A different perspective on issues By Atem Yaak Atem

Updated: Mar 12, 2020

SPLM’s extraordinary convention: changed attitudes as a prerequisite

The holding of the SPLM extraordinary convention that began on Friday last week, appears to have been done in a rush, taking place hours after the parties had finalised the share of cabinet posts in the future government of national unity. Formation of a government is not a one-off affair; it’s a process that requires follow up and therefore bound to consume a lot of time of the parties concerned. Since the parties are expected to give pay full attention to the two events, they will find themselves short of time. In that respect, it is not idle talk when critics question the motives of the organisers concerning timing. This is hardly the time for a convention that should include all factions of the divided party and plenty of time for effective deliberation and exchange of viewpoints by the participants. However, since the three wings of the divided party-the SPLM in government, its rivals in the armed opposition and the former detainees- have attended and their representatives spoken at the gathering, the organisers could claim the occasion was inclusive. Only time and the outcome of the convention that will tell.

Signs of opening up?

Another point the SPLM in government who were also the organisers of the convention will put out in their defence is that the occasion which was broadcast live on the national TV channel, the SSTV, has enabled the public to follow the proceedings and make their own judgement of everything that was going on at Freedom Hall, words or actions. Coupled with that is the presence of two high profile guests representing African National Congress, ANC, and the Tanzanian Chama Cha Mapinduzi, CCM, as well as foreign diplomatic community accredited to South Sudan, will be used as a proof that the function was transparent.

To that end, some observers and critics of the SPLM affiliated to the government could be tempted to think that at long last the party managers and their allies in the executive branch and outside have embraced the path of openness, a norm for which the SPLM has been deficient through its long history which is now more than a full generation.

Personality cult: the return of the monster

Although South Sudan is constitutionally a multi-party democracy, the manner in which the convention was conceived and staged by its apparatchiks tells another story; participants and the public at large were treated to an entrée reminiscent of the one-party state official functions in the less developed world of the 1970s through 1990s.

Some of the performances were so vulgar that even the object(s) of the veneration must have been embarrassed. Let face it. Cult of personality is incompatible with democratic norms and the reforms being undertaken on forums such as the current convention aim at making and treating leaders, no matter the height of their perch, as small parts in the huge machine, people’s will. The SPLM Chairman, for instance, obliquely hinted to this in his keynote address when he stated that nobody should be above the law. Going by his words, the SPLM leader who is known even by his detractors for humility will be comfortable with being a first among equals -among his colleagues in the leadership- and that he does not necessarily need a demi-god image as his admirers would like.

Chairman Salva Kiir for whom praise songs have been composed and sung during the opening phase of the convention, does not need sculptors of personality cult to immortalise his name in the annals of South Sudanese people struggle for freedom. No doubt, the story of his role in the movement should not be suppressed. That will be unfair to deny the leader or any other person their right to have their credentials recognised and told. However, to do him justice, the narrative has to be told but intelligently and in an unambiguous context. Three episodes are cited here as cases that support the assertion one is making here.

First, the grainy video clip showing the first meeting to determine to leadership virtually tells nothing worth remembering about the SPLM leader, then a captain, apart from that he was there. The viewer is shown Samuel Gai Tut, Salva Kiir, Akuot Atem Mayen, John Garang. It is public knowledge that a power struggle was involved in the rise of John Garang to the leadership of the SPLA/SPLM, as it was then known. Only a few living witnesses know who made that possible. In August 1984 while at Nazareth, Ethiopia, late Joseph Oduho told this writer “without Salva [Kiir] and me John [Garang] would have not become what he is”, a reference to Captain Kiir and Oduho, the veteran Anya Nya leader, who cast their votes for Garang and against Akuot and Gai Tut duo.

Chairman Kiir can boast of having led true life of a guerrilla in that he was one of the top senior leaders who lived within the scarce means available to the movement then. In 1990, for example, he turned down a rented house in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa paid for seven months in advance by a political ally of the movement. Finally, his stewardship of the process leading to impendence on July 2011 and which Khartoum was determined to scuttle is an achievement the SPLM leader could justifiably be proud of. But less I will be mistaken for a griot I better stop here.

The minions who are trying to putting a halo on head of the SPLM’s chief by distorting history are doing him a disservice, perhaps in the hope of retaining their current positions or getting ones soon. The overzealous image builders erroneous think that most of the members of their audience have no other versions of the historic events being re-enacted. The authors of the clumsily crafted and poorly presented scripts have forgotten that many eye witnesses of the events being distorted are still around and must have watched the narratives with silent disbelief. History is not another name for gossip, hearsay or wishful thinking; it can be distorted but impossible to erase, especially the parts that displease others or the important and decisive roles played by some actors their enemies prefer to be forgotten forever.

Carryover from the past

It can be conceded that the crude shows the public watched last Friday of praise for the leader of the party of liberation are a carryover from the cult of personality that Radio SPLA doled out during the years of the struggle. At training centres, just to give an example, recruits composed and sang war and revolutionary songs which served as morale booster and as a way the soldiers in the making expressed themselves, defined their enemies and friends of their struggle. Those songs often were in praise of their leaders. Such songs served the struggle well as they were recorded and later broadcast over Radio SPLA. Unfortunately, most of the praise songs concentrated on the SPLM/A founding leader, John Garang.

Since the bulk of the SPLA fighting forces were of peasantry background, it was inevitable that they, unfortunately, fell in line with time-honoured African tradition that glorifies leaders or their land and forebears or divinities.

Despite the positive contribution the practice made to the struggle, serious concern was expressed within and from outside the movement. Praise songs and Marhum Dut Kat’s Al Qaid ma’ Thuwaar, (the leader with the revolutionaries) an Arabic language programme on the clandestine station were singled out as having a potential for promoting personality cult especially of the SPLM/A chief. It was also feared that the propaganda machinery of the movement was slowly sliding into hero worship bug, an unacceptable culture by a progressive political organisation.

The SPLA does not belong to the SPLM

Like most policy statements, the SPLA is a national army and not a militia outfit of the ruling party, the SPLM. That is what the constitution says and senior officers such as the former chief of staff General James Hoth have said publicly- on the Independence Day anniversary- that the two bodies which in the past acted like conjoined twins, were and should remain separate entities but serving the people in different and specified ways.

But do the organisers of the convention know these constitutional job descriptions? It looks they don’t otherwise why did the military band have to play at every interlude during the convention? Since the function has a national significance the band playing national anthem at the start would be appreciated and the organisers can be pardoned. But throughout the proceedings the band was acting as if it were a backup ensemble to rally the party faithful. That was absolutely unacceptable; the SPLA is not a unit of the SPLM anymore. Roles changed after the guerrillas became a government in June 2005.

As if involving the national army in matters that were purely political and partisan was not in a bad taste enough, one of the speakers began his incensed and husky statement with “SPLM hakuma bitana, SPLM hakuma bitana”, a jingle that was crafted during the war time by Cdr James Wani Igga, the current vice president.

At that time, the piece which was popular to the soldiers and civilians alike made some sense. Rendered to English it goes: SPLM is our government. Since the insurgents did not have a conventional government most of its members consoled themselves with “the government under trees” and were proud of the administration that was run by soldiers, military in form and contents. This refrain became redundant after the formation of the government of national unity following the CPA in June 2005. The song’s proper place is war museum and archive which unfortunately have yet to be built.

“We shall never, never surrender” which the same speaker rammed into the throats of his colleagues was also completely out of tune. Unless this writer is mistaken, the gathering is a groundwork for reunification, reconciliation and peace, not war. And with that assumption, one then begins to wonder about the purpose militaristic utterances would serve on a peace platform. Who are “we” as opposed to the unnamed “them/they?”. “Surrender “implies a war situation. Which armed conflict is the speaker talking about? Past or future?

Blaming our woes on weak institutions

During his speech, the Chairman of the SPLM, Salva Kiir cited weak institutions as one of the factors responsible for the problems besetting South Sudan and its people. True, weak institutions do not only fail to deliver solutions or prevent problems from occurring; in fact, weak, inefficient, ineffective or absent public institutions can create problems where there were none.

In our situation the leadership of a unified SPLM must take practical steps to effectively distance the army from the political associations and allied activities; there is too much involvement of the men and women in uniform in matters that are political. That should begin now with delineation of roles. For example, during the first day of the convention, several speakers were addressing the leader of the party as President [of the Republic]. That was incorrect as he wears many hats: Head of State (President) and in that capacity the commander in chief of the armed forces even if he were a civilian; chancellor of all public universities. At the party function he is Mr Chairman or Comrade Chairman, with each form of role and function at hand to determine the status and relevant honorific of the leader.

In many countries including nations ruled by the military, members of regular forces and civil servants are prohibited by law to engage in politics. Of course that does not mean soldiers and civil servants cannot hold their private political opinion and persuasion or not vote for a party of their choice; what is required of them is that they should refrain from acts or utterances that are overtly political and therefore partisan.

Unfortunately, in South Sudan, most members of armed force, police, prison service and wildlife think because they were part of the SPLM and because of their role in liberation struggle they have the right to take part in affairs that are not part of their mission. No wonder why a police NCO who a former SPLA soldier once bashed a journalist in the run-up to the referendum because the latter had said he knew some people might vote for unity. Members of regular forces have no business in politics and should be told so by their superiors, mainly the executive organ or face disciplinary action for insubordination.

Changing perceptions and stereotypes

South Sudan like any human society is inhabited by people who have different worldviews and perceptions about other people including fellow citizens. Because of antagonism conflicts generate, the “wall in our heads” get thicker and higher every time we quarrel with others. In that context we invent constructs such as “Garang Boys/Orphans”, “New Sudan Council of Churches Gang”, “NCP-South”, “Hijackers-Plus”, “ONC” (standing for Opportunistic Newcomers) and so forth, to express our feelings of disapproval and contempt.

These labels which logicians call empty categories have found their way into everyday discourse and political lexicography to the extent they have their lives of their own and refuse to go away whether we like it or not.

Derogatory as these tags are they are a symptom of a deeper social malaise: division and its attendant mutual distrust, hatred and discord. Since no society can wish away these ideas that are fixed in the minds of its members as it is difficult to vanish negative ideas people hold on others by a fiat from on high, the only way for a nation determined to restore sanity and rebuild peace, it is imperative that individuals should base their judgement of other individuals on the basis of their deeds and words instead of resorting to carpet demonisation of groups or communities for the wrongs, real or perceived, of some fellow members.

A successful implementation of a peace process happens only when all the parties behave rationally and delink themselves from herd mentality and stereotypes as weapons in the propaganda warfare in which truth becomes the first victim according the ancient Greek playwright, Aeschylus.

South Sudanese peace partners should do better by heeding the wise pieces of advice given to them by several speakers, notably the weighty and measured words from the South African statesman, the deputy leader of the ANC, Comrade Cyril Ramaphosa, a true pan- Africanist and revolutionary. We ignore their sincere council at our own risk. For us to ignore such priceless and valuable admonition would amount to an African adage: “Aci welke nyook”, meaning the speaker has given useful advice to someone who does not deserve being given words of wisdom or does not appreciate the importance of the advice given because the recipient would not understand nor utilise it.

People of South Sudanese deserve help moral as well as material from friends all over the world because South Sudanese, contrary to the perennial bad press that projects them as incorrigible reprobates, are capable of incorporating such an assistance into “South Sudanese solutions to South Sudanese problems”.

Atem Yaak Atem is a South Sudanese journalist and former founding director of Radio SPLA in 1984. He is currently an editorial consultant at a publishing company based in Australia where he is a member of an SPLM chapter.

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