Sunday, August 9, 2020

South Sudanese Leaders Make Oversimplified and Denigrating analyses by South Sudanese ‘Experts’ Appear Justified

Sometimes South Sudanese leaders act and behave in a way that makes me ask: Are these people really South Sudanese? But western ‘experts’ write about South Sudan and South Sudanese people in a way that makes me stop in the middle of the article to recheck the author's name to ensure I'm not reading a Hegel or a Kant reincarnate in 2020." 

It’s a long piece; so, get your glass! Every generation in every country will tell you that they are preparing the way for the ‘next generation’, ‘future leaders’, ‘our children and grandchildren’. But I am not so sure how many actually utter these clichés for political reasons because of their public profiles and how many utter them as their moral vocations and practically address them. We don’t have to wonder much because, like Foucault and his concept of
power, we should focus on the effects of what these people do rather than on what they say or what post they hold. Sadly, the Foucauldian concept, while helpful, can also be used dangerously as we will see with Alex De Waal later.

Since 2005, when the comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) was signed and the interim period started, South Sudan has been going downhill. But it is not because the SPLM leaders, who led the implementation of the agreement, were too greedy and did not care about the people of South Sudan and the land. I do think they cared about South Sudanese and I still believe they do. But there are several things to which they did not pay attention.

One: They did not know that they were against time but also against cultivation of bad political and economic practices. They naively believed ‘we have time’ to fix things after secession because most of us were assured of secession of South Sudan. But any political novice knows that entrench political cultures and economic practices become difficult to fix. It was a big blunder. As Hilde Johnson has argued in her book South Sudan: The Untold Story, SPLM leadership was more interested in making sure the referendum took place. They were not worried about putting down important institutional rudiments and protocols. It was a big, dangerous blunder.

Two: The leadership of the SPLM did not focus on transitioning from militaristic modus operandi to party politics in order to change its leadership principles and how to relate to South Sudanese citizens. Without this change, the non-conventional militarist psychology of revolutionary politics and disciplinary logic makes it difficult for politico-military leaders to understand the lucidity of consensus-based political decision making. Military leaders, even well-trained and ideologically shaped ones, find it difficult to take orders from civilian leaders.

SPLA and SPLM officials found it a bitter pill to swallow to take orders from civilian intellectuals, who did not join the war, especially those who came back from refugee camps in neighbouring countries or the diaspora returnees. Having not trained its political and military leaders to delink the army from politics and to indoctrinate them about conventional politics, South Sudan had set up politics and militarism as strange bedfellows.

 As Bishop Anthony Poggo has argued in his book, Let Us Build Today, returnees who did not join the SPLA war (even when they were part of the path-setting and the pioneering Anyanya revolutionary war) were labelled cowards or jellabas.  Because SPLA war was dominated by Jieeng and Nuer and Anyanya war was initiated and led, in most part, by Equatorian tribes, especially Lotuho, Madi and and Karo people (commonly known as ‘Bari Speakers’), this dynamic developed a tribal undertone. But it was not addressed, reminding people of the infamous kokora saga of Nimeiri and Lagu and its legacy.

Three:  During the implementation period, South Sudanese, especially those who did not join the war but fought in their own ways through education and political engagements abroad, thought South Sudan would become a model country of conventional politics of political freedom,  regulated but free economic enterprise, tribally diverse people but politically faithful to the state and respectful of their cultural and linguistic diversities.

But no! These ideas were easy to sing during the war but in practical application, they became worrisome to the military leaders and SPLM officials who felt threatened by the new political realities. Instead of seeing that the political liberation and economic liberations are two different undertakings, SPLM/SPLA started political and military schemes to protect their interests in the rapidly changing South Sudan. While they thought stealing public funds here and there and making sure one’s relatives are employed without qualifications was not a ‘big deal’, they did not know they were subverting a system in a way that would become the politico-economic culture in South Sudan.  As Peter Adwok Nyaba has argued in South Sudan: The State We Aspire To, SPLM and SPLA officials descended into ‘power politics’ as opposed to ‘liberation politics.’

Yet, they still believed they would fix the system as President Kiir said during his Independence Day speech on July 9th, 2011.

‘Our leaders, from the most humble [sic] ranks to the highest offices in the land, have to rally behind this national call,’ President Kiir said. ‘Our leaders, be they in politics, administration, churches, and the entire civil society are collectively responsible for serving the public interest first and self last.  Those who are unwilling or unable to make the sacrifices required in the public service will not be part of this government.’ Incredibly positive and consoling; but too optimistic as it would only be empty rhetoric in the following two years and ever since.

What he and his SPLM cohorts did not know (or perhaps they were using ‘we have time’ paradigm) was that they had allowed subversion to make itself economically, politically and tribally entrenched. Changing would need creativity, strategy, and self-will. As South Sudanese economist and former government minister, Lual A. Deng, has argued in The Power of Creative Reasoning, South Sudan was through with liberation leaders now it needed development leaders. But survivalist desires had become more important than care of the state and its people.

What happened in this political and economic atmosphere, the fight to makes sense of the changes and carve oneself a place on the economic and the political sphere, became a kind of Darwinist competition not government by any civil discourse. Military leaders fell back on their military and political leaders capitalized on their affiliation with the army. Those with no army affiliation and returnees became the despised ‘other’ with their education. In such a system, you need near angels to resist corruption. I know colleagues who became seduced by this subverted system.

South Sudan became an arena of heads-knocking and interest protection. It therefore becomes easy to argue, as Alex de Waal did in When Kleptocracy Becomes Insolvent, that South Sudanese leaders were not interested in developing the country. This is a tempting argument if one goes by the effects of what South Sudanese did.  But this grossly oversimplifies a complex situation informed by a complex history.

“International partners erroneously assumed,’ argued de Waal, ‘that either a nascent institutional, rule-governed system existed, or that South Sudanese leaders were genuinely seeking to establish such a system, and that corruption and rent seeking were deviations from this system. This is no longer possible to believe. Good faith efforts to build institutional integrity were routinely suborned toward factional advantage and private gain.’

While de Waal has a point, especially the last sentence about faction private advantage, his argument that South Sudanese leaders were not interested in building South Sudan and that what happened was not a deviation is a morally dangerous statement. Of course, South Sudanese subverted the system and destroyed the country, but to say that they wilfully destroyed South Sudan borders on colonial historicizing and anthropological thinking (the most compromised of discipline as V. Y. Mudimbe once argued) of the Hegelian tradition that believed Africans did not know what was good for them.

South Sudanese leaders indeed had the interest of the country at heart. They just let things go out of hand to the point where politics became about political and economic survival. And because tribal allegiances largely happen by default, they become easy to activate by the gun class in such an atmosphere, which Daniel Akech Thiong refers to as ‘politics of fear.’

Because of the systemic apparatuses SPLM leaders have allowed, suspicion has run high and survivalist politics and economic machinations have made criticism of the government a deadly affair. South Sudan was destroyed by what was allowed to happened not what was maliciously intended. Essentially, South Sudan is still not beyond repair, but it has tragically ‘institutionalized’ a political, tribal and economic mindset that will take decades to remove if we are lucky to get a cadre of self-less leaders who  plan, implement and publicly account for their deeds.  

SPLM leaders have said they care about ‘jesh el amer’ (red army, a phrase inspired by the then SPLA socialist leaning) and they continue to talk about their care of the country. I do know that they care; but what matters is not what is said but what is done.

If Nyoka cannot settle freely in Ayod or Bor or Malakal without being harassed or having her brother disappear in the hands of the national security, then ‘experts’ like de Waal appear justified. If Gatluak is afraid to apply for a government post because he is afraid he is not going to get the job because of the ministry’s top officials are not from his tribe, then we will find it difficult to defend that South Sudanese leaders actually care about South Sudan. If Peter Biar Ajak is arrested, released and flees because he had called rightly for a generational leadership change or ‘exit’ in Juba, then one risks saying ‘de Waal is right.’

But no! We listen to South Sudanese leaders in places de Waal does not; we attend South Sudanese speeches in local areas de Waal does not; we have suffered in South Sudan in a way de Waal has not; and we have a historical and cultural connection that gives us an epistemological and theoretical prism de Waal cannot have however much he reads or empirically research about South Sudan. Too ethnocentric, I am, maybe! But this is an opinion article, not a scholarly one. The reader can take comfort in that.

Since I started with Foucault, I will therefore reiterate that leaders and power are about effects; but we cannot allow South Sudanese experts to forget colonial anthropology, history and philosophy and the infantilization of South Sudanese, can we? Sometimes South Sudanese leaders act and behave in a way that makes me ask: Are these people really South Sudanese? But western ‘experts’ write about South Sudan and South Sudanese people in a way that makes me stop in the middle of the article to recheck the author's name to ensure I am not reading a Hegel or a Kant reincarnate in 2020. But then someone may, like Kant argue in Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, ‘this fellow was quite black from head to toe, a clear proof that what he said was stupid.’

So, you can dismiss this article and go back to your beer.


Kuir ë Garang is the editor of The Philosophical Refugee. Follow him on twitter @kuirthiy 

Note: You are free to republish this article, but make sure you credit The Philosophical Refugee.

Thursday, May 28, 2020


America needs a socio-cultural revolution. The civil rights movement of the 1960s only ended with a legal victory not a social and cultural revolution. Racial coexistence was forced on European-Americans; it did not come through positive, accepted social evolution. It wasn't the brother, sister, daughter, son, uncle, grandmother, teacher, store owner, who told European-Americans that African-Americans are your fellow, equal Americans. It was the government by both legal and physical force. As Nell Painter tells us in The History of White People, 'What we can see depends heavily on what our culture has trained us to look for.' Even today, America is racially segregated yet we think people will know and understand themselves by magic?

What the European-American has been trained to see is that 'African-Americans are dangerous! Stay way from them! '

When you condition people to legally desegregation, to legally 'love racial others', you only change the arena of racial sentiments and resentment. You only change where they segregate not that cease to segregate. You can prevent people not to discriminate in public, but you cannot prevent them from vomiting their racial poisons in their living rooms, their country clubs and their racially exclusive board meetings. When you have a society where even the church, the presumptive moral pivot of Western society, was segregated, then you wonder what morality really means.

While protests are good as a way to highlight racial problems within the system, it is only a tiny part of the path to the solution. No society has every solved any problem by simply telling people, 'STOP!' Death penalty has not stopped crime!
"Death penalty has not stopped crime!"

European people globally see themselves as a community, as a special 'race' that should not only stay on top but also stay apart. The likes of Richard Spencer, a self-describe alt-right nationalist, take his segregationist and race purity cues from the animals. "There is no equality in nature,' he once argued. The idea that European-Americans will treat African-Americans in the same way they treat themselves is a dangerous delusion. They have not and will not...UNLESS...unless respect for all Americans of all backgrounds is preached everywhere: at home, in the church, in country clubs, in board rooms, on the golf course, in wedding halls, in drinking parties, in schools, in bars, in hunting expeditions, on private islands... etc.

Recently, Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for President, shamelessly told African-Americans that 'You got more questions. If you have a problem figuring out if you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.' This oversimplified, simplistic and reductionist view of African-Americans (a complex and complicated demographic) is the same way they are reduced and generalized as 'dangerous!' by the police.

So, the idea that only a small group of people is the only thing you need to change society as Margaret Mead argued, is just a BEAUTIFUL NONSENSE. Yes, you only need a few people to INITIATE CHANGE; but you need the whole society to change itself for change to make sense in people's lives.

Derek Chauvin
Photo: Star Tribune

Admittedly, there is (and there always has been) an appreciable number of European-Americans, who are genuine pro-change and meaningful, beyond-legal racial inclusion. They teach their children to be inclusive and be respectful of racial others. However, they are a minority and they are at times threatened by fundamental hate evangelists (the ones erroneously called 'white supremacists'---What exactly is SUPREME about hatred?).

During the slavery period, there were abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Wendell Phillips, John Brown etc. who valued the humanity of slaves. During the reconstruction period and Jim Crow period, there were the so-called 'friends of the Negro' who campaigned for suffrage and desegregation and against lynching and its barbarity. Now, we have anti-racist groups.

However, the problem is deep rooted and superficial solution methods are mere mockery. Even scholars and academics, who are molders of societal opinion and consciousness, and who are supposedly enlightened, are part of the problem.

For instance, European-American scholars only read, cite or take seriously European and European-American scholarship. Philosopher Robert Wolff once argued that he was ashamed that he wasn't aware of a copious of African-American scholarship even when he went through the American school system from kindergarten to PhD. He only became aware, he says, of African-American scholarship when an African-American professor at the University of Massachusetts asked him to help design a PhD program in 'Black Studies.' For the first time, Wolff, buried himself in scholarly literature he did not know existed. He was ashamed European-Americans are not exposed to such an [American] tradition. As Frantz Fanon argued in Black Skin, White Masks, reason takes flight through the window when things to do with people of African descent walk in through the door.

The problem in America is not just police like Derek Chauvin and neither will protests solve anything. Protests are good manifestations of our anger. But until you see American ghettos disappear, don't expect the likes of Derek Chauvin to disappear. The consciousness that keeps African-Americans hold-up in the ghettos is the same consciousness that produces the Chauvins.

For over 500 years, Europeans believed that the African was not a human being like themselves. When reality and reason forced them to concede the humanity of Africans, they did not believe it was an equal humanity. What decolonization and the civil rights did in the 1960s is to change the arena and the manner in which the American and the European continued their belief. To expect what people believed for 500 years to disappear all of a sudden is a dangerous delusion. Chas Carrol, in The Negro a Beast or In the Image of God, believed that Africans did not descent from Adam.

African-Americans should stop putting their lives in the hands of those who do not respect their lives. Until European-Americans undergo internal, organic socio-cultural evolution to freely accept human equality without legal impositions, African-Americans should look internally for what will save the lives of their young men and women. Expecting European-Americans to value African-American lives in the same way African-Americans see themselves is dangerous delusion.

Less than sixty years ago, lynching was announced in newspapers and families [including women and children] ritualistically flocked to lynching arenas were African-American men and women were roasted alive in celebratory mood as the police watched. Lynching was stopped by the government not that European-Americans wanted to stop it as a matter of moral consciousness.

Lynching scene
Photo: Teen Vogue

The police have shown us enough evidence that they will continue to kill young African-American men. They have also shown us that they will continue to treat European-American young men with dignity and caution. So why do we continue to expect a moral miracle from them?

All we can ask is for ALL European-Americans to inspire a socio-cultural revolution so that young men and women who become police officers are people who behave and act like normal human beings not emotionless animals who only value their kinds.


Kuir ë Garang is the editor of The Philosophical Refugee.