Lies about South Sudanese gaining ground (1)by Atem Yaak Atem

It was the Nazi German propaganda minister, Paul Joseph Goebbels, who once said “A lie told once remains a lie but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth”.

Falsehoods about South Sudan abound. The perception by outsiders about the country’s political leaders, and by extension the entire people, is getting more negative especially after the outbreak of the armed conflict in 2013. The five-year * long civil war is universally attributed, even by the protagonists themselves, to power struggle within the “then” ruling SPLM, the political component that spearheaded the armed struggle from 1983-2005.

We frequently read and hear unflattering description of ourselves as a deeply divided, insensitive, greedy for power, barbaric, incompetent and myopic, lot. This tainted image of who we are or assumed to be, comes from the regional and international news media, from our own politicians and from Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party, its leaders and their apologists. Although there is some truth in that judgement, the profile does not separate the wheat from the chaff. The projection therefore suffers from gross generalisation. The vast majority of South Sudanese including a sizeable number within members of educated elite, are among the best people one would wish to have around as compatriots, neighbours or members of international community of nations. But that is a topic for another day and another forum.

Since refuting entrenched lies is a vast and complex subject with a potential for controversies, I will confine this writing to only three pieces of propaganda about the affairs of South Sudan in circulation now at home and abroad.

The first of these is the claim that majority of South Sudanese now regret the 2011 secession of their region from Sudan and that the desire for unification is growing and getting stronger. The second lie is that South Sudanese, especially members of their ruling elite, are a bunch of ethnocentric and greedy incompetents who cannot manage a modern state. The final fiction is the allegation that the SPLM, the party of liberation, is responsible for all that has gone wrong in South Sudan since its inception in 1983.

I strongly disagree with those who sing or believe these and similar blanket allegations. In the three articles that I am publishing, I state an allegation, explain relevant facts surrounding the issue, and conclude with my repudiations supported by citing examples from our recent history. Now let us begin with the first charge, the allegation that South Sudanese people want to reverse the decision they made in 2011 to vote with their feet, escaping from the cage that was Sudan.

Irrelevant analogy of the 1990 reunification of Germany

While watching one of Sudan’s TV channels a couple of weeks ago, a certain Imam Mohammed Imam, who was commenting on the news review on the recent peace agreement signed in Khartoum by South Sudan’s warring parties, told his interviewer that there was a call, presumably among South Sudanese, for the reunification of Sudan and South Sudan. Imam who was introduced as a journalist and analyst, further claimed that a reunification of the two Sudans could follow the example of Federal Republic of Germany and East German Democratic Republic in 1990. The “analyst” (a person who referred to the Sudanese president as “His Excellency, my brother Omar el Bashir” cannot be expected to make an objective analysis of the issues at hand) in his talk got it all wrong. And now over to the two sets of countries, West Germany and East Germany on the one hand and Sudan and South Sudan on the other.

Germany and Sudan compared

There is nothing in common between the German nation that existed before World War Two and the Sudan that split into two in 2011. In the case of the Germany that came into being in 1871, the Prussian politician, Otto von Bismarck, had several commonalities that helped him achieve the unity of Germany he pursued.

Among those blocks for nation building were language, provided by Deutsch or German. Second, the constituent mini-states that came to be collectively known as Germany, shared common history. Third, although the Germans by faith belonged to Catholic and Protestant sects, they were all members of one large family namely, Christendom. Finally, although this may be debatable, the peoples who came to form the German state considered themselves as belonging to one race in broad terms. This point is important to include in the list of ingredients that are assumed to contribute to national unity. As we shall see later in the case of Sudan, where since independence in 1956 to the present day, its leaders see ethnic affiliation to the ruling class as a necessary condition for full citizenship and attendant rights.

War divided Germany

During World War Two Nazi Germany led by Adolf Hitler was at war with Great Britain, France, and later the US and the former Soviet Union. When Germany was defeated in 1945, the Western allies occupied the western part that later became the Federal Republic of West Germany with its capital at Bonn, next door to Cologne. The eastern part where Soviet Union was an occupying power, set up German Democratic Republic, or GDR, with East Berlin as its capital.

Berlin an epitome of division

Matters did not end there. Under the post-war agreement, Berlin the former capital of Germany was carved up by allies with the US, Great Britain, France and the USSR, each taking a zone. While the former capital of one Germany was inside the territory that had become GDR, the divided city became one of the puzzles of the 20th century. East Berlin was made the capital of GDR while West Berlin was to occupy an anomalous status: a replica of the Federal Republic of Germany in everything from free market, democratic governance and ungagged press to being an ocean of economic prosperity.

To prevent its citizens from fleeing to West Berlin next door, the authorities in the GDR erected a physical barrier overnight in 1961, cutting off persons who had gone to visit families and relatives living across the divided city. And the communist government in East Germany meant business: the wall was to be patrolled with tanks, anti-personnel landmines and armed police ready to shoot dead anyone trying to escape to West Berlin. Many East Germans lost their lives while attempting to escape to the other side of the divide.

Anyone who had visited the Wall, which came down in November 1989, could not fail to observe at close quarters the two systems, communist and capitalist, and what each stood for. On the GDR side, a visitor could see drab buildings, most of them draped in scarlet flags, a police state where foreigners and citizens alike were under constant watch of secret police, a city whose citizens, mostly youth, were dying to acquire pop music (in those days in cassettes), blue jeans and other luxuries from the Western world their own government was ceaselessly denouncing as decadent and dehumanising.

To be fair, comparing life led by the East Germans then was much better than the living conditions in African countries under one-party or military rule at the time. The East Germans were missing luxury goods and sometimes basic commodities were scarce but none was starving, in rags or dying from preventable disease; the state provided employment, housing, basic education and health care for all.

Collapse of communism paved way for reunification

By the end of the 1980s the communist system was imploding in the Soviet Union and in its satellite states which included the GDR. Berlin Wall fell and soon after GDR was no more. Whether it was the triumph of an ideology over its rival that led to the demise of communism, is not the concern of this review. What is relevant here is that the German people, in the east or in the west, who had never any conflict with one another in the first place nor any of them chosen to walk out of unity, were once more able to reunite when the conditions that separated them were no longer there.

That after the reunification, the system that governed the Federal Republic of Germany- legal, education, economic, the currency and so on- swallowed their counterparts in the GDR, is again not the concern of this piece. What is relevant in this account is that the act of union was approved by the legislative and executive bodies of the then divided parts of Germany. In other words, the division of Germany was carried out by outside powers at the time the vanquished people had no meaningful say over the fate of their own country. In the reunification process, the German people from east and west, were the decision makers although the former war time allies played some role. Neither the East nor the West was the oppressor of the other; there was no memory of past bitterness or inequality in the German situation, except the role of the Nazi party which dragged their country to a disastrous European conflict, which had its roots in struggle for supremacy.

Now it is our turn to look at Sudan using the above parameters from which one could draw their own conclusion(s).

Sudan from Turco-Egyptian Sudan 1821

Sudan which split into two in 2011, on the other hand was an artificial construct created by the Egyptians with their Turkish masters and later in 1898 with their British partners in colonialism.

What became known as Sudan was (and still remains) characterised by a bewildering mosaic of cultural and ethnic diversity during the Turco-Egyptian invasion and later after the establishment of joint British-Egyptian rule or the Condominium. For much of its time in Sudan, the Condominium administration introduced socio-economic development in Northern Sudan by way of opening schools, health centres and setting up basic infrastructure such as railway, steamers and roads. The problem of the South to the foreign rulers was how to administer law and order or pacification by which the authorities wanted to “tame tribal peoples” they considered truculent. In that respect it was not only lack of a plan by the foreign rulers to open up what is today South Sudan; they did not even know what to do with the territory and its people. The South itself was and still is a land of great diversity in language, culture, religion and physical diversity of the landmass. Natural barriers such as the Sudd became an obstacle to the penetration of the area. This, too, has been used as an excuse for neglecting its inhabitants and territory’s huge economic potential.

Diversity a pretext for exclusion

Diversity in itself is not a bad thing as long as it is managed in a way that gives all the citizens equal rights and fair deal in the share of power, national wealth and citizenship. In Sudan, however, the ruling Northern elite saw such cultural diversity as an impediment to their nation building project. If the country were to be truly united, they argued, the ingredients should be one language, Arabic; one faith, Islam; one culture, Arabism as a national calling card. That agenda indirectly meant assimilation of others or their exclusion from the Sudanese state and denial of their equal rights as citizens. Ali Abdurrahman of the People Democratic Party that was allied to the Khatimiyya religious sect, brazenly told Southern Sudanese who questioned that racist agenda to better leave Sudan. (Ironically, when some Southern Sudanese left the country in the early 1960s, they returned with rifles to reclaim their rights they could not achieve by political means!)

This is what happened immediately after independence in 1956.

When the Southern representatives in the legislature in Khartoum teamed up with their compatriots from the other marginalised peripheries to demand their rights, the sectarian leaders panicked and invited the army to take power in order to silence the regional voice of reason. The military actually went further than that: criminalised talk about federalism, vigorously implemented forceful Islamisation and Arabicisation in the South. Bureaucrats and teachers in particular had to return to school to learn Arabic or lose their jobs. In 1960, Sunday, the day of rest in the South became a working day while the Muslim day of worship, Friday took its place. In 1962 foreign missionaries, some were also contributing to education besides their spiritual calling, working in the South were expelled en mass.

South Sudanese often forget what most of their leaders of the day did to address the problem of naked racism. Before the military took power, one of the representatives from the South, Fr Saturnino Lohure, told parliament that there was no force in the world that would prevent the people of Southern Sudan to liberate themselves from the oppression of the Northern ruling class, if they- the Southern Sudanese- decided to do so. Like in every situation of oppression, there were a few but negligible politicians who played the blackleg.

It is not surprising that the priest-cum-politician soon after became one of the leaders of the liberation of what is today South Sudan.

Lest we forget

Before we resume the narrative in part two of this piece in the next instalment, it is important to quote a traditional maxim in reference to the allegations Khartoum is spreading around about “calls” among South Sudanese for reunification of the two countries. The adage goes. “E jö yen e ke ŋɔkke dhuɔ̈k”. Translated into English this Dinka saying literally means “[Only] a dog is the one that goes back to [eat] its vomit”. South Sudanese whose forebears intermittently fought for justice, their identity and dignity for over 70 years cannot contemplate such a bewildering act.

*This article was written and published in 2018.

The writer is a South Sudanese writer, journalist and former founding director of Radio SPLA.

To be continued.

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