South Sudan’s situation and the real elephant in the room
Nov 12, 2020(Nyamilepedia) — The most common narrative about South Sudan paints a country confronting rampant communal violence, economic collapse, a tattered diplomatic image and multiple peace agreements that are yet to be implemented; a country where poverty is manufactured despite the abundance of resources, not least oil, land, livestock, rainwater and multiple rivers, including the White Nile.
Many of the world’s major indices rank South Sudan among the most corrupt and unsafe, having poor human development statistics – what the United Nations once described as “scary statistics” – manifested by pathetic literacy rates, infant and maternal mortality and low life expectancy in general.
One might quibble here and there about the studies and the source of the data that lead to the creation of this picture, but its citizens will be the first to agree with this image, based on their everyday experiences.
It is they who are currently dealing with some of the worst flooding in living memory and the government, the entity most responsible for the welfare of citizens, is nowhere to be seen. There is not even a public statement from the highest office in the land about a people whose lives and livelihoods have been washed away by an angry surge of water.
It is as painful for any people to live like this in this day and age as it is embarrassing to them to have lived on handouts from around the world for 50 years and to be taunted as they compete over Western humanitarian largesse. Any sense of national pride expressed by the masses on that glorious day of independence in 2011, when nearly two centuries of struggle culminated in freedom, has been waning by the day.
Who can blame a South Sudanese citizen who curses the day God put him or her in this country only to watch her child die from lack of food or because the biggest hospital in her country’s capital cannot give oxygen to someone gasping for breath?
These stories are not new and do not surprise anyone anymore, at least not to people who live in this country or who have had to flee these conditions in preference for refuge in the neighbouring countries. That the South Sudanese seek refuge in Darfur, Sudan or in Kakuma, Kenya, places that have become almost uninhabitable to the locals, is testament to the level of desperation people must be experiencing at home long after attainment of independence and the creation of a country they should be proud to live in.
There are reports that the South Sudanese have also taken refuge in Central African Republic or the Democratic Republic of Congo, countries that have equally dominated the news headlines over the years for the terrible levels of political violence in their territories.
Reports and images of racist and xenophobic attacks against South Sudanese in Egypt have been heart-wrenching. We will never know who these citizens are, what their life conditions are like and why they choose to live in such places instead of their country.
The most fundamental and pervasive challenge is a two-headed monster comprising the government and the opposition. One can be forgiven for blaming the current government for all that ails the country. After all, it is the government of the day that holds the key to the nation’s coffers, makes public policy decisions and controls the entire state machinery.
It is this same government that leads the world in terms of theft of public resources. It has failed to meet its most fundamental obligations of welfare.
While it is understandable that this was a country born of a devastating war, wrestled from the jaws of a monstrous enemy, with the aftermath of the liberation war, the destruction and the trauma it left behind, still weighing heavily on the young state and the expectations of the people sky high, it is mind-boggling that its government does not so much as appreciate the gravity of the situation for ordinary people. Acknowledging and defining a problem is half the solution.
Keeps its people in the dark
Sadly, Juba prefers silence, keeping everyone in the dark about what plans it has, if any at all, to address this situation. Instead, it is a government that runs on rumour, gossip and surprise presidential and ministerial decrees and leaking of official documents to social media. Or else, it governs by fear and intimidation.
The South Sudanese are a fairly patient and resilient people and can dialogue with the government, if there was a government that is willing to engage openly with the public. The people would table their grievances and the government would explain the challenges facing it, offer its own perspective as to why things are the way they are, and show the efforts it is making to address these issues.
It is a government of proud men who think that acknowledging the existence of a problem is a sign of weakness. It would rather blame youth unemployment and poverty on their laziness, in the recent words of its spokesperson, the minister for Information.
Is it too much to expect civility in a government-people relationship?
If all the above may legitimately be heaped on the government, a lot of people, including opposition parties, armed rebellions and other seekers of power may also shoulder some of the failure of this country.
Having a plethora of political opposition parties that are only in the business of opposition as a vehicle to public office but no articulation of what they would do once in office, both weakens the opposition’s chances of attracting a critical following that the sitting government would have to reckon with and emboldens the government to reject opposition offhand. This has led to an unhealthy political climate where individual opposition leaders have been driven so desperate that they end up being co-opted, often invited into government at the price of relinquishing their programmes, ideologies and visions for the country, adopting pro-government positions and going against their support base.
This is even more flagrant among military generals from the multitudes of armed opposition movements, many of whom defect and re-defect between camps as they become desperate for jobs and resources, while awaiting implementation of peace agreements, but making it nearly impossible to organise a unified national army.
Where would citizens who are pushing for reforms or genuine political transitions even begin? Forget the elections, if the sham we have just witnessed in Tanzania and that is about to repeat itself in Uganda in 2021 are any guide.
Whatever the correct question might be, the answer is surely not going to come from the same government that has been in charge in South Sudan since 2005.
Jok Madut Jok is a professor of Anthropology and Public Affairs
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