Sandlot Democracy: Growing Pains in South Sudan

by andrewcagle

While conflict with Sudan picks up along the northern border of South Sudan, the burgeoning war has reached Kajo Keji in its own way. Yesterday, the second county-wide meeting in two weeks was held in the main market square in Wudu town. The subject of the meeting was civic involvement in the war effort. The government is currently asking all citizens, poor and rich, to help fund the national defense of South Sudan. This appeal is most likely driven by the absence of a tax system and the now three-month shutdown of oil production (98% of federal government revenue).

Over the past two weeks, the government has begun to urge youth across the country to join the SPLA. A small convoy of military vehicles passed through the county last week seeking to enlist new soldiers. After months of reluctance towards pursuing a military reaction to Sudan’s violence along the two state’s borders, South Sudanese president, Salva Kiir Mayardit sent SPLA troops into Sudan and seized the disputed Heglig oil field. The troops have since withdrawn, but a military option for resolving border disputes with the North has been put on the table and picked up, all at once. This is a measurable change from the past year’s rhetoric of a commitment to peace and a pursuit of all diplomatic courses available.

Where the recent and sudden change in South Sudan’s posture towards the North will take the nation is still difficult to predict. On an internal scale, recent events in Kajo Keji directly related to the conflict are telling of the  nation’s growing pains as it progresses in its fledging path towards democracy.

Currently, the county’s civilian working population is on the verge of a general strike. The threat of a general strike came yesterday in response to harsh actions by the local government. One week ago, the county commissioner (the non-elected head official of Kajo Keji) called for a town hall meeting. County commissioners in South Sudan are appointed by the state governor and hold power over all local officials, security, and law enforcement in the county.

Along with the town hall announcement was issued a directive stating that all businesses be closed for the meeting. A handful of businessmen attended the meeting but left an employee or friend to tend their shops in their absence. During the meeting, local police patrolled the markets and recorded businesses that had remained open. The next day, police confronted the “defiant” business owners with a choice: go to jail or pay a fine of 1,000 South Sudanese pounds (roughly equivalent to $250 USD).

Most of the accused paid what was possibly all or more of their savings, rather than face the unsavory prospect of serving jail time in rural South Sudan. On Saturday morning, I crossed paths with one of the arrested individuals who was unable to afford the outrageous fine. He had spent five days in jail before being released.

The threat of a strike comes partly from these harsh disciplinary measures and Machiavellian exercise of authority. The tipping point came with the demand for accountability of the money paid in fines. The accused parties have called for a strike if the local government does not provide documentation for where the money is deposited. People fear and speculate that the commissioner and police may keep most of the money for themselves.

The past week’s events in Kajo Keji are indicative of how justice operates, or rather does not operate in South Sudan. It is a common lament among people here that there is no rule of law; and they’re right. The most accurate description of South Sudan’s government would be a military regime, headed by President Salva Kiir and controlled by the SPLM party. It is important to note that the business owners fined and jailed received no trial and were forced to take one of the two options presented by force. Additionally, these punishments were not levied on an existing law or statute, but on the word of the commissioner.

It is encouraging to see the local citizenry push back against governmental injustice, but along with sending a message, a strike also brings economic hardship. Inflation of the pound and rising food prices are already putting a strain on residents here. The only respite for hard economic times will be the harvest period of rainy season (still two months away). This is how democracy currently operates: The government imposes, and once a tipping point is reached, the public does what they can to fight back.

It is still early in South Sudan’s development of civil society, and much of the future is still out of focus. While the world looks at the abuses inflicted by Khartoum on South Sudan, it is equally as important to remember the threat of injustice within. This nation is not immune to the way in which the world views and interacts with Uganda, its neighbor to the South. Americans flock to do humanitarian work in a well-known and popular African nation. All the while, the fact that it is ruled by a dictator (Yoweri Museveni) and resembles a dearth of political freedom on par with Mubarak’s Egypt goes unnoticed.

The West has an unseized opportunity to empower the South Sudanese and other Africans through accountability measures and development of democratic institutions. To date, the positive impact unleashed by bringing political empowerment to everyday Africans is still unseen and largely ignored. Until we take this issue seriously, civil society in Africa will be like an episode of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, where the laws are made up and justice doesn’t matter.