Thursday, April 18, 2024

South Sudanese Youth Complicity in their Systemic Marginality


Top: Dr. Peter Biar Ajak (left) and President Salva Kiir (right)
Below: Minister of Petroleum, Mr. Puot K. Chol (left) and late Mr. Kerubino Wol (right)


In South Sudan, the youth is marginalized and confused. These are obvious realities to South Sudanese at home and abroad. The reason for this confusion and marginality is, however, not so apparent. We may fault culturally inspired political ageism. But that is easy.

So, making sense of how political ageism marginalizes the youth needs more than the proposition that ageism is to blame. The youth themselves enable the system that keeps them at the margin of power and decision-making in the country.

Of course, the structural dynamics of youth economic and political marginality, which is outside youth control, is not something I downplay. The youth are, however, not helpless bystanders in the ageism power matrix. They are complicit as pawns of the elite and ethnic chauvinists.

The youth, who are ethnic chauvinists or wannabe-elite make political ageism effective and marginalizing. These youth do not mind septuagenarians or octogenarians monopolizing politics and economics if these youth join, or are favored by, the political and economic elite.  South Sudanese scholar, Majak D’Agoot, has referred to this youth-marginalizing South Sudanese elite as the “gun class.”


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In this case the youth support the gun class, however incompetent and corrupt, because these leaders come from their tribe.  They complain that the older generation is not giving the youth a share of power. However, these marginalized youth support leaders who tell 40-year-olds that they are “leaders of tomorrow.”  For instance, some local youth associations in South Sudan are headed by “youth” in their mid-40s. This is why, on April 17, 2023, Daniel Mwaka, a South Sudanese youth leader, suggested that the youth age bracket in South Sudan be delimited at 35.

Supporting leaders from one’s tribe, competent or incompetent, enables an African political culture leadership theorists have referred to as “stayism.”  With the youngest population in the world, Africa’s median age is 19. The median age of African leaders is, however, 63. Yet, the youth have no political and economic voice and space. As Sudanese businessman and philanthropist, Mo Ibrahim, has noted, “Africa must ask itself why our continent appears so frightened of giving the younger generation a chance.”

But Africa is not frightened as such. It is not culturally accustomed to giving power to the youth. Traditionally, the youth are not community/tribal leaders; they are tribal warriors. Think of Okonkwo in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. He is hardworking, sturdy, manly, fierce, and impulsive. But he respects tradition and personal honor as his killing of Ikemefuna illustrates. Yet, nothing about him being a leader is highlighted in the novel, which is customary in African cultures. What Achebe illustrates through Okonkwo, who is in his late 30s, is something for which the youth in Africa are traditionally known.

Therefore, Africans should not discuss youth political and economic inclusion like an African cultural expectation. It must be actively forced into being against existing cultural ideals fused into modern politics. It is part of modernizing Africa.

In South Sudan, for instance, a 40-year-old is basically a “boy.” Globally, this is strange. At a welcoming event for Majak D’Agoot in 2014, Bona Malwal, a veteran South Sudanese politician and journalist, referred to D’Agoot in Arabic as “welede”, meaning, “this boy”. Majak was in his fifties. It is culturally acceptable because Bona Malwal is in his 90s. Calling a 50-year-old a “boy”, however, reveals a cultural consciousness with an invidious implication. It should not be acceptable.

The youth, however, must ask themselves why they allow themselves to be used by senior citizens who continue to monopolize power. The youth do their bidding. In his song, Kiir Must Stay, a local Jieeng (Dinka) musician, Bilpam Akech sings: “Të cïne maan ke yï lɔ ku nöök rɔt. Kiir must stay! (If you don’t like it then hang yourself. Kiir must stay!” Bilpam Akech does not seem to care that President Kiir has not, for the last 19 years, provided services to South Sudanese citizens. He does not even care that Mr. Kiir has reached the age where he should hand over power to the younger generation. But no! Kiir “must stay!” He is Bilpam’s fellow tribesman.

Bilpam, however, is not alone. A prominent South Sudanese political activist, Dr. Peter Biar Ajak, who is currently under US detention on conspiracy to export arms to South Sudan, faces a barrage of ethnically charged insults on the social media for his criticism of Mr. Kiir’s government.  Dr. Ajak was arrested by the South Sudanese national security in July 2018 after he called for a generational exit.

While Biar has in the past been complicit in youth marginalization, his arrest changed him. He became one of the Juba’s fierce critic and advocate on handing over the leadership mantle to the younger generation. The youth who insult him on the social media are sort of tribal warriors. These social media warriors, most of whom living abroad, however vulgar their insults are, are welcome in Juba by government officials like dignitaries.

In The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon aptly argued that “Each generation must out of relative obscurity discover its mission, fulfil it, or betray it.” This mission is being betrayed. And this betrayal, which is now buttressed by ethnic affiliation, is exacerbated by the hope of being among the economic and political elite. This is a tragic reality some of my colleagues living in Juba have embraced. They have been silenced, or they have self-silenced, into elitism. Instead of challenging the system they find ways to appease the “gun class.” Some of these “boys”, some of whom with PhDs, defend the “gun class.” This wins them favors in Juba, a sad reality Achille Mbembe has described as an economic system of reciprocity. We have an expression for this economic reciprocity in my native Jieeng language: abïny lɔ ku abïny bɔ̈ (Literally, the ladle that is going, and the one that is coming).

I must admit something here. The fear of the “gun class” is authentic. Several activists have been disappeared, silenced, or killed by the “unknown gun men.” Being tokenized into power, into elitism, is therefore protective and lucrative. But the youth must ask themselves what their silence does to their Fanonian generational mission.

I may not suggest Ajak’s generational exit. However, I think South Sudanese youth, conventionally or traditionally defined, must ask themselves what blind tribal affiliation and elitist tokenism is doing to the future of South Sudan. It is nearly 19 years since South Sudan became autonomous, and 12 years since it became independent. The “youth” is still at the economic and political margin.  They must remove tribal blinders! An honest, inter-generational conversation must begin to end youth systemic marginalization inspired by political ageism.

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Kuir ë Garang (PhD) is the editor of The Philosophical Refugee (TPR).  His current research focuses on youth systemic and institutional marginality and marginalization. 

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