Dr Lawrence Wongo: South Sudanese in the Doldrums as Situation Worsens

South Sudan is experiencing difficulties that are creating negative outcomes for which the government is being blamed. In a surprise move that baffled its citizens, president Kiir recently placed on reserve or “retired” 163 army generals in the biggest shakeup of the military since independence in July 2011. The action generated rumors of a coup attempt that the government promptly denied, claiming that the changes were made to modernize the army by bringing younger people into top positions. Despite the explanation, a segment of South Sudanese contend that that the possibility of a planned coup deta’t or armed rebellion could not have been ruled out, given the disastrous 2010 elections and the rebellion that followed. The belief is that, the generals have become a hindrance to reforming the army in a bid to preserve their own units to safeguard their positions.

Insecurity in some of the states has compelled the president to fire the elected governor of Lakes State for failure to curb the deteriorating security situation. Sacking an elected official has spurred renewed concerns over concentration of authority in the presidency. Such blatant disregard for the will of the electorate requires real governance reform and respect for the constitution.

In December 2012, soldiers or police shot dead 24 civilians and injured 60 others protesting the relocation of their county headquarters outside Wau, the capital of Western Bahr-el-Ghazal state. Amidst the turmoil, two state journalists were detained for allegedly failing to cover the president’s speech during a visit to Wau. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an international media watchdog, challenged the arrest. While the authorities maintained that the arrest was an administrative issue, local journalists said the government was infuriated by a footage showing uniformed armed men firing at the protestors, which had been provided to Aljazeera TV. According to the CPJ, this heavy handed action was an attempt to prohibit the local media from investigating the unrest. The CPJ has called on the authorities to release the journalists. South Sudan has no media law, making it difficult for reporters to get information from the government.

On the night of December 4, 2012, in another disturbing incident, unidentified gunmen shot dead a prominent blogger and government critic, Isaiah Abraham Diing, at his home. To date, “investigations” have led to no arrest or prosecution for the murder. Opinion writers and journalists now live in fear, alleging that they have been threatened by text messages for asking the government to account for the assassination of Diing. The media have reported numerous complaints of intimidation against journalists and civil society activists from agents of the state. It is no wonder that in 2012, South Sudan ranked 111th in the annual press freedom index out of 179 states. The CJP has warned that South Sudan’s ranking is expected to slip in 2013 due to the heavy handedness of the security forces in dealing with the media.

The twin vices of corruption and tribalism continue to worsen despite the creation of an Anticorruption Commission that has yet to prosecute a single case of corruption. Moreover, abuse of power by security forces and restrictions on freedom of expression by the citizenry have created concern within the African Union and the International Community. Meanwhile, on January 9, 2012, the president decreed the formation of the National Constitutional Review Commission to review the Transitional Constitution of South Sudan 2011 and produce a permanent one. The SPLM dominated Commission, which is not politically representative of the people, has so far failed to complete its work, because it says that it lacked the financial support that it was promised by the government. The Commission’s 1-year mandate is likely to be renewed for another 1 year, despite opposition from many groups and questions about the government’s commitment to the process. There is suspicion that this may be a ploy to have the general elections, due in 2014, without a permanent constitution in place – a clear recipe for a constitutional crisis! This development has dampened much of the optimism that came with South Sudan’s independence and many observers believe that, Kiir’s government is reneging on the principles that it stood for during the civil war.

The secession of South Sudan and subsequent dispute over pipeline fees with Sudan, it’s northern neighbor, has left both economies in turmoil. Bashir and Kiir have signed many failed agreements to end the stalemate and resume oil exports. Another new agreement has just been concluded and signed, but given the recent history, it only remains to be seen whether or not this one will hold! South Sudan and Sudan will have to deal more seriously with their economic and regional tensions, and stop demonizing each other, or else a new war between them could erupt.