8 Aug 2020


Juba Diary: My First Week in Juba 3: Summing it Up

"A statement that sounded very sweet was the finding of the National Democratic Institute, an American think tank that said that given fair and free conduct of referendum Southern Sudanese would vote overwhelmingly for independence."

By Atem Yaak Atem

For those people who have read the first two instalments of this column the phrase “summing it up” may sound as if my supply of observations to this section has come to an abrupt end. No, there is no termination of this. What I mean is that what I have seen or heard, some in guarded language or outright whispers, during my first week in Juba would result in a full-fledged book. However, given the nature of news media reverence for brevity for reasons of space I have condensed the episodes of the first week in the city into a mere 4500 word-ccount.

Visit to Garang’s mausoleum
On the fourth day I visited Garang’s mausoleum at the urging a relative. My relatively late visit to the grave of a man who was close to me in several ways may come as a surprise to others. The founding leader of the SPLM/A was a distant relative on my father’s side. In 1962 Garang and I met for the first time in Bor town. We boarded the north bound boat that would take him to Shambe and then by road he would travel to Rumbek Secondary School. My destination was Atar, 25 miles south of Malakal. I was a second year student at Atar Intermediate School. Like the rest of our colleagues all over Southern Sudan we were returning to resume schooling after the end a politically motivated strike of that year.

At the end of the first civil war in 1972, John then a captain in the absorbed forces and I then an undergraduate at the university of Khartoum and on extended strike, were able to meet in Malakal where he had been stationed.  Our frequent social get together at the officers’ mess especially over weekends blossomed into solid companionship. His closest friend then was Major Stephen Madut Baak. The two former Anya Nya officers most of the time preferred to shun the company of officers from the government armed forces; I suspect the former rebels distrusted those who were not former comrades in arm. After his transfer to Khartoum Army General Headquarters, John now a major used to spend weekends with me and another of our cousins. The friendship between the three of us transcended blood relationship.  During these times outs, there was absolutely no political discussion of any kind. John’s main contribution was his frequent jokes which we enjoyed as each time had a fresh one.

After becoming the leader of the rebel movement in 1983 and after my appointment as head of the movement’s department of information at the recommendation of late Joseph Oduho and late Martin Majier Gai, John and I had to redefine our relationship: blood bond and friendship had to take a back seat in order to avoid two of the most dangerous vices that afflict African, Arab and Asian societies: nepotism and favouritism. Likely enough for Dr John as his friends and comrades called him (except in writing when I addressed him as “Comrade Chairman” but I frequently addressed him “Diktoor”, Arabic for doctor,) I did not need favours or special treatment from him: my parents had taught me by practical examples that some of the most honourable things in life were to be hard working, honest and for one to harvest what one sows. This mutual understanding worked perfectly well for us and the movement to the extent that when the Chairman made an affirmative action for others to pass over me I would not only appreciate but also supported the decision. (There was one extraordinary exception to the rule which I angrily disapproved of in early 1990. For now the circumstances and details of that saga will not be divulged to general public.)

John Garang the man who together with his comrades, living or dead, in the leadership of the SPLM, the SPLA fighters, dead or alive, hundreds of civilians in secret cells in government controlled areas and millions of ordinary citizens who gave food and shelter to the SPLA fighters, had effectively exposed the bitter reality behind the tragedy of our country: the ruling class was a minority that used race and religion to oppress and exclude the majority of the Sudanese. For that reason, I think, he will be remembered for many years to come as a man whose leadership had radically changed the perception of the political problems plaguing his country during his short but fulfilling life.

The reason why I was reluctant to pay homage to his memory at his mausoleum is simple: I dread seeing or hearing anything that reminds me of departed loved ones.

The grave next to the Southern Sudan Legislative Assembly building is enclosed by a huge soccer-like field made of stones wall and iron grills. The grave is a few feet near the gate of the enclosure. There are soldiers seated nearby. There is a visitors’ book. I repeated what I wrote at his Nairobi’s residence a few days after his death: “He changed Sudan”.

I have been informed that several foreign heads of state such as Mohammed Husni Mubarak of Egypt, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, President Aferworki of Eritrea, former Kenyan leader Daniel arap Moi, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and other high level dignitaries were driven straight from Juba Airport to the mausoleum where they stood for a minute of silence at the grave side before they signed the visitors’ book.

Loafing about
In local “Juba Arabic” the word “langa” means moving about aimlessly, doing nothing. I spent my fifth day doing almost the same as I went from one ministry to the next, in search of long lost friends and colleagues. I am bound by decency to apologise to all those who welcomed me into their offices for being rude, abuse of generosity and being ungrateful  to write on what I saw while being entertained as an honoured guest. But I hope some of these friends will understand I am doing these for the good of us all; after all I have not named the names of my guests or the identity of their departments.

Whether in parliament on government ministries, senior officials who included personalities such as a director for administration and finance (at the time of my visit the seat was vacant and remains so to the time these lines were being written) had TV sets installed in their offices. In most cases the TV was on, volume loud and pictures visible. “How could these people be concentrating reading reports or composing reports while this distraction was simultaneously going on?” I asked myself.

In my humble opinion the offices that should have TVs are those of the President, his deputy, the Speaker of the SSLA, the minister and senior staff of Information and Broadcasting or the minister in charge of security so that they would be able to get breaking news items, and of course being monitored by junior officials who at a minute notice would rush to the big bosses with “Your Excellency, such and such has just happened in such and such a place…”.

Someone who is very conversant with the affairs of Juba during the war when he witnessed almost everything here explained this situation this way “This is a carry-over from the old days. People then had nothing useful to do; fear of SPLA attacks dominated the lives of the denizens of Juba, especially the jallaba [pejorative word for Sudanese of Arab descent]. When the SPLM/A and the GoSS took over the reigns of power in Juba they inherited this habit of watching TV programmes at workplaces… [unquestioningly]”. The practice might have served as a palliative of sorts at the time but it is now obsolete, and waste of time, public money and electricity.

Another habit that is based on Sudanese version of generosity is frequent and endless visits to government officials often for sterile palaver. It appears the guests, the public servants, think it would be tantamount to rudeness for the hosts to tell the idle guests to get lost to allow work to be done.

Symposium on post-referendum
On Saturday a symposium on post-referendum scenarios took place at the SSLA buildings. A friend got me a VIP tag to get into the main hall instead of my favourite press gallery. I enjoyed the level of presentations especially when I heard what I wanted to hear being read. President Kiir’s speech contained a rebuttal of the allegation being peddled by some quarters at home and abroad that a future independent Southern Sudan would be a failed state.  The South would be a viable sovereign country, he said.

I concur despite the pervasive birth pangs the region is going through now including inter-intra-ethnic mayhems now taking place in Upper Nile, Jonglei and Bahr el Ghazal. A statement that sounded very sweet was the finding of the National Democratic Institute, an American think tank that said that given fair and free conduct of referendum Southern Sudanese would vote overwhelmingly for independence. But of course that dream would not come true without the Southern Sudanese leadership and the masses working very hard for the achievement of that goal.

While the president was talking someone just behind me received a telephone call. The fellow had the guts not only to keep his device open but also that he answered the call and began to talk! I was appalled. On the following Sunday when I went to church for service I also discovered that many people did not put off their mobile phones. Is there no civilility in places of worship or when leaders are talking, you folks?

During that church service my arrival from Australia was announced. The announcer who referred to me as “Uncle Atem, Far Away from War” regretted that time was too short for them to allow me to greet the congregation and that the following Sunday I would get that chance. Reference to me as “Far Away from War” is used by many, many young people who used to read the now defunct “SPLM/A Update” in the early 1990s used and continue to use that as a sign of respect. I thank them for that. However, these young people like many other readers of that column do not know that I nearly lost my life because of the title which some self-appointed patriots and guardians of the struggle thought I was against the war of liberation! Readers are welcomed to read what I meant by “Far Away from War” and other observations of that first week that will appear in the next instalment.

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