It is really not fun to be constantly seen by the political and social elite of one’s country as a pestering voice who is constantly nagging about the frailties of leadership and the inequities in the system the society has come to take as normal.
It really says a lot about the degree of moral rot in a society when the voices of reason, be those artists, public intellectuals or critics, who point out social, cultural and political ills are silenced by means of blunt unlawful tools in the hands of the politically powerful.
Some of us, citizens of South Sudan, who are critical of the way the country has been governed since its independence nine years ago, have been written off as sell-outs, unpatriotic people who only see what is negative in our leaders’ behaviors and unwilling to acknowledge the progress that has been made. This is all despite the reality that these critics are just as proud of and invested in the welfare of our country as any next chest-pounding nationalist.
However, it is not only us the domestic critics who see the negatives, nor is it really that we are blind to progress and the great strides that South Sudan has made. Without any doubt, the country has come this far on a very long and treacherous road that only a hopeless skeptic can fail to recognise. The issue is that South Sudan really has a serious crisis of leadership on its hands.
At independence, for example, it was a middle-income country, born on the backs of several generations’ sacrifices to ensure that the inhabitants of this political entity have basic rights, just like any other sovereign people. But it is nine years this week since the country attained its sovereign existence and there is hardly any citizen who can say today that the people in charge of this country have done their best to advance any of the ideals over which South Sudanese went to war, not once, not twice, but over 192 years of struggle.
It has been said time and again, that South Sudan’s political leaders, whether in government or in opposition, have been callous about the lives of their people, not just in terms of the violence they have inflicted on the populace but also in terms of diversion of national resources, theft and flagrant disregard for the people’s expectation of public goods and services. They have been called out on being unflinching about the misery their competition for power and resources has inflicted on the ordinary people. They are said to have been deaf and blind about the unflattering global image their young country has garnered, within its short history, as one of the world’s most corrupt and violent countries, only competing for the bottom year-on-year with Somalia. They do not really seem to fully take in the collapse of the economy, the decline of the currency, the humiliation their representatives at the East African Community in Arusha or the African Union in Addis Ababa have had to endure, because of their country’s failure to live up to its obligations regarding financial contributions to regional blocs.
This does not even begin to say how experts and politicians in other countries have labelled South Sudan’s politicians, and by extension the whole country, as undeserving of being called a country or leaders respectively.
Even a South Sudanese national who is critical of the governance failures might sometimes feel bad when the country’s leaders are being so disdained, derided and shunned on a global stage. When South Sudan’s First Vice President Taban Deng was bullied and publicly humiliated at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC, in 2019, we were all in agreement that he did badly but somewhat defensive about the poor show of leadership that he demonstrated at the public event when we all needed him to sell a good image about the country. On that occasion, it was not that the VP struggled with the English language or was unprepared. The reality is that he had nothing to go by when it came to showing what positive things by which the country’s leadership could defend its miserable failure.
First of all, there is a colonial mentality here, not just within the leadership, but throughout the South Sudanese culture, that only critics from the global north have better tools and better ideas to criticise Juba, and that local critics, journalists, rights activists and public intellectuals within the country are only anti-government snitches, unpatriotic and total sell-outs. This is the facile manner towards which political leaders who are desperate to whitewash their misdeeds will gravitate. They will always reason that the fault must be with the caliber of the critics, not with the behavior of the said leaders.
South Sudanese leaders, like many Africans, will not acknowledge that the total fate of the country is likely to be one of doom for years to come, if they, and all of us Africans do not shed the colonial influences in everyday dealings. Otherwise, how can we justify that local critics go to jail, disappear or are publicly vilified just because they commented on the state of affairs in their own countries? How do we justify the hefty fees we pay the European and North American young university graduates to be “consultants” in our ministries, supposedly teaching us how to run our countries? A few years ago, I got into a fight with a 25-year-old Canadian “advisor” in South Sudan’s Ministry of Finance, over what he called “South Sudan’s development plan”. Seriously, what has such a young, inexperienced, pompous and unnecessarily expensive Canadian got to teach my leaders about development policies that any of us could not have done for free?
The fact is, if the “country” or the “nation” was the issue at stake, South Sudanese leaders would not have started a useless war in 2013, barely two years into the hard-earned independence. The war has consumed more than half a million lives in the last seven years and sent more than four million into refuge within and outside the country. That war has now come at the cost of human lives that did not need to be lost because we’ve already lost too many lives in the process of attaining independence. But that unjustifiable war has now come at the loss of material resources that could have gone into development and at the expense of the pride and loyalty to the nation among the populace.
Imagine, one very well-known liberation veteran hero, Lual Duang, from Aweil, who sang one of the most popular liberation morale songs in Dinka, “it is best we all die for our country than live as slaves,” which are now so well-known even non-Dinka speakers can sing them, is now left to deal with disease, hunger and isolation in his village of Malek Agaal such that his life brings tears to any nationalist’s eyes. If anyone who calls himself or herself a leader cannot be morally weighed down by this story, it is hardly worth the breath of any leader to say that those who criticise their everyday deeds are the problem.
But it is not just the locals who “nag” at the leaders. The whole world has been watching, how South Sudan, at 9 years of age as a modern country, has failed to live up to the promises its liberation leaders had made throughout the years of the struggle (1983-2005), and the world is disappointed in all of us. It is really mind-boggling, and there is hardly any excuse for the pathetic state in which South Sudan now finds itself. It is more painful that even a peace agreement these “leaders” have signed with each other takes so long to implement and often crumbles in the end. That South Sudan government could not even hold a public celebration of the ninth anniversary of independence on July 9 was unsurprising. The elephant in the room was the continued failure to turn the September 2018 peace agreement into reality.
The author is a professor of anthropology at Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University.