As an avid Sudan enthusiast, I have found it extremely disheartening to see South Sudan slide into a cacophony of tribal fighting and political squabbling. So much so that it has been difficult to find the words to write a blog entry about this – and, besides, there have already been so many authoritative voices chiming in with their take on what’s been happening.
I remember travelling around northern and southern Sudan, just before independence, and could not help but be caught up by the euphoria sweeping the country. Here was a real chance to build a bright future – for both the North and the South.
I think that is why the slide into virtual civil war – which some might, with hindsight, say was inevitable – has been so very painful. A dream, a vision torn asunder – by the very men that brought the dream before the people in the first place.
A month or so ago, I was in the offices of the Juba Monitor, talking with its esteemed editor Alfred Taban. I well remember Alfred from my days as a correspondent in Khartoum. This was before independence and at that time Alfred was editor of the now defunct Khartoum Monitor, which gave southerners a voice across the country.
“I didn’t foresee any of this,” Alfred told me. “If I had done, I wouldn’t have been so keen to rush towards independence. I would still have been of the same opinion – [that we needed to separate from the north] – but I would have been in favour of delaying a bit.”
When he lived in Khartoum, Alfred repeatedly ran up against the government censors, who would often turn up at Monitor’s offices and vet the copy before it was published. If they wanted to be really mean – and they often were – they would wait until the newspaper had been printed, at considerable expense, and then seize all the copies, saying that some article or other violated some preposterous screening law.
But in Juba things are no better. Alfred is still repeatedly facing the censors, and often having his papers seized.
“Press censorship was actually better in the north. It was more predictable,” admitted Alfred. “If a journalist wasn’t accredited with the NCP – National Press Council – then you knew you were taking a risk in using them. But here the government just has a list of names, journalists or not, which can’t be used.”
The frustrations that Alfred faces daily point to what is lies at the route of South Sudan’s current problems: South Sudan really isn’t all that different from North Sudan.
I always favoured separation. When I first encountered Sudan, in 2007, the country had already lived through two bloody civil wars – and the south had endured more than forty years of repression at the hands of Khartoum. Bitterness was too entrenched for there ever to be reconciliation.
Not everyone agrees, of course. Some think the US-led push for independence – the US wanted the countries to separate at whatever cost – exacerbated tribal divisions across the country. Perhaps. But by the time this was all set in motion, it was too late to do anything else.
I am the eternal Sudan optimist and I like to think things will eventually get better, but few people I speak to seem to think they will.
We are about to publish a new edition of our guidebook to South Sudan, and I have been speaking to a number of knowledgeable tour operators involved in the country. Many have decided not to renew their tour licence, others have done so but don’t know whether they’ll actually be able to make good use of it.
More than one person has suggested that the only thing likely to make things better is for both Salva Kiir – current incumbent president – and Riek Machar – former vice president, summarily sacked by Kiir last December for an alleged coup plot – to bow out of the political scene.
I don’t disagree with that sentiment, but it seems extremely unlikely to happen. Politicians rarely do what’s in the best interest of their people if it conflicts with their own.
When do those that voted in favour of independence start regretting their inky thumbs?