Professor Mahmood Mamdani’s controversial views regarding the crisis in South Sudan

By Dr. Lako Jada Kwajok

Professor Mahmood Mamdani discussing the African wars from within, children and conflict(Photo credit: Youtube/Nyamilepedia)

Professor Mahmood Mamdani discussing the African wars from within, children and conflict(Photo credit: Youtube/Nyamilepedia)

July 2, 2019(Nyamilepedia) — I had the opportunity of watching on YouTube a couple of days ago a lecture by Professor Mamdani under the title “Beyond Criminal Justice: Learning from South Sudan”. It was part of the Coca Cola World Fund Lecture at the University of Yale in the USA. Professor Mamdani is a renowned scholar of African history, politics, and society who had developed an interest in studying and analysing the crisis in South Sudan. In July 2016, I wrote an article titled “The Root Causes of Political Violence in South Sudan – what’re the solutions?” Which addressed some of Professor Mamdani’s opinions regarding the conflict in South Sudan. Those viewpoints were contained in his article “Who is to blame for the political violence in South Sudan? What’s the way forward? Both pieces are available in the archives ofsouthsudannation.com

Professor Mamdani was one of the commissioners who produced the report of the African Union Commission of Inquiry on South Sudan (AUCISS) in October 2015. He certainly knows a lot about South Sudan but not the whole truth. His lecture, which is the subject of this piece carries numerous debatable points. Here are excerpts from his speech that I find less controversial:

1-” The larger crisis in South Sudan is not just a breakdown of law and order; it’s political”.

2- “The violence ethnically cleansed the city of Juba of its Nuer population in just a matter of 3 days. The motive was political, literally to separate the civilian population along ethnic lines to destroy the middle ground and thereby to polarise the society into us and them”.

3- “Let’s keep in mind that South Sudan has never had an election. Salva Kiir was elected as Vice President of Sudan. He was never elected as President of a State called South Sudan”.

4- “There was no military victory in South Sudan like in Eritrea. The external factor was decisive. More than any other State, South Sudan was the child of war on terror. The Troika was the real force behind the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). It was the Troika that decided AK 47 toting soldiers and commanders be handed power in 2005 even though they had not won the war, didn’t constitute a coherent force, and had no more than a slim civilian base”.

I partially agree with point number 1 as the problem in South Sudan is not solely political. It has taken other dimensions as well. At its centre is the fact that the regime lacks vision and any sense of direction.  The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/SPLA) vision of New Sudan ceased to exist following the signing of the CPA. It resulted in a loss of direction and organisational disarray. Comrades in arms from the North, Blue Nile region and the Nuba mountains were left in the cold. That alone had created a sense of betrayal and guilt amongst comrades who fought the enemy together for decades. Those in the North felt betrayed and abandoned, while some of their colleagues in the South endured the burden of guilt. It made the SPLM/SPLA a less cohesive organisation than it used to be. The tribal tendencies which are inherent within the SPLM/SPLA quickly found a fertile ground to flourish. The absence of institutionalism within it compounded the problem further. Garang was often accused of running the SPLM/SPLA as a private enterprise. He preferred to keep weak characters who do not challenge his decisions around himself and in top positions in the Movement. With his tragic demise in July 2005, the stage was set for South Sudan to be ruled by a visionless leader and a chaotic organisation.

I was surprised that Professor Mamdani never spoke about the Jieng Council of Elders (JCE) in the entire lecture. The JCE is the driving force behind all the critical policies and decisions taken by the regime in Juba. It stood firm against the Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan (ARCSS) that was signed in August 2015. It communicated its views, whether verbally or in writings to various international bodies like the UN, the Troika (USA, UK, Norway), the African Union (AU), the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and foreign diplomats. It played a significant role in lobbying diplomatic support for Kiir’s government at the regional and the international level. The controversial 32 States were the brainchild of the JCE. Therefore, one wonders how come such a major player in the current South Sudanese politics gets omitted in a lecture regarding the crisis in the country?

There are many points of contention in Professor Mamdani’s lecture. Discussing all of them would be beyond the scope of this article. I would limit my comments on the following excerpts from the said lecture.

(a) “There are two major ethnic groups, the Dinka (3.2 million) and the Nuer (1.6 million) – together they form 57% of South Sudan’s population”.

Professor Mamdani relates these figures to the Sudan census of 2008.

I wonder where he got them as the same census didn’t provide a breakdown of the population size according to ethnicities. The total population of South Sudan was 8,260,490. Greater Equatoria had a population of 2,629,080, which is 31.83% of the people of South Sudan. The Chollo are thought to be around 1.5 million. On Google, the figure quoted in 2005 was close to 1.5 million. If we add the number of the Chollo population to that of the Dinka and Nuer according to Professor Mamdani, then the total would be 6.3 million, which is 76.27% of the South Sudanese population in 2008. The figures given by Professor Mamdani are very inaccurate even without adding to the tally the communities in Western Bahr al Ghazal State, the Murle, the Anyuak, and the Brun. The fact of the matter is that both ethnicities (Dinka and Nuer) put together wouldn’t constitute a majority in South Sudan.

(b) “Every step in the political development of the region was made possible by the coming together of the Dinka and the Nuer in support of a common cause. This was true in 1983 as it had been in 1924”.

“Historians date the beginning of the Sudanese National Movement in1924 by two South Sudanese Muslims, Ali Abdul Latif, a Dinka and Abdul Fadil Al Maz, a Nuer”.

A point of correction, Ali Abdul Latif was half a Dinka. His father was a Nuba from the Nuba mountains while his mother was from the Dinka of Bahr al Ghazal.

Even though the White Flag League led by Ali Abdul Latif pioneered the struggle against the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium in Sudan, it had no impact on the South Sudanese whatsoever and faced challenges in the North. The Northern elites looked down upon Ali Abdul Latif, and very few embraced his Leadership. His background as a descendant of slave parents proved to be a formidable obstacle against his rise in Sudanese politics. He was unknown to the overwhelming majority of the South Sudanese people and probably never been to South Sudan as he was born in Halfa at the border with Egypt. It makes me wonder again. Is Ali Abdul Latif’s political struggle relevant to South Sudan’s independence than the contributions of leaders like Abdul Rahman Sule, Buth Diu and Stanislaus Beyasama who were not mentioned in the speech?

Interestingly, Professor Mamdani said little about almost two decades of struggle led by the Anyanya Movement in the late 50ies, through 60ies, and early 70ies of the past century. Well, he hurriedly mentioned the SSLM (South Sudan Liberation Movement) which was the Anyanya Movement, signing the Peace Agreement in Addis Ababa in 1972. While he talked about less prominent personalities, he omitted renown leaders and celebrated heroes like Fr Saturnino Lohure, Aggrey Jaden, and General Joseph Lagu, who led the first liberation Movement in South Sudan. Saying nothing about the contribution of the Equatorians in a historical account spanning from the 20ies of the past century hitherto raises eyebrows. Equatorians were the pioneers of the South Sudanese liberation struggle and the backbone of the Anyanya Movement.  The above renders point (b) less factual than Professor Mamdani would want his audience to believe.

(c)”Britain had divided the South into zones and distributed each zone to different denominations. Presbyterians got Upper Nile, Catholics got Bahr al Ghazal, and Anglicans were awarded Equatoria. Churches and Chiefs, each had developed into an ethnic institution”.

There’re no such things as ethnic churches in South Sudan.  However, there are churches established based on the language used in prayers. Some folks only understand their tribal languages, and the church had long translated the Bible into the local languages. People who do not hail from the area but know the language attend prayers in those churches like everyone else. After all, ethnic segregation is against church teachings. All three denominations are present all over South Sudan.

(d)”Both the sectarian beginning of church organisations and the imperative….transcended…. in the face of government repression. It also underlies the inadequacy of the church as a viable force for national reconciliation. The same can be said of Chiefs who dispense what is called traditional justice”.

Professor Mamdani’s assertions in the above excerpts are presumptive. He lacks facts to back them up. The Chieftancy system has been there since time immemorial and before the colonialists. The fact that we the descendants didn’t perish is a testimony that the Chiefs were able to manage the affairs of their communities and reconcile their differences.

The church in South Sudan is among the few institutions at present devoid of polarisation. Its past and present are commendable being on the right side of history when it comes to national issues.

(e)”It’s only after the Sudanese government passed the1962 Missionary Act and expelled all the missionaries that the Leadership of ethnic churches began to cooperate under a single umbrella called Council of Churches”.

I was baffled after reading the above excerpt. How could someone of the calibre of Professor Mamdani come up with something like that?  Could he produce a single name of what he calls as an ethnic church leader?

The 1962 Missionary Act was the beginning of the policy of Arabization and Islamisation of South Sudan. It was also a malicious act to deprive Southerners access to a meaningful education. The missionaries were the cornerstones of the educational system in South Sudan at the time. Their departure led to the collapse of that system. The government dismantled the village schools that used to teach the local languages. It forced the village teachers to learn the Arabic language, which proved to be an uphill battle. Some Southerners were forced or coerced into changing their names and faith to Arabic names and the Islamic religion, respectively. The aim was to change the whole educational system to an Arabic and Islamic one.

In the second part of his speech, Professor Mamdani focused on two issues – Criminal vs Political accountability and Political Reforms. The following are some of the points he raised:

  1. “In the absence of equality before the law, the call for an end to impunity has been politicised and turned into an instrument of Western power to subordinate African sovereignty”.

How does this apply to the case of South Sudan where over 400,000 people lost their lives in an avoidable civil war? The Western powers do not drive the call for accountability; it’s the demand of the people of South Sudan. If anything at all, the Western powers are indeed stalling or attempting to abolish accountability. Many would recall the scandal that exploded in April 2019, whereby the government of South Sudan hired an American lobbying firm (Gainful Solutions Inc.) for 3.7 million USD to frustrate the process of accountability.

Breaching the sovereignty of the African nations is not the monopoly of the Western powers alone. We have seen African countries violating the sovereignty of their neighbours. Professor Mamdani knows very well that his country, Uganda, violated the sovereignty of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) by invading its northeastern region in 1997 where it committed Human Rights abuses and pillage of the natural resources. Uganda had been ordered by the International Court Of Justice (ICJ) in a ruling in December 2005 to pay the DRC 10 bn USD in compensation. Uganda had intervened illegally in our civil war and continues to undermine our sovereignty and plunder our natural resources.

  1. “When it comes to public office, political accountability should precede criminal accountability”.

3.”Who should be held responsible politically for the extreme violence that has destroyed tens or hundreds of thousands of lives since 2013? Two groups – the Troika and the pre-July 2013 cabinet of the government of South Sudan”.

4.”The mainstream tendency to identify justice with criminal justice and criminal justice with punishing individual perpetrators even in cases of mass violence, fails to distinguish between criminal and political violence”.

  1. “Where criminal violence is linked to the agency of individual perpetrators, political violence needs more than perpetrators; above all, it needs the constituencies”.
  2. “1991 was not resolved but deferred”. “The violence is the continuation of the 1991 massacre in Bor town”.

The points from 2 to 5 revolve around Professor Mamdani’s attempt to separate political violence from criminal violence. He seems to suggest that what happened in South Sudan was political violence rather than a criminal one. But in simple terms, if a President orders his army to attack a rebel group, the act falls within the premise of political violence. However, if the same army goes on a rampage killing unarmed civilians, burning their homes, and looting their properties, then the whole matter turns into a criminal action. Again if the President forms a militia loyal to himself outside the military, then firstly, he has violated the Constitution and secondly, all the activities of the militia are deemed illegal and criminal. In such a situation the President is liable for forming the militia and its acts. In our part of the world, political violence is more often than not accompanied by criminal violence.  What took place in South Sudan is both political and criminal violence.

Point number 6 does not hold water for two reasons. Firstly, the perpetrators of the 1991 Bor massacre were rehabilitated. Dr Riek Machar apologised and exhibited remorse publicly to the Bor community and was forgiven. He was the Vice President of the Republic, and President Kiir even gave him some of the Presidential executive powers. I doubt it very much that war would have broken out between the two had Riek Machar not sought the Presidency. Secondly, How does Professor Mamdani explain the involvement of other communities in the conflict which has got nothing to do with the Bor massacre?

The atrocities in the Yei River area and Wau State are a few examples to mention. Adama Dieng, the UN Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, warned of an impending genocide in the Yei area in December 2016.

It’s questionable that Professor Mamdani should talk about atrocities that took place over a quarter century ago while ignoring similar crimes that are more recent. Are we witnessing a deliberate downplaying of events that had happened in particular parts of the country?

Professor Mamdani told the audience that in a debate over the Norwegian Radio show with Hilde Johnson, the former Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General (SRS), he asked her – Why should she not be tried for war crimes? Professor Mamdani’s basis for the question was that the SRS was equivalent to a colonial Governor with 7,000 troops under her command, but she did nothing to stop the slaughter of innocent civilians.

Hilde Johnson might have had the forces but was she given the mandate to protect the civilians using lethal force? We all know what happened in the Protection of Civilian (POC) site in Malakal on 17-18 February 2016 when it came under attack by SPLA soldiers. Thirty people were killed and 123 wounded. The UN Blue Helmets didn’t engage the attackers in time to avert the carnage. These events occurred after Hilde Johnson left office in July 2014.

The suggestion that Hilde Johnson should be held accountable for crimes against humanity is outrageous. We had similar events where the UN-Peacekeepers failed to protect the civilians. Examples include Rwanda, Srebrenica in Bosnia, and Batangafo in the Central African Republic (CAR). But how many international officials and peacekeepers have been held responsible for such crimes? The point raised by Professor Mamdani against Hilda Johnson; somehow, weakens his central view that political accountability must precede criminal accountability. He now seems to suggest the opposite; namely, criminal accountability comes first. I must say, on this point, he appears to be incoherent.

The author, Dr Lako Jada Kwajok, is the Chairman of the International Relations Committee of the National Salvation Front (NAS). He can be reached for more information through email at lako.jada@hotmail.com

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