Ten years after gaining independence, some South Sudanese say their struggle for liberation has been supplanted by an autocratic system of government led by the nation’s ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).
Many of them complain about a lack of freedom to exercise their rights. They accuse the SPLM and President Salva Kiir of doing very little to protect open political space. They and some analysts also blame the SPLM party for a power struggle that turned into a five-and-a-half year civil war.
Deng Mading, the acting SPLM information secretary, admits some in the party’s leadership helped plunge the country into conflict but does not think the SPLM as a whole is to blame for South Sudan’s current rash of problems.
“I will argue that the individuals’ behavior within the SPLM brought a problem into SPLM as an institution,” he told "South Sudan in Focus," “but the SPLM as an institution on the other side of the argument, it is still like it was in 1983.”
As the SPLM came into power, according to analyst Bobova James at the Juba-based Institute for Social Policy and Research, it knew little about how to establish functioning government structures.
“Then individuals who are actually the leaders within the SPLM took that as an advantage to begin doing things in South Sudan the way they would like,” James told VOA’s "South Sudan in Focus." He asserts that “If we have leaders who do not understand the democratic rule of law and governance processes, such leaders cannot even be able to introduce some of those processes within a government.”
James decried the level of politicization that has gripped not only the national government in Juba, but also has filtered down through the system.
“At the state level, we have these SPLM structures that once you become a governor of a state and then therefore you become the chairperson of the SPLM; once you become a commissioner of a county, you become the chairperson of the SPLM [there]. There is a lot of ambiguity. There is a lot of illegality within the SPLM itself.”
Freedom of expression is enshrined in the 2012 Political Parties Act and the country’s transitional constitution. Despite those declarations, the government’s various security organizations do not allow opposition politicians to speak openly, said Albino Akol Atak, a senior member of the African National Congress (ANC).
For example, he said, parties are not allowed to hold political rallies.
“If I am trying to conduct, let’s say, a public rally,” Atak told VOA, “the authorities will come in, everybody will want me to get permission from him and this permission is even restricted. I will be asked, ‘What are you going to present in this public rally?’ If this topic is contrary to what they believe, then I will not be given that permission to conduct a public rally.”
In a report released earlier this year, Human Rights Watch documented a number of incidents carried out by National Security Service officers that included the detention of Moses Monday, director of the Organization for Non-Violence. Monday was detained because his organization erected billboards that demanded financial transparency in government spending.
The report also said security officers detained a political activist identified as Kanybil Noon and held him without charge for 117 days. It said Noon was released on condition that he stop criticizing the government.
While defending his party, SPLM’s Mading said that, to ensure good governance, SPLM has committed itself to implementing the 2018 revitalized peace agreement. He said free and open elections are critical to achieving that goal.
“After the elections, people of South Sudan will judge because we need to give people of South Sudan a voice and make your government to be legitimate,” he said.
South Sudanese youth rights activist Wani Stephen Elias also wants people to be able to safely express their opinions.
“Much space should be given for citizens,” he said, “to express their interest in terms of the governance, how they want corruption to be tackled, how education should be, how the health system is they want it to be, then how road infrastructure, leadership and transparency in terms of decision-making process.”
South Sudanese singer Okuta Ciza Malish, 34, popularly known by his stage name Silva X, said that as his country marks a decade of freedom, it is time for its leaders and their government to renew their commitment to the values that drove their struggle for freedom.
“May this 10th anniversary bring us peace, love, unity and freedom and really good security,” he said. “Let’s hope it becomes a restarting point for us to reflect on everything that we did in the past — good or bad — and put a possible way forward that will help every citizen in this country.”