Sunday, 9 January 2011

Southern Sudan at long last is one step closer to reality

The world as we know it is about to end, in a vote that the Egyptians and the Northern Sudanese and by extension the The United States probably won't like, the sovereign , natural and long deserved country of Southern Sudan will in effect be born in about 7 days. US foreign policy has long held that anything this is bad for Egypt is bad for the USA, consequently the long oppressed and marginalized South had to watch for 25 years plus as Khartoum bombed them and IGGAD, ostensibly a water sharing inter government organisation, talked peace. All the while the United States and Kahrtoum did everything to encourage the continued captor-hostage relationship of the current Sudanese state. Not for the first time or the last time, has a peaceful essentially harmless population in Africa or some other part of the world, been held in thrall by the self interest of the United States or some or other large power.

For those of you reading this wondering why the justification of yet another country, even one as large as France or Germany. It can be resumed in a simple paragraph.... In 1956 two parts of Sudan separated for over 150 years by a border, with no commercial, political or cultural links were thrown together and told to get along. In the short term, the relationship with Khartoum was clarified and hadn't changed much until recently. The North proceeded to insure the sesame crops, sisal and other natural resources did not compete with more expensive Northern goods, and of course the war to arabize, empty and destabilize the region did even more damage. Lets not forget the active slave trade that some say was ongoing  until even very recently, in which children were taken North and sold as slaves and sometimes ransomed back to their villages. The discovery of oil a few years ago did not help the situation either, insuring even more political and military interference in the region. This one oil field, the one that will feed the treasury of the new state, continues to be a bone of contention that could yet trigger a war in which the rump State of Sudan will try to grab once and for all the land they have coveted from the day oil was found. 

What you may ask  is the big deal if the South goes it alone?  According to Cairo, the South will claim the waters of the Lower Nile as their own and cut off the Egyptians. It was patently ridiculous when I worked for RASS/SSIM  and it is so today. The fact it took so long for this referendum to ever see the light of day  is testament to the great weight of pressure brought to bear by successive Republican and Democratic administrations in Washington.  When the final IGGAD and Abuja  peace proposals were adopted , the intolerably long 6 year cooling off period was forced on the people in the hopes they might be persuaded to relinquish the dream of independence. Looks like after even 6 years, the most one sided referendum in the history of Africa is about to confirm what I knew in 1992. Jenubin will vote in proportions so high the BBC has stated flatly the result cannot be stolen. All freedom loving people will welcome this newest state in the world as a child that should have been born on January 1st 1956. Better late than never I suppose, but it still means I had to attend countless house meetings with the Jenubine diaspora telling them of news from home, almost always about how many died this time, this week , this day.

At one point in Canada, where I worked for RASS ( Relief Association for Southern Sudan), we had apx 4000 Southern Sudanese for several thousand more Northeners who were staying in the country. Those were hard years trying to kept refugees abreast of news from home, organize pro independence , self determination meetings and try to create small relief projects.  We were so few,strung out over such a vast territory. It was not helped that we had near monthly visits from the latest RCMP officer charged with the Sudan refugee desk who was without a clue. Our own people, ,Nuer or Equutorian and even the Nuba, were spied on while the spies from the dictatorial rogue regime roamed free to harass and threaten people outside of Sudan. What truly was the most disheartening part of the job was surely the brick wall of officialdom we faced. Not just RASS but the relief wing of the SPLA/SPLM. Repeatedly we were told Canada could do nothing directly, it had to distrubute aid with the knowledge of the North and was working with third parties like Oxfam  but could not work with us on the ground, even in areas where the SSIM or SPLA were in control. It was ok for big NGOs to hire freedom fighters in Loki to guide them in , but the likes of Oxfam could never admit that indigenous organizations could get the job done or that we knew what had to be done.

CIDA or the Canadian International Development Agency , always said we can only act bilaterally, and as long as there was no Government of the South for the South to talk to, they had to go through official Northern channels. This of course led to travesties like the Oxfam Canada project to test a Canadian vitamin supplement on Dinka cattle but not feed the herdsmen and their families. We told them that if every cow died in Bhar El Ghazal it would be tragic, but that cows can be replaced, whereas if every Dinka died, it would be the end of that people and culture. They of course proceeded with the cow vitamins which led to the bizzarest of situations, hungry herdsmen with healthy cows, under attack from poachers and Northern soldiers alike..Meanwhile in areas where a shot had not been fired in anger in 10 years, we could not get them to spend a thin dime on fishing equipment.  And of course there was the corralling of thousands of people in easy to bomb places so that hard tack biscuits that cost too much could be dropped, but emptied entire villages and regions. Much to the satisfaction of the Northern Government, places where people had been self sufficient and stubbornly holding on, were conveniently cleansed of people. This is a microcosm of the South Sudan problem , where for years the people and the region was treated as little more than an excuse and training ground for religious and international NGOs to cover themselves in glory while people died. In a private meeting we were told point blank at one point by a Oxfam Quebec director.."NGOs die..." . An organisation that spoke for the people, made up of it's people was considered an inconvenience to the big box charities. Mayhap that the new government will be as well.  While we worked week in week out to keep the community connected and informed, Amnesty International sent us weekly bags of nasty letters accusing us of being war criminals. It's this kind of blind hypocrasy that saw us strugle for years against the odds.

But now in about a week, all those people who believed in Self Determination, all the Jenubine and their supporters who went to countless , meetings , parties and church services will be able to turn the tables on these people who used the South for their own narrow political and organizational needs. Even John Garang the great believer in federalism, fought a rear guard action within the SPLA/SPLM against Independence, but failed most emphatically. The fact that despite his best efforts, the final round of talks had to include an interim Southern State and a definitive date for a referendum is proof of just how strong the idea and the need for it is. My then boss, Chairman and Commander in Chief  Dr. Riek Machar worked hard, never giving up on Self Determination for a second. Our  fortnightly or monthly phone meeting with HQ were always refreshing and however difficult the news, we knew that all those of Chairman Riek Machar in Nairobi and inside, were doing what they could with what they had. We were of course not alone in this work, there were those of the Dinka organizations in Ontario and in North Dakota who also beat the drums for the cause. One year when several of the leadership came to Washington for direct talks with the Americans, the Southern Sudanese delegation under severe financial hardship , still managed to make a few points with the big American NGOs.  Our London, Frankfurt and Nairobi Offices often talked and faxed in the days before the internet and cheap long distance. It's hard to imagine for those who have skype, msn and e-mail what it was like trying to operate a movement on a shoestring in those days.

I'd like to do a short list of those whom I had the honour of working with, and apologies to those I will omit, as I cannot recall all of your names. When we stayed with you, you were perfect hosts, you made us feel at home and as if we were in the safe hands of family. In my own life I have never before or since felt as accepted as one of the family as when I travelled the length and breadth of Eastern Canada in the cause of the Dinka, Nuer, Equatorian and Nuba of Southern Sudan.   First I must mention my immediate superior Paul Odiong, who as a boy, was forced to watch as his own father executed by Northern soldiers, his commitment and hard graft cannot be questioned and his service should not be forgotten. All those of Francis Apollo, Jenaro Lwal Ater, Dr Dominic Funda who stayed with me, Peter Pal Jola and so many others. Then there is the entire leadership of SSIM with whom I had the honour of working and of the course the late lamented Emma who we lost to a car crash in 1993. The Catholic priests from Torit and Loki, The people who we worked with on the dossier of the stranded Southern Sudanese students in Cuba and all the groups of young men living in crowded flats in Ottawa, Toronto, Kitchener and other points, who made us welcome despite their own poverty and overcame their own divisions to become more than people of a single tribe and embraced the Southern Sudanese identity. They rose above petty provincial differences and laid the ground work for the new Government that will stand for all Jenubine.  So many have died , gone into exile or suffered cruelly for the cause, but their work should not be forgotten or wasted.

I would be remiss if I did not thank all the wonderful people who know who they are, Marc Lalonde surely by now ex of CIDA, Gerry Barr of the Steelworkers fund, All those of HAPG ( Horn of Africa Policy Group) and the Ed Broadbent Centre. Without whom we could not have done half the work we did. Again there are many more I could have mentioned, but I simply cannot recall al those names after this much time and my records are scattered in many boxes. As Southern Sudan moves into it's newest and hopefully best period, it is important that the new Government remember who it's friends were and who gave them a hard time. Now is not the time to roll over and settle for every offer of assistance proffered by the NGO's and movie stars who's only aim is to justify their existence and popularity. I was particularly offended to see George Clooney on the BBC claiming to be ther to monitor the vote. We don't need pampered actors to monitor things thank you very much, but to every anonymous career aid worker,  diplomat and political person who is there to insure a proper and democratic result, a very large thank you.

I wish I could be there myself In Juba , Abwei , Wau , Torit, Kapoeta, Rumbek, Malakal, Yei, Gogrial, all the places I could only ever hope to visit, but never did because .... until now it had been too dangerous and unlike the big Hollywood stars who drop in for a day or a week, I cannot afford to just pick up and go. But I am there, everywhere at least in spirit and wish you all a very peaceful, safe vote that leads to the mother of all birthday parties. If it's like the the evenings we had back in the day, I know the dancing will go on long into the week after the official result is announced. 

I like most reasonable people am happy there is a referendum, am confident it will go well and that the political developments in the South are good augers for a healthy polity that will insure long. fair and democratic rule. But I am not blind to the danger signs that even now threaten the security and the stability of the new nation. But if the solid wall of proud Southern Sudanese who are as varied as they are familiar with each other continues in the near unanimity they currently maintain, the future cannot help but be a good one.

Last word for now is a simple call to all people who are friends of Southern Sudan. Please set aside who did what to whom during the dark years of war, If the the parties who will constitute the new State's ruling structures and civil service can get on, so can you.  If you wish to donate, give, give generously , but give to the organizations on the ground run by Southern Sudanese, give to the regional and federal governments in Southern Sudan. Let Oxfam and the others who have used Southern Sudan to test experimental vitamins or dictate to locals against their own best interest,  find new poster children for poverty elsewhere. The days where patriarchal outsiders determine what's best for locals should be a thing of the past. Always question how the money will be spent and how many locals have been asked how best the job should be done. Assume that any initiative that includes local authorities is not immediately doomed to failure. Southern Sudan will rebuild and find the prosperity and peace it so richly deserved in 1956 but never got. I sincerely hope it becomes a beacon of hope for African governments looking for an example of how it's done.

A useful link to an FAQ on all you could ever want to know about the referendum. A link to the GoSS

Good Luck in the vote, and if any of my now scattered old friends wish to get in touch, just e-mail the blog. Again my sincerest congratulations on a great campaign and an imminent result some of us have been waiting for, for quite some time. It has been in some cases far to long since I spoke to some of you. Take care and we shall surely speak soon.

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