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.

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

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