Thursday, May 21, 2020 (PW) On May 13 2020, just three days before May 16 National celebration, a veteran revolutionary was inoffensively gunned down in his home village of Mayen Jur (Apuk Giir Thiik), while he was undertaking his regular family duties. The alleged attackers, who massacred more than 26 civilians and inflicted injuries on many more members of Mayen Jurvillage, are thought to be from the neighbouring tribe of BullNuer.
The motive of the aggressors is not yet known, and the National Government in Juba has as yet said nothing concerning the tragic incident. However, in recent years the Bull Nuer tribesmen have been predisposed to such attacks, mainly blamed on cattle raiding or incidences of revenge.
The late veteran, whose name is withheld for privacy reasons, was a freedom fighter who took arms against Khartoum to contest the prejudice. He volunteered his life alongside many of his comrades to begin what would famously become known as SPLA/M. For 21 years he fought against the dictatorial Khartoum regime, endangering his life to secure south Sudanese freedom. His contributions toward present-day sovereign South Sudan are unquestionable. I, along with many other children, was kept alive during the war because of his efforts. He brought us freedom. His alleged killers were likely among people whose lives he so gallantly fought to save.
Having accomplished his mission of freeing South Sudan, he retired to his village, only to be exterminated by his people. It was the murder of a national hero, three days before the 37th Anniversary commemoration of the liberation of his beloved country and people for whom he had invested so much.
Concurrently to this tragic event, my bleeding Facebook newsfeed bears witness to the Luo Nuer siege; a brutal village slaughter by another neighbouring tribe, the Murle. Hundreds of guiltless lives are believed to have been cruelly stolen by Murle hitmen. Disturbingly, this is not the first time, and the reason for the bloodshed has not been confirmed. Juba claimed that it was revenge.
Barely a week ago, Twic Mayardit also sustained attacks from neighbouring Bull Nuer. This community has lost many lives in recent years due to cross border Bull Nuer attacks. Like other cross tribal attacks, Juba has not condemned, nor made any effort to care for, the civilians. Nevertheless, what made me shudder about this particular attack is the worrying statement I read on social media: “Twic Mayardit must be destroyed by all means…for peace to come to South Sudan. Congratulations to men who took the fight to the hearts of enemies”. This statement was made by a person believed to be from Bull Nuer, the alleged attacking tribe.
This incident, among many others, causes me to conclude that South Sudanese society is in danger of total moral collapse.
The question must then be asked; what happened to the proud South Sudanese moral values which not only governed and protected them for so many years but made them one of the most gratified people in Africa? What happened to our proud culture where absolute respect, honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love were paramount?
Here is my take on the matter.
For centuries, South Sudanese tribes have coexisted peacefully with minimum conflict. Traditional authorities swiftly and timely handled disputes with support from distinguished elders. Any crime committed by neighbouring tribal men in a territory that was not theirs was not handled with violence or revenge. Cross-cultural meetings would be called to resolve issues peacefully. The action was only required if the victim/s felt that their request for a dispute resolution had been ignored or mishandled. The Government would then enforce a law as an intervention in restoring peace, but this was infrequent.
So why was this possible then and not now?
Most South Sudanese tribes were guided by principles, set standards and taboos. Some of the guiding rules were absolute honesty, respect, purity, unselfishness, and love. Any dishonesty was severely punished. In many tribes, anyone who committed murder would be considered impure until he/she had been through the justice system, and racial cleansing was conducted. Deceitfulness was uncommon for the same reason. Individuals could end up as outcasts due to the breach of these guiding principles/standards.
Additionally, intermarriage was common, especially among the elite, which helped to oust any cross -tribe conflict.
Equally, the Government was quick to act because if they did not, they would be held accountable by the traditional leaders who were powerful and influential. However, all this changed within the last fifty years of the South Sudan War. But why?
The following is my perspective:
South Sudan war
For almost fifty years, South Sudanese cultures and tribes have been subjected to sustainable cruelty and oppression, which has placed enormous pressure on social systems and brought moral standards and principles to a breaking point. Ultimately, elders and traditional leaders lost their power and voice, giving way to a culture of revenge and violence. Survival of the fittest, to be precise, emerged as the new normal.
Weak Traditional Authority.
The Government of the South Sudanese did not empower traditional authorities when the war ended. People were more likely to listen to their local chiefs than Government authorities. Chiefs are more suited to depose the conflict by talking to their counterparts across the border. The tribesmen disobey weak leaders.
Poverty and Hopelessness
As a result of war, much South Sudanese wealth was wiped out. Subsequently, people adopted hand-to-mouth living. With surging poverty and hopelessness, anything is possible. A darker side of human nature emerges. People are susceptive to bribery and may resort to antisocial or criminal behaviour to fulfil basic needs. It used to be divide and control, but what we are experiencing now is, deprive and control. People are so hopeless that they will do anything to survive, henceforth cattle raiding has become attractive.
Lack of Education
Due to the lack of education, tribesmen are not aware that peaceful coexistence has more advantages than a life of violence. Enduring war since the Anyanya 1, Anyanya 2, SPLA/M, to the 2013 civil war and up until the present, has left people in the dark, not aware of the benefits of a free world.
Lack of leadership
In Shuluk culture, when a king dies, there follows an official lawless period between the time of the King’s death and the new King’s election. During this period, the tribesmen and women would do any unlawful thing without being held accountable.
I believe we might be in the period of lawlessness when it comes to tribal conflicts. It is unheard of to arrest or hold people to justice in a court of law, even when it involves the loss of many lives.
Juba has chosen to remain silent on most tribal conflicts. Ateny Wek, the GoSS spokesperson, has recently blamed the Lou Nuer attack on revenge by Murle. My question would then be, is revenge lawful? And if not, why is the Government watching the loss of innocent lives and taking no action?
Moreover, due to decades of civil war, local leadership was disrupted at the grassroots level, leaving a huge vacuum. Since then, structural/ethnic leadership has never returned to this ground level. Consequently, groups or individuals are acting loose, sometimes used by politicians for political gain. A community without leadership is like a river without a source.
Uncontrolled ownership of Weapons
Buying a gun in South Sudan, I believe, is as cheap as purchasing a cup of tea and very unregulated, as is the South Sudanesealcohol market. Increased lethal weapons in the hands of civilians are more dangerous than a coup by a properly trained army. Armed civilians will always misuse guns for wrong reasons, and innocent lives always pay the price.
Lack of Law Enforcement
Kenya, like any other African country, faces tribal disputes, but with their strong leadership and respect to the rule of law, tribal wars are always handled swiftly. Perpetrators are still held accountable. The case of South Sudan is not unique; there must be leaders willing to use force to keep law and order.
Politics and proxy war
The Juba government is widely blamed for its lack of response. More so, there have been accusations of politicians fighting a proxy war through tribes. Recently, Lou Nuer accused Juba of arming Murle to attack them. On the other hand, Bull Nuer attackers are always blamed on Dr Machar’s proxy war on President Kiir’s tribes.
The truth might never be revealed, but civilians are paying a heavy price.
What is needed?
South Sudanese inside South Sudan and around the globe need moral rearmament. The decades of war have taken a negative toll on us. We seem to have lost love for each other and the nation. We have lost our moral standards. Our unity which made us stand centuries of aggression, starting from the colonisation period to the Al Bashir regime, is distant history.
So how do we address these issues and begin the process of restoration?
Role of Every South Sudanese individual.
The healing journey must first begin with a changing of self, which can then shift to others. Gandhi rightfully put it that we must be the change we wish to see. I am a part of the problem, and therefore I should also be part of the solution. There is no way we can create change if we do not transform our attitudes and how we act toward others.
In my own life, I have many things for which to apologise and to put right. Therefore, I must start with myself first, and so it is with any other South Sudanese person. We all have things to address within ourselves and in our relationships. When we are honest with ourselves and admit we have not loved as best we could; growth begins to take place.
After we intentionally commit to a positive mindset, we naturally influence our family and friends. If our immediate circle practices absolute love, respect, honesty, purity, and unselfishness, this will then have a positive effect on the local community. Over time, a ripple effect will occur and bring change to the entire nation.
Role of Government of South Sudan
Government of South Sudan, like any other government, carry the ultimate responsibility of all its citizens. One life loss unjustly is too many. The Government could take control as follows:
Provide Ethical leadership– Lead by example- All leaders must be held to a high level of integrity and ethical practice. Ethical leadership is needed from the national level down to the county level and villages. Civilian lives and their properties need to be protected. Security is paramount to everything we need and long for in South Sudan.
Enforce law – All criminal acts must be brought to justice, even if a group of people or community commits crimes. A single community should never hold the national government hostage.
Stop proxy war – Juba needs to hold accountable any politician that is proven to be modelling or fuelling tribal conflict for their political gain.
Reduce poverty– prosperous communities are always peaceful. Thus, the Government needs to work hard to reduce poverty. Providing better security, for example, could promote trade which could encourage more farming, resulting in poverty reduction and the circle continue.
Empower Traditional leaders – empowered traditional leaders are better influencers at the grassroots level. They could more positively implement the national plan at their level than political appointees.
Support Civil Education – Very few citizens in villages know what Juba is trying to achieve. They need to be educated of the benefit of being a nationalist and the importance of peaceful coexistence. They do not need a formal education to learn these things. Public campaigns through media and government appointees can share this message.
Provide Hope – Importantly, Juba needs to provide hope to the country. A hopeless society always disintegrates into chaos and statelessness. Even small actions, like the recent announcement of road construction, would give greater hope to the people in villages.
The story of a murdered veteran who sacrificed his life for, and was then betrayed by his countrymen, is a testimony to the growing moral bankruptcy in South Sudan.
As people of Mayen Jur were mourning their losses while in displacement from their village, Lou Nuer was undergoing a siege by a neighbouring tribe, the Murle.
Barely two weeks earlier, another tribe, Twic Mayardit, sustained weeks of attack from Bull Nuer, the same tribe who recently attacked people of Mayen Jur, Apuk Giir Thiik. We naturally question how centuries of proud South Sudanese moral values disintegrated. Decades of war, poverty and bad governance are mainly to blame for the erosion of ethics and traditional ethical systems.
However, morality begins with the individual. With good personal choices and attitudes, one’s integrity can positively impact family and friends, and in turn, the wider community. The Government also has a more significant role in demonstrating leadership and leading by example, in areas such as civic education and law enforcement, and by providing morale, empowering traditional authorities, creating a poverty-free society, control weapon and stopping a proxy war.
These changes are actions recommended that the Government can take; as long-term and practical steps to restore the moral standards in South Sudanese society.
I wish all South Sudan pleasant hearth during this unprecedented COVID – 19 times. May you all be safe.
The author, Biong Deng Biong, is an Executive Officer with Edmund Rice Services Ltd. He currently resides in Melbourne, Australia can be reached via his email: Biong Biong <firstname.lastname@example.org>.