This article takes a deeper look into the culture of violence and impunity in today’s South Sudan and the roles of some community elders in promoting it. The author deduces that the coming together of elders hailing from communities traditionally characterized with such culture, have made matters worse for the country. The Jieng Council of Elders (JCE) is by and large responsible for the perpetuation of violence that exploded in 2013 and still raging to date. Its silence in renouncing the massacres committed by members of their community and publishing of public statements apologizing for the regime of President General Salva Kiir – their own son, despite a plethora of eye witness reports, speak to their culpability. Also, its vile maneuvering to avoid the implementation of the Hybrid Court provisions, as stipulated in the 2015 Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan, read concurrently with its ‘Revitalized’ 2018 version, implicates this organization. The article concludes that the key to resolving the ongoing conflict rests mostly with the JCE actively renouncing violence, atoning for its sins, playing active role in sensitizing its community members to relinquish violence in all its forms, and, most importantly, desist from political witch-hunt and impeding justice.
The Seeds of the Culture of Violence
In many African cultures – at least where communal cultures have survived the test of times – ‘natural leadership’ vested on community elders, has helped populations conform to rigors of customary law and peaceful coexistence. In such societies community leadership is nurtured through the early stages of human growth to adulthood. Seldom is someone installed as a community elder, village chief or traditional leader without undergoing some scrutiny of his/her good conduct during upbringing and passing the criteria to identify leadership qualities.
This is hardly the case in some South Sudanese communities, more so pastoralist communities. In these communities, the boy child is subjected to ‘toughening’ regime. This is done with an intention of preparing young men to be ‘soldiers’ who are to defend their clan or community in the eventuality of raids or aggression by other communities. In their toughening training, boy initiates are encourage to provoke other young men in their age group for a fight.
A child who complains of being beaten, is bitterly rebuked or even punished for demonstrating cowardice or easy surrender! No one is allowed to play victim! Surrender is not an option! You fight or defend yourself to the finish! On the other hand, bullying is not a debauchery! It is strength. In this zero sum game, playing victim is treated as bringing weakness and vulnerability into the family or community.
While taking a leisurely walk out of our Junior Secondary School in Maridi Town in 1975 with my childhood friend Stephen Yanga (R.I.P.), we passed by a butchery manned by some Jieng men. We were awestruck when a teenage from the group of meat sellers repeatedly slapped Stephen who was a bit shorter than me. Asking what he did to deserve such brutal assault, only draw more blows and sarcastic laughter from the on-looking butcher men. I could have intervened, but instinctively knew that retaliation would play into the motive of the assailants and before we knew it, it would be two against six grown up men. I then urged Stephen to leave the hostile spot immediately.
The toughening ritual is not only for the purpose of defense, but it is also a strategy of attack. Initiates are used to attack other communities with the aim of rustling cattle, raiding girls for forced marriage or occupy lands. Thus, impunity has become a culture in South Sudan as confirmed by the Commission of Inquiry into the Conflict in South Sudan (Paragraph 143).
As this story shows, community elders are behind such pervasive activities, as they believe that violence is a way of survival! The toughest and the most violent is respected. He gains celebrity praise in tribal lore; songs, poetry and storytelling! Therefore, the chain of encouragement and tolerance of violence becomes a culture. A violent father raises a violent child. A father from this culture cannot restrain his boy child because he himself grew up with violent character.
Come to think of it! If parents or grandparents each with a history of ‘toughening’ get to coalesce into a political grouping, don’t you think that the outcome of their association can be tragic?! While you are still reflecting on the response to this question, bear in mind the behavior of a community organization calling itself Jieng Council of Elders (JCE) that was formed a decade or so ago, for whatever purpose, versus the reality that very bloody conflict struck South Sudan, which has taken the form of ethnic warfare! Ask any non-Jieng South Sudanese as to who are to blame for their predicaments and you will get the answer handy. The Jieng are the problem! Anybody doubting this should conduct a poll.
In addition, think of a national government that is predominantly led by this legion of elders and those recommended by them – of course their own subjects. The President is not only one of these elders, but also an initiate into the culture of aggression and survival of the fittest; judging from his traditional facial scarification and removal of his four lower incisor teeth.
It is also common knowledge that the president manifests vicious temperament if irked. His press conference speech of 16 December 2016 that is believed to have triggered a three-day mayhem, which show members of his tribe targeting ethnic Nuers for brutal killings and other extreme forms of human rights violations, speaks volumes. At the time Kiir was clad in war fatigue and the ominous signs of a raging leader, were obvious.
In the depth of these perceptions, one ought to ask her/himself the question: Why are the JCE members not seen to be perturbed? Why doesn’t this tribal organization not designing a Jieng-wide strategy to restraint its members from perpetuating hostility? A single visit loaded with unanimous concern would have seen the president relenting. A community wide campaign to appeal to their tribes men – similar to what Madam Rebecca Nyandeng did during the mayhem – would have restored calm. But, this was not the case. In the heat of reports by human rights watch groups and those by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) holding organized violence against targeted citizens, the JCE instead played the devil; apologizing for the regime through media statements.
When a number of concerned citizens and members of the international community started to call for bringing to book the perpetrators of the heinous crimes, the JCE were spending sleepless nights bouncing such calls. The AU Commission of Inquiry Report on South Sudan was met with bitter condemnation by the JCE leader and we know what ensued when the president bitterly expressed a score of reservations to the extent of being obliged by international and regional leaders to sign the 2015 Peace Agreement. It is obvious that the provisions under “Transitional Justice” were the main unwanted element behind those reservations. It is also common sense knowing that the JCE played the devil’s advocate to that ill-fated accord.
The problem causer holds the keys to resolving it
This imperative holds true in the sense that the JCE, which holds substantial support by the central government, endowed with a critical mass of human resources that often show blind loyalty, and exerting financial muscle, is in position of positive influence much as it has negative influence. This organization, instead of exploiting the power and boiling temperament of its people to subjugate other communities, especially minorities, should rather mobilize its influence toward genuine peace building and conflict resolution.
It is lamentable that the JCE has not convened a single noteworthy convention involving its constituents to advocate for peace and cessation of hostilities, which makes some observers to question their neutrality and sanity. In 2016 a leading member of the JCE was reported to have bolted out of a peace seminar convened by the Peace and Development Institute of Juba University, in protest for what he saw as blames levelled on the government and his organization. Community elders are supposed to be demonstrating the wisdom of patience, tolerance to contrary views, and encouraging dialogue rather than fanning the fire of bellicosity.
In view of the rampant cases of violence within the Jieng communities and many complaints against them by peasant communities, especially with regard to cases of land grab, cattle raiding and murders, the JCE has not created any mechanisms within its structures to intervene appropriately! One, therefore, wonders whether this organization was created as mere lobby group with a view of ridding the country of other people to establish a Jieng government beyond what they already have!
Assuming that this is their plan, let this tribal outfit turn to its history books. Attempts to invoke hegemony always backfire in modern times! Gone are the days in the era of survival of the fittest that major ethnicities swallowed up minorities to the dissipation of the cultures of the latter. As the case is today, minorities are sensing the danger of them being targeted by the ‘colonial power’ within, and are taking to arming themselves. Should these minority groups forge into coalitions, the bloodbath is likely to escalate beyond imaginable proportions! Someone with wisdom and foresight needs to quickly reflect and appreciate the saying that violence begets violence! There is no case of winner takes it all here, especially with about 35 percent of a population trying to impose its hegemony of the rest!
African Union Commission, 2014. African Union Commission of Inquiry on South Sudan: Executive Summary, Addis Ababa.
Akol, J.J., 2017. Why The Jieng Council Of Elders Is A Disappointment. Gurtong. Available at: http://www.gurtong.net/ECM/Editorial/tabid/124/ctl/ArticleView/mid/519/articleId/20982/Why-The-Jieng-Council-of-Elders-Is-A-Disappointment.aspx [Accessed March 24, 2019].
Nganje, F., 2017. The rhetoric and practice of the international responsibility to prevent mass atrocities: Reflections on South Africa’s peacebuilding role in South Sudan (2005 2013). African Security Review, 26(3), pp.271–287. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/10246029.2017.1294091.