The Meaning of Liberation in South Sudan, One Year After Independence

Matthew Arnold argues that it will be Juba’s ability to deliver effective governance that will ultimately judge whether South Sudanese feel part of their new state.

‘Our civilians have suffered a great deal. We have now put the citizen at centre stage.  He is the one that liberation should serve, not the one that should suffer from liberation.’

The late John Garang, widely regarded as South Sudan’s founding father, made this remark soon after the start of the peace process in 2005. Given South Sudan’s history of resistance against authoritarianism from Khartoum, the notion of liberation is central to the national psyche. Questions of what it means, however, are open to even more interpretation by the average citizen now that independence is a physical reality to be experienced day-to-day rather than a distant hope girding one through decades of war.  Whether normal Southern Sudanese feel they are really on the ‘centre stage’ is the crux of the matter.

The evolution of what liberation means in South Sudan has been consistent in some regards, but dynamic in others. Throughout the decades of war, resistance against Khartoum’s authoritarianism was foundational, largely in itself.  However, similar to the sentiments expressed recently in the ‘Arab Spring’, notions of liberation have in recent years shifted away from ideology towards basic socio well being and development.  As the Jonglei state governor, Kuol Manyang Juuk, noted on the eve of independence, ‘there is liberation from the domination of the people who had ruled the Sudan since independence. Then we are moving now to a different level of liberation – that is to liberate our people from backwardness, from ignorance, from illiteracy, from poverty, from diseases and all these need an effective government.’

The first year of independence was not an easy one for South Sudan considering the significant violence along its northern border and the related economic challenges caused by the cessation of oil revenue. On the other hand, despite the dire predictions of many pundits, mostly foreign, South Sudan is not engaged in total war with Sudan nor torn apart by raging civil war. Indeed, discussions of where South Sudan is on the anniversary of its independence center upon the quality of its governance and the status of its development goals. The prospects for escalating war will greatly shape and determine these, but the substance of the national conversation has not been overwhelmed by them either.

Basic development as liberation and the need for effective governance to achieving it are the national questions shaping South Sudan’s domestic discourse. The political dominance of the SPLM party is comprehensive; the domestic politicking of consequence occurs within it. However, with the loss of all oil revenues in January and the significant violence along the Southern Kordofan border over March and April, the SPLM government of President Salva Kiir is under increased pressure to maintain stability amidst critiques of the party lacking the ability to push good governance and development to meet the hopes of its public. In June, Kiir took the extraordinary step of publicly asking current and former government officials to return an estimated $4 billion in pilfered state moneys – an exceptionally embarrassing act for the SPLM but telling of the leader’s desperation for funds. Most problematic for the Kiir government is its ever-greater dependence on foreign donor support.  With liberation long characterized as Southern Sudanese participation, and indeed outright control, over governance, that foreign actors are still so controlling, or at least influential, is horribly galling to many Southerners. As Kiir remarked on the first anniversary of independence, ‘We still depend on others. Our liberty today is incomplete. We must be more than liberated. We have to be independent economically.’

Liberation is a fluid and dynamic concept; inherently subjective and highly emotional.  The South Sudanese are still coming to terms with what it means for them.  The reality is that while Southern Sudanese understandably have high expectations for what their long-sought independence would bring them, they are also a realistic people who displayed remarkable resilience through decades of war.  The Southern public will probably be fairly patient over the governance and development situation in the face of aggression from the Bashir regime in Sudan.  But, such patience will not last forever; liberation has little meaning for anybody if it translates into no ability to provide for one’s family, or hope that the situation will change for the better sometime soon.  Tellingly, protests against the Bashir regime in Khartoum were catalyzed only recently by the increasingly desperate economic situation, just as they were for previous generations of political change in Sudan.

As the elder South Sudanese statesmen Joseph Lagu wisely concluded on the needs for success after independence, ‘Let’s take care not to do the same things Northerners did; give every citizen the sense of his/her belonging.’  South Sudan’s war for independence was a convoluted one, but at its simplest it was one fought for basic dignity and respect against marginalization and exploitation; namely liberation as recognition: being a valued citizen with opportunities for a better future.  Critical to a sense of liberation having truly been achieved in South Sudan will be the wider public’s sense of whether they truly belong in the new state. This involves normative values, i.e.: the successful completion of resistance to Khartoum’s authoritarianism, but also simple improvements in quality of life. Independence allows South Sudanese to feel that they have already met the former. The actions and successes of Juba at improved governance and basic development will be imperative for their chances of experiencing the latter.

Inspection Copy Request
Review Copy Request
Join our mailing list

Subscribers receive exclusive discounts and early access to new books from Hurst.