JUBA — After decades of bitter fighting, South Sudan won its freedom from Sudan in 2011. Now, a fledgling government made up of former fighters faces the enormous task of introducing the rule of law. At the heart of this new battle are approximately 250 lawyers, who work tirelessly in one of the most dangerous jobs in the country.
In a dark and stifling office in Juba University, with no power and a small cabinet of law books representing the only library, sits Deng Awur, the dean of South Sudan’s only law college.
He says that around 80 lawyers will graduate this year. Their skills are desperately needed in the impoverished and war-ravaged country, where the fledgling government is trying to promote a new concept: rule of law.
Around 250 lawyers have come back from abroad, and like the judiciary, police and ministry staff, their skills are about as jumbled as South Sudan’s legal systems, says Awur.
The country is moving back to a common law system passed down by former British colonial rulers to Sudan, which then introduced Islamic law in the 1980s.
But more than 60 tribes are using various customary laws too, and Awur says those systems discriminate against half the population - an issue that he’d like his graduates to try and tackle.
“You have now a woman cannot inherit property of her husband or her father," Awur said. "There are real, real issues for women, and the law is clear, the law is not taking chances with anybody. So we hope through time people will be enlightened to accept that reality that human beings are the same, the law is for everyone, the constitution is for everyone, and there is no bias. We don’t want any bias for or against anybody.”
The university has stopped teaching Sharia law - previously one of its main subjects.
But Victor Lowilla, who runs legal aid at the South Sudan Law Society, says Sharia is still reflected in current laws and must be stripped out.
He wants a review of all South Sudan’s laws, also to prevent chiefs from handing down harsh sentences and to abolish a range of bizarre or cruel practices that persist under customary law.
These include “ghost marriages” of women forced to marry dead men, young girls given as compensation to the family of a murdered man and, in one infamous case, a man being forced to marry a goat called “Rose” after deflowering her.
Lowilla notes the lack of lawyers has left many people languishing in jail, unable to get hearings before judges.
But the shortage is most worrying for the hundreds of people on death row, whose necks are on the line for suspected murder, treason or insurgency.
“So those people, who is helping them make their appeal? It’s probably the prison wardens, and some, who can afford lawyers, then they can afford to do these appeals," Lowilla said. "But most of them have no lawyers to represent them during their cases, and they have no lawyers to do their appeals. And they have no lawyers even to write to the president to pardon them.”
He says the legal system is particularly “all over the place” in rural areas, where 80 percent of the population live, while 85 percent of the country’s lawyers live in the capital and have to travel out.
During one case in Western Bahr el Ghazal, five lawyers received death threats or were intimidated outside court as they defended 50 clients - including 11 minors facing the death penalty - after protests in which security forces gunned down civilians.
At South Sudan’s Ministry of Justice, Undersecretary Jeremiah Swaka says that the country has passed over 100 laws, but persuading rebels to play by the rules will take years.
“Our problem is to inculcate into those who are having the legacy of the past, the rough past, that we have come to a civilized stage and we should respect ourselves, we should respect the laws," he said. "We should be able to know that if you wrong me, there are institutions outside there that can redress the wrong done to you. This needs a lot of education, and we look forward to mold ourselves into a South Sudanese society.”
Norway and the U.S. hope that building a new law school in Juba, complete with a library full of books, will go some way to getting laws off the page and into practice.