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On the surface tribal associations look harmless, but when they are taken over by government officials and are used to defend criminals, entrench corruption and facilitate abuse of power, something has to be done…

By Chol Deng Anyieth

Some of us used to defend the government on social media when its critics described South Sudan as a ‘failed state’, little did we know that the country would prove us wrong. The situation in Unity, Upper Nile, Jonglei, Central Equatoria, Eastern Equatoria, Western Equatoria and Warrap States are all indicative of a failed state.

In the aforementioned states, the nexus between the national government in Juba and the said states is in disarray. The states operate according to the wishes and interest of the governor and his cohorts. Communities butcher themselves day and night, and no culprit is held to account for heinous crimes committed against the citizens. Most of the crimes are either orchestrated by community leaders (rogue politicians) at the national level or by their associates at state level. 

The fact that there is no clear order, and no clear chain of command in the execution of the mandate of the government, and more so because the states and community associations seem to have overrun the national government has led to a state of lawlessness, forcing the national government to relinquish its role of protecting its citizens and upholding the rule of law. One can easily conclude without doubt that South Sudan is a failed state, as there is no functional and effective government in the country.

According to the Fund for Peace, characteristics of a failed state include loss of control of its territory, or of the monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force, erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions and inability to provide public services. Do the above characteristics apply to South Sudan? The answer is yes. 

South Sudan at its current state of affairs is at a total breakdown of the rule of law which is an important element of a failed state. The recent massacre in Mogali, the conflicting letters written by Jonglei state governor and his former deputy concerning wrestling to Central Equatoria State governor and the statements of South Sudan Finance Minister and the Governor of the Bank of South Sudan are sufficient evidence to the total lack of confidence in the national government and of loss of authority of the said national government across the states. 

From these recent events, it can be said that President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar have control only in the town of Juba just like the former Somali President, Siad Barre in his last days in office when he was described as a ‘Mayor of Mogadishu’. 

Outsiders may ask; how did South Sudan get to this devastating state? Is it lack of qualified personnel or foreign influence? Of course, the inability of South Sudan to address challenges is internal.  It is a strategy designed to extend lawlessness and has produced long term animosity among citizens. The two principals employed the strategy of divide and rule, where the citizens are divided along ethnic lines. South Sudan and Somalia are the only countries in Africa where ministers, judges, senior civil servants, military officers, police officers and other organized forces’ officers become chairpersons of community associations and this has reduced the functions of political parties and crippled efforts at accountability in the country. 

Bribery in law enforcement agencies, embezzlement of public funds, corruption and all types of vices are the order of the day; the leadership of the country cannot be exonerated of all these, in fact, they are now leading to state extinction where there is no hope for panacea.

Everything worsened in early 2013 when some of the appointments and recruitments into judicial services were based on recommendations from community elders and politicians rather than on merit. This prompted the resignation of Justice John Clement Kuch from his position as the justice of the Court of Appeal, Greater Upper Nile Circuit when he was instructed to conduct interviews and not to write the marks obtained by each interviewee. 

What can one expect from a magistrate who was appointed or recruited based on recommendation from a tribal leader or relative? Can such a magistrate be impartial in carrying out his/her judicial assignment? What if such magistrate fails to carry out his functions impartially? Of course, the result is what we are witnessing nowadays, where criminals buy their way out of trouble and walk freely in the society. 

From the outside, one can assume that South Sudan lacks qualified officers of the court like judges, prosecutors, advocates and others who can administer justice like in other countries, but this assertion is unsubstantiated. We have qualified lawyers, but the system of recruitment and poor working conditions have produced a bunch of corrupt law enforcement agencies and agents, leading to lawlessness in South Sudan today. 

In the situation that South Sudan has found itself in currently, no one dares fight corruption or hold corrupt officials accountable since such actions may draw the whole community into a fight in the defence of their son or daughter. As stated before, poor working condition have forced qualified law enforcement agents to resign and look for greener pastures elsewhere, leaving the law enforcement agencies with mostly corrupt or weak officials. This is a situation manufactured by unscrupulous and rogue politicians from the top leadership.

The unfavourable working conditions can be seen by the number of months a judge or any other judicial officer can stay without salary and the amount of money ones take home when the salary does come. In South Sudan, the judges/magistrates, army, organized forces and civil servants have not received their salaries since November 2021 to date and nobody has bothered to question the government. 

Civil servants go to work every day despite the fact that they have not been paid salaries for more than six months and their children go to private schools. The question is, where do they get money from? In April, 2022, the Minister of Finance publicly alleged that he cannot pay the salaries because oil (which South Sudan depends on for salaries and other government expenditure) has been pre-sold up to 2027. The governor of the Bank of South Sudan also claimed that some powerful individuals are hampering reforms in the financial sector. All these allegations have not been investigated. Nobody knows if it is true that the oil was pre-sold or who sanctioned the deal.

The silence of the two principals shows that they have been silenced by the powerful communities’ chairpersons, who might have benefited from the deals. Tribal associations in South Sudan have become powerful like the tribal and clan associations in Somalia, and this extends to universities where South Sudanese students are. 

In every university in South Sudan or abroad, you find tribe x or y students’ associations and these tribal students’ associations get funded more easily than South Sudan Students’ Union or Association. This is because each tribe wants to promote its tribal agenda. What do you expect from students who graduate with such mentality? He or she will work to promote his tribe, and here tribalism takes its roots. If South Sudan does not want to be like Somalia or Yemen, it must discourage tribal associations and take serious measures against government officials who chair tribal associations. They ought to leave such roles (chairing of tribal associations) to traditional leaders like tribal chiefs.

The writer is a practicing Advocate and Commissioner for Oaths based in Juba. He holds an LLB and LLM from the University of Juba; LLM (Public International Law) from Kampala International University.

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