ENGAGING IN POLITICS IN SOUTHERN SUDAN HAS ALWAYS BEEN A MATTER OF SELF-SACRIFICE
By Atem Yaak Atem Over the weekend I took part in a video discussion on the education of South Sudanese girls to be at a par with boys. During my talk, the moderator asked me to throw some light on why the current generation- young men and girls- tend to show overt interest in politics. As the scope of the talk limited me to matters pertaining to education, and not politics, my answer was deliberately inadequate. This piece is an attempt to provide an overview of what I left out in the conversation. ‘Because politicians are famous’ While we were exploring the skills and careers formal education should confer on students, specifically to be gainfully employed as well as good citizens, I was presented with the question relating to the fact that many young South Sudanese show an undisguised interest in politics. “Is it because politicians are famous?” As a hypothesis, it could be one of several answers to what is undeniably an obvious attraction: not by youth alone but also by a large segment of the society of South Sudan; nearly everyone loves to talk politics and hopes to become a full time “professional” politician one day. Yes, leading political operators, especially party leaders holding senior positons in government or representing a constituency, are sometimes in the news- radio in particular- and are on the lips of members of the constituencies they represent. Ayom Anyieth, one of South Sudan’s politically conscious composers and singers- known by his nicknames to his admirers as Ayom-Thuonglual, who hailed from my home district, has immortalised politics in songs. With his songs he has contributed to the popularisation of the politics and leading politicians of the late 1950s. The singer singles out two men who represented the area at that time in parliament in Khartoum: [Parmena] Bul Koch and [Elijah] Ajith Mayom, for doing and saying he thinks is the right thing while they were in parliament. In another song, the artist cautions his audience: Thiatha e kë e kɔiŋuëën(politics is [should be] for the elderly folks), adding that there must be fairness in the game of the musical chair; others should be given a chance, by which he means the torch should be passed to the next generation, no one should remain indefinitely in the seat no matter how good he may be; let others have the chance to enjoykamit(delicious things), if any. (Because Ayom-Thuonglual also composed and sang songs against members of Sudan’s ruling class, such as Brigadier Hassan el Bashir, the number two man in General Ibrahim Abboud regime, the Sudan Armed Forces murdered Ayom-Thunglual in Bor town in 1965). The result of those songs made those politicians so famous that nearly the entire population- children, women, young peole, the elderly- in the former Bor district came to “know” Parmena Bul Koch and Elijah Ajith Mayom. Singing songs of admiration for politicians in the area went even beyond its administrative borders. In the second half of the 1960s, William Deng Nhial, the leader of Sudan African National Union, Sanu, who was from Tonj district in Bahr el Ghazal, was acknowledged in a praise song composed by a singer from Bor. Similarly, when the SPLM/A came into existence in 1983, recruits at military training camps composed and sang praises of their top commanders: John Garang, Kerubino Kuanyin, William Nyuon, Salva Kiir, Arok Thon, Joseph Oduho, Martin Majier Gai and others. And radio SPLA which had an audience in millions of listeners, amplified the rebel leaders “becoming famous”. Other routes to fame Yes, as far as the colloquialism “becoming famous” is concerned, politics carries that potential and therefore it becomes a sphere which attracts fame seekers as a nectar does to bees. (Modest people would wonder why others chase fame. But to answer that would be an invitation to digression). Pursuing the subject of fame in politics further, I asked the interviewer:“If the pursuit of fame is the one driving our young people to politics, then why can’t some of them try music? Michael Jackson was more famous (and probably richer) than his president,Roland Reagan”. There are many, many fields of human endeavour which offer world-wide and sometimes lasting fame (Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin, for example) and wealth than politics. however, politics of the liberation of South Sudan has never been a bed of roses nor a race in which participants won accolades and popularity; it has always been a path strewn with misery for many and death for some. Politics among South Sudan’s intelligentsia has always been a sacrifice In the interview, I did not mention the fact that throughout the struggle for justice for the people of what is South Sudan, to engage in politics was to willingly court the twin dangers of living in poverty and in the shadow of death. For most of the members of Southern intelligentsia who took active part in the politics of liberation from the Northern domination- by means of party politics, armed struggle and so forth. Most of the politicians came from some of the from disciplines and careers: teachers (Joseph Oduho, Luigi Adwok, Joshua Dei), priests (Saturnino Lohure, Paulino Dogalle, administrators (Aggrey Jaden Lako, Clement Mboro, William Deng Nhial, Akuot Atem), lawyers (Gordon Abiei, Abel Alier), policemen (Samuel Aru Bol, Gordon Muortat Mayen), soldiers (Joseph Lagu, Frederick Brian Maggot, Samuel Abu John Kabash), journalists (Ambrose Wol Dhal, George AkumbekKwanai, Bona Malwal),and so forth. During the period leading to the end of the British rule in Sudan, Southern Sudanese who represented their peopleas leaders of political groupings were acting as volunteers. Elected members of parliament who went to Khartoum were relatively better off because of their emoluments. But for those who placed party loyalty above personal interests, part of their money went to support their organisations, which unlike their Northern counterparts did not have the support of rich religious or business financiers. This was the case of the few ministers, who were as a rule never exceeded three in the cabinet at any given time. An not all those ministers were always loyal to parties from their home region. In the period before the 1969 coup led by Colonel Jaafar Nimeiri, the Southern politicians who had rejected ties with the Northern circles as a matter of principle, collectively and individually, led a life of deprivation. The little that the party could provide went to house rent; while the family led what was basically a hand to mouth existence. Southern politicians who advocated the maintenance of the status quo ante, on the other hand (they were very few although very dangerous), had their needs met by theirsponsors. And as the saying goes, they sang to the tune called by the paymaster, to the detriment of Southern Sudan and its people. But those individuals were universally despised and shunned by the rest of the community who judged them as traitors, living off the blood of their people. Students as the backbone of the armed struggle The role of Southern students in swelling the ranks of the rebel movements as fighters and commanders in the war of liberation is in no doubt. Only three groups could make similar claim for playing crucial and decisive roles in the liberation struggle for South Sudan. The first of these are the masses of the people, the rural populations who sheltered and fed the fighters and sometimes “levied” their sons to join the freedom fighters. The second group consisted of the urban dwellers who contributed funds, medicines and intelligence to the fighters. Those were an invaluable contribution. Finally, the national and foreign church leaders whose advocacy for the rights of the victims of religious discrimination made the Western world aware of the oppression that was grinding to pulp the people of Southern Sudan. However, students will always have special place in the history of liberation mainly during the Anya Anya (1962- 1972 and the SPLA (1983-2005). In those movements the students formed the largest single group and from various linguistic groups of the region; at the prime of their age, they gave up their studies and future; sacrificed much of their productive phases of lives to the national course; some sustained lifelong injuries; others lost some of their colleagues or members of their immediate families and their livelihood because of their membership of the anti-government organisation. As has been illustrated above, the struggle was not a dancing party, but an undertaking that was characterised by great personal sacrifices and risks, all which were not motivated by desire for personal gain or fame. A difficult question: With that background, there is no question that the political activity either in the conventional context or the politics of armed struggle, clearly involved self-denial and intermittent suffering and little or no fame for the heroes, past or present to gain and bask in its glory. For that reason, the liberation of South Sudan at last, is an act for which all who took part in, no matter the bit any freedom fighter had played, should be a cause for pride and that those heroes must be honoured for making the attainment of freedom possible for the millions of their compatriots. So far so good. However, there remains a question crying for objective answers: how is it that from 2005 to the present, some of the heroes of the South Sudan’s war of liberation seem to have turned, saying “This time round is for recompense for us and our cousins only. No place for others, prosperity or tomorrow!” I have no comment to make.