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By Prof. Jane Kani Edward - 12 Jul 2023

Opinion| Reframing the "liberation" narrative for inclusive South Sudan

"You did not fight, you did not liberate this country, we liberated you, you were not in the bush, etc." These are some of the common phrases often used to label certain groups of South Sudanese by those who consider themselves the "liberators" of South Sudan. As a result of such categorization, there is a tendency to prioritize the contributions of specific ethnicities and regions while dismissing those of others. This privileging of military contributions and the use of such labels grant those who perceive themselves as "liberators" a sense of entitlement to political, economic, and military power. Consequently, they can exclude, oppress, abuse, subjugate, and silence those who hold different perspectives.

The independence of South Sudan would not have been possible without the participation of all South Sudanese, both men and women, in various capacities and contexts. Indeed, the combined efforts of South Sudanese inside the country and in exile, along with their foreign friends and supporters, through military, civil advocacy, and political activism, led to the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005 and the subsequent independence of South Sudan in July 2011. Therefore, as we reflect on the twelfth anniversary of South Sudan's independence, this article challenges the "single story" of "liberation" by highlighting the crucial role played by other ethnicities and regions in the struggle for freedom, with a particular focus on Equatoria and its people. While this discussion is not exhaustive, it provides an overview of the specific contributions of Equatorians to the history of the South Sudanese struggle for independence.

Historically, the call for self-determination for South Sudan did not start with the SPLM/A. Rather, it dates to 1965 when Aggrey Jaden, the leader of the Sudan African National Union (SANU), demanded for the first time during a Round Table Conference held in Khartoum the separation of the South from the North. He was also the first to criticize the 1972 Addis Ababa Agreement for its failure to achieve the goal of the Sudan Liberation Movement (SSLM) (aka the Anyanay), which sought an independent South Sudan.

Similarly, Equatorian political leaders, along with their counterparts from the other two regions of southern Sudan, formed and led political parties that campaigned against the political, cultural, and economic marginalization and exploitation of southern Sudan's human and natural resources. This exploitation was initially conducted by the Turks, Egyptians, and British colonial administrators and later by successive northern-based governments of Sudan. They demanded and advocated for equal participation in the country's political process and for their voices to be heard. Politicians such as Stanislaus Paysama, Buth Diu Thung, and Abdel-Rahman Sule, for instance, founded the Liberal Party in 1951 and demanded a federal status for the South and a federal system for Sudan as a whole.

The people from the Equatoria Region were also instrumental during Sudan's first civil war (1955-1972). The Torit Mutiny, led by the Equatoria Corps on August 18, 1955, against northern Sudanese officers at Torit in Eastern Equatoria, marked the beginning of South Sudanese armed struggles against injustices. The Anyanya movement further brought to the forefront on the world stage the economic, political, and socio-cultural marginalization and oppression of the Southern Region and its people. While many paid the ultimate sacrifice for a free and just South Sudan, others, such as General Joseph Lagu Yanga, who led the Anyanya movement, and many others, were active participants in the peace negotiations with their counterparts in the other regions of Southern Sudan that ended the 17-year civil war in 1972. This led to the subsequent formation of the Regional Government of Southern Sudan, led by Abel Alier.

During the second civil war (1983-2005), many Equatorian people actively participated and sacrificed for the independence of South Sudan, despite joining at a later stage of the movement. Although marginalized within the SPLM/A political and military structures at the time, Equatorians played influential roles in combat and non-combat positions, as well as in political processes, advocacy, and activism both inside and outside the country. Equatorians who joined the SPLA fought alongside other South Sudanese and were actively involved in major military operations and non-combat roles. Military personnel such as Obote Momur Mete, Thomas Cirilo Swaka, Jadala Augustino Wani, Rabbi Emmanuel Mujung, Ali Luwaya, and many others strategically contributed to the capture of Yei town from the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) in early March 1997. With the capture of Yei, the SPLM/A was able to establish a permanent base in a strategically important location within Sudan.

The recent history of South Sudan's struggle for independence reveals that the Equatoria Region served as a haven for people from the other two regions of South Sudan and as a base for the political and military activities of the SPLM/A. Prior to the capture of Yei, Chukudum in Eastern Equatoria was a strategic location for the SPLM/A inside Sudan. It was in Chukudum that the national convention of the New Sudan was held from April 2-13, 1994. Similarly, two notable events of the SPLM/A took place in Kojiko, a village about 25 miles from Yei town. The first was the Model Development Workshop (July 17-19, 1997) to discuss a governance model for the people of Yei and Kajokeji counties. The workshop was attended by several SPLM members, including Mr. Arthur Aquent, Bishop Seme Solomon of Yei Diocese, Eliaba James Surur, the workshop's patron, Chief Charles Abugo, the commissioner of Yei at that time, Mary Apayi Ayiga, Dr. Samson Kwaje, Kezia L. Nchodemus (commonly known Mama Kezia), Dr. Sebit Sindani,  and others. Representatives of civil society, women, and aid organizations were also present. This workshop was followed by a conference at the same venue in July 1997, where the New Sudan Council of Churches and the SPLA met. Senior SPLA leaders and church leaders attended the conference. Therefore, it can be argued that the Greater Equatoria Region provided not only combatants but also a space and a conducive environment for the SPLM/A to conduct its civilian activities within the "New Sudan" or the liberated areas.

Following the capture of Yei, many South Sudanese refugees in the Arua District of Uganda, most of whom were inhabitants of Yei, voluntarily returned to the town to escape hardships in the camps and atrocities committed by the Lord Resistance Army (LRA), an armed opposition group in Uganda. Furthermore, internally displaced persons from other areas in the South, such as Bahr el Ghazal, also sought refuge and safety in Yei. Due to its relative stability and the hospitality of its residents, Yei became a hub for trade activities and served as a base for the SPLM/A inside South Sudan. Other areas such as Yambio, Maridi, Kajokeji, Nimule, and so on also accommodated South Sudanese from across the South who were seeking safety and opportunities.

After the failed attempt by the SPLA to capture Juba on June 7, 1992, many South Sudanese, the majority of whom were Equatorians, were massacred by government authorities in the South. They were accused of being supporters and collaborators of the SPLM/A. Among those tortured, killed, and disappeared were police, wildlife, prison, and army officers, senior government officials, and civilians, including women. Many neighbourhoods in Juba were destroyed. Those who survived and were suspected to be SPLM sleeper cells fled to neighbouring countries for refuge. Others in the SAF who survived joined the SPLA to continue the struggle for freedom. Despite not joining the SPLA in the bush, these people paid the ultimate sacrifice in the name of the SPLM/A to ensure that all South Sudanese live in peace and free from oppression. Today, the widows, mothers, children, and relatives of all those massacred in Juba in 1992 continue to struggle to ensure the loss of their loved ones is remembered and their sacrifices recognized, documented, and included in the national history of South Sudan. Unfortunately, the SPLM-dominated government of South Sudan is yet to address these concerns.

Young people who did not officially join the movement but remained in the rural areas served as porters and performed other domestic roles for the SPLA commanders and soldiers. Women in SPLA-controlled areas took on domestic responsibilities and dealt with the personal needs of SPLA commanders as well. People in these areas were also required to provide food rations for the SPLA. For example, in some surrounding villages of Yei, each family had to contribute a fixed portion of their harvest of grain, cassava, and groundnuts to feed the SPLA stationed in Yei.

Additionally, Juba was not captured by the SPLA as alleged by some individuals but remained under the control of the SAF until the signing of the CPA in 2005 and the subsequent formation of the Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS). Thus, the people of Equatoria welcomed the SPLM/A into Juba. Although Ramciel is the designated national capital of South Sudan, and while many plans have been created for the construction of the new capital since 2005, Juba remains the temporary headquarters for the national and state governments to date.

Equatorians in the diaspora played an instrumental role in the struggle for freedom and independence. For instance, the fourth ESSCA-USA conference was held in Des Moines, Iowa, on September 4-5, 2004, and was attended by the Chairman and Commander in Chief of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M), Dr. John Garang de Mabior, and his Deputy, Dr. Riek Machar. Other attendees of the conference included Nhial Deng Nhial, Agnes Lasuba, Stephen Wondu, Dr. Sam Laki, Margaret Juan Lado, Cdr. Thomas Cirillo, Cdr. Augustino Jadallah, and Cdr. Louis Lobong. Dr. Stephen Wondu, an SPLM/A representative for North America, introduced Dr. John Garang de Mabior and his accompanying delegation to the conference. Dr. Garang de Mabior briefed the conferees on the peace negotiations between the SPLM/A and the Government of Sudan. He defined the New Sudan as the territory that comprises Equatoria, Bahr el Ghazal, Upper Nile, the Nuba Mountains, and the Blue Nile. He said the rise of the SPLM/A was the starting point for the quest to solve the fundamental problem of Sudan, as defined in the 1983 SPLM/A manifesto and later in the 1994 Chukudum Convention.

In 2011, South Sudanese in the diaspora organized globally and voted for the independence of South Sudan during the referendum vote. In the United States of America, polling stations were set up by South Sudanese with support from the US administration in states with a high concentration of South Sudanese, such as Texas, Iowa, Nebraska, Washington DC, etc., which allowed all eligible Sudanese to vote overwhelmingly for the independence of South Sudan from Sudan.

In conclusion, it should be emphasized that the only way forward for all South Sudanese to feel a sense of belonging and to achieve genuine reconciliation, healing, and peaceful coexistence is to rethink the ways in which the history of the struggle is being narrated, moving away from a single story to an inclusive history that reflects the realities of all people, regardless of their social backgrounds and locations. By doing so, the people of South Sudan will have the opportunity to forge a new vision of a nation that is inclusive, prosperous, and just.

Jane Kani Edward is an associate professor of African studies and chair of the Department of African and African American Studies at Fordham University in New York City, USA.

The views expressed in ‘opinion’ articles published by Radio Tamazuj are solely those of the writer. The veracity of any claims made is the responsibility of the author, not Radio Tamazuj.