Sunday, March 13, 2011

Unifying the scarred citizens of Southern Sudan

By Alyse Lamparyk

Edited by Hiram Foster

Photo courtesy of

As the region of South Sudan prepares to become an independent country this year on July 9, concerns about the unity of the people have surfaced. Violence amongst southern tribes has become prevalent now that the joint venture to declare independence has been achieved.

Solutions for unity abound, some broad and others specific.

Bec Hamilton, special correspondent on Sudan for The Washington Post, said in almost every rural interview that she has done over the last year the people’s focus has been the services that will be provided once a new government is established. They expect hospitals, schools, roads, electricity and clean water.

“People are waiting for their daily lives to actually change and there will be unrest if that doesn’t happen,” said Hamilton.

Bilha Achieng, assistant project director for United States based non-profit Real Medicine Foundation (RMF), said Southern Sudan’s Ministry of Health works closely with RMF to rebuild the infrastructure that was destroyed during the war. RMF helps to fund the Juba College of Nursing and Midwifery where Achieng said tribal differences have not been a problem.

“They have been getting along quite well, to the point you wouldn’t be able to differentiate from which tribe one is or from which other tribe someone else is,” said Achieng.

The common goal of rebuilding the health system by earning a certificate as a much-needed nurse or midwife allows for students to overcome their differences.

Jok Madut Jok, newly appointed undersecretary in the Government of Southern Sudan’s Ministry of Culture and Heritage, said it is tempting to think that a young country needs to focus on infrastructure and delivery of services. He is aware that people expect the new country to deliver right away, but said it will take time.

“While both of those are very important and will definitely need to be delivered, there is something that is equally important and that is the sense of nationhood,” said Jok. “South Sudanese have to go from being citizens of their tribes to certainly now being citizens of a nation.”

In order for the government to gain the respect of the people, he said it needs to be inclusive and represent the ethnic diversity found in Southern Sudan. Currently many citizens view the government as predominately consisting of Dinka tribesman, Jok serving as an example.

“If certain groups or people feel excluded from the state … from access to services, they will reach for their ethnic card … and that will be a dangerous thing for the government of South Sudan,” said Jok.

Hamilton said that Government of Southern Sudan’s encouragements for inclusiveness are good, but that history has shown new governments risk overlooking their promises once they obtain power. She cited the elections last year as an example, when political parties other than Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) had difficulties being accepted.

Ayak Chol Deng Alak, a radio presenter and journalist for United Nations Mission in Sudan’s Miraya FM, said ministers typically appoint staff from their own tribe. She understands that after the war no one wants their own people to suffer, but said there are other ways to help fellow tribesmen.

“They’re not making an initiative to halt this tribalism, which is the main obstacle in the unity of Southern Sudan,” said Alak. “In my opinion I don’t think they’ve given it their all.”

From the youth perspective, intermarriage is one of the best ways to break the tribal barriers, Alak said, because in African culture there is always respect for in-laws. She and her husband serve as an example, as she is from a tribe in Abyei and her husband is from a Southern Sudanese tribe.

Alak’s own parents modeled acceptance, as they are also from different tribes. She said that building a generation of change should begin with the children.

“If we the Southerners could be more forgiving of who our daughters and our sons want to be spouses with, I think that is one step forward,” said Alak.

Alak said her husband often suggests mixing people up and bringing individuals from different tribes to govern other states. He believes it will establish respect from both sides.

Within the next 18 months the President of Southern Sudan, Salva Kiir, has promised elections will occur. Hamilton said that if the plans do not proceed, then the international community may become involved.

David Johnson, founder of non-profit organization Silent Images, has traveled to Southern Sudan four times in the past three years and heard from citizens that, while Kiir is a good leader, he is not charismatic as John Garang was.

“I think the most unified that country has ever been is when John Garang [was leading them]. That’s what they need,” said Johnson.

A statue of John Garang built in Southern Sudan’s capital of Juba serves as a memorial to the former SPLM leader. Jok believes creating all-encompassing tributes and cultural museums to commemorate the war has the potential to establish nationalism.

But Hamilton and Johnson are not so entirely convinced it will equate to nationalism. Johnson questioned how much the tributes would really do for the community, while Hamilton said the many sides to the story imply the government would have to approach the subject carefully.

“I suspect that it may not be such an easy thing to go down this memorials path in a way that’s inclusive either, because as much as there was a north-south war there was an internal southern war,” said Hamilton.

While there is no easy solution to the problems at hand, the government of Southern Sudan has many options. The coming months will serve as a testament to what can be done.

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