. I could only compare Garang’s death with the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Gen. Yitzhak Rabin, whose death at the hand of one extremist law student effectively foreclosed any chance of a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians, following the Oslo peace accord in 1995. So what is the Solution?
Toward Emerging Peace and Ethnic Reconciliation and/or Relations in South Sudan
Leadership has become such an underappreciated phenomenon in South Sudan so much so that people now fall for any ‘leader’ without regard for or capacity to influence things and bring about real solutions to national problems.
Honestly, the problems facing South Sudan are one that would have been solved in the past 11 years. But our leaders have proven time and again that they suck at governing. There is a running joke these days, especially in the wake of world attention, that somehow those same failed leaders only have the solution to what is ailing their country.
South Sudanese who pretend like nothing untoward has ever happened under Kiir and Machar watch, as well as those who say there is a quick fix either are world-class hypocrites or they are oblivious to the fact that reasonable people see through that lie. So let’s face it: there is not going to be a quick solution to South Sudanese problems. No quick solution will come from Kiir and Machar. Ditto, no regional or international efforts will bring about a durable solution to South Sudan anytime soon. There is so much fatigue around the world to intervene anymore, because countries are busy with their own issues. It took us a quite amount of time to bring the world’s youngest republic to its knees and it will take us just about the same amount time to figure out a way before the country cleans things up.
But genuine political solution is not always hard to find, as long as people begin by acknowledging mistakes and saying the Truth, and especially with the right amount of people offering courageous leadership and asking the right questions.
Had our leaders lived up to our core liberation principles and core values as a people, we would have found a genuine political solution a long time ago. But we allowed great ideas and proposals to go to waste—ideas that were contributed by South Sudanese who have a keener and deeper understanding and appreciation of the world as it is.
In the end, I believe a genuine political solution will come the day the majority of South Sudanese will resolve to wake up and be clear-eyed and finally realize that they have power to make informed decisions, which is the basic definition of self-determination. The solution will come when all South Sudanese will begin to reclaim the ‘people’ as it is enshrined in the People’s Movement, because there is a reason why that was added from the very beginning of the liberation.
Solutions will come the day the leadership and the citizens will start listening to one another; solution will come the day the citizens will learn to demand accountability from their leaders; the day all South Sudanese will learn to separate facts from falsehoods…and on the day they will start rejecting leaders who rely on cunning tactics; on the day they will begin electing real leaders who go into politics for the right reasons—those who view politics not as a means to loot state resources and get rich quickly ,but rather as a calling to do the people’s business, to work hard by passing consequential legislative policies and making decisions that make lives better for millions of our fellow citizens.
The solution will finally come on the day our leaders will stop surrounding themselves with advisors whose only qualifications are loyalty and relations to one another.
The solution will come when the government realizes that we live in the information age and that citizens have every right to information from their government as well as from the press; and that there is right to a free, independent press and that journalists adhere to fidelity and must exercise their editorial responsibilities without intimidation whatsoever.
The solution will come when South Sudan has a disciplined, professional army organized into a proud symbol of our country, with the sole obligation to protect all South Sudanese and as a guarantor of our national sovereignty.
And, yes, the solution will finally come to South Sudan on the very day both Salva Kiir Mayardit and Riek Machar Teny-Dhurgon and their lieutenants will have relinquished power—and elect real leaders—and finally admitting that there is a lesson and a limit to ignorance and treachery and that ignorance cannot take you far.
These are the essentials of an emerging peace, ethnic reconciliation/relations, and a true national healing in South Sudan.