By James Gatdet Dak
October 7, 2008 (JUBA) – Local administrators in Juba arrested young women and men in town who wear very tight trousers, short mini-skirts and short T-shirts, describing these as indecent clothing.
The campaign resulted in a backlash from central figures in the government of Southern Sudan, including from President Salva Kiir Mayardit, who ordered the release of women arrested in Juba over the last two days.
The incident revealed areas of deep social strain and local concerns about new cultural influences.
Numerous young women were picked up by police officers and taken in the back of pickup trucks to a ’Public Order Court’ in the Malakia / Konyo Konyo Market district of Juba. Eyewitnesses described many women later leaving the premises in bloodstained clothing, showing what appeared to be clear signs of beating, according to the Ministry of Presidential Affairs of the Government of Southern Sudan (GoSS).
Local police said that the arrests were authorized by an order dated October 2, signed by Albert Pitia Redantore, the commissioner of Juba County, in which he banned "all bad behaviours, activities and imported illicit cultures of what is known as ’niggers’ in Juba County."
Southern Sudan’s capital for the last year has witnessed an influx of returning young people from northern Sudan and the diaspora, some importing foreign cultural practices and organizing themselves into groups labeled as ’negro’ or ’nigger’ groups.
Girls and boys as young as 12 years old participate in such groups in the town.
Anne Itto, deputy secretary general of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), explains, "’Niggers’ is the perhaps unfortunate term being used by older generations in Juba to describe a section of Sudanese youth, which has adopted loosely Urban American/Jamaican modes of dress and behaviour. The term is pejorative, as the group has been anecdotally associated with criminal actions."
More than thirty youth were arrested and taken to police stations Monday as they were rounded up in the streets by the police, who accused them of not dressing in a decent manner and exposing their bodies.
In a telephone statement, Minister Luka Biong Deng noted that the controversial police action had originated at the local level, within Central Equatoria State, and that the State bore the responsibility for it.
The minister said that the president had ordered a "serious investigation" into the incident, and specifically into how the local county order had come to be issued. The legality of the order has subsequently been widely questioned. GoSS Minister of the Interior Paul Mayo Ace is reported to be heading the investigation into the matter.
GoSS Minister of Gender, Social Welfare and Religious Affairs Mary Kinden Akimbo criticized the order to arrest the young people, saying the issue needed to be carefully studied before taking any necessary decision.
"Decency is a subjective word … which one needs to first define to know what constitutes decency and what does not," she said.
Itto stated on behalf of the Ministry of Presidential Affairs, "the women detained are all reportedly young. Contrary to suggestions that the action was part of a crackdown on foreign national sex-workers, at least a large proportion were reported to be Sudanese nationals. Some were said to be returning home from Church at the time of arrest and at least one described being forcibly detained whilst bathing her baby, putting the infant at risk of drowning."
Itto visited the United States in August as part of a senior SPLM delegation. "We are fortunate to have been invited by the two leading political parties," she told Sudan Tribune during the Democratic and Republican political conventions. "We met a number of people, including Susan Rice, Madeleine Albright and had conferences."
"The order is vague as to exactly what behaviors are being banned," Itto said on Monday, criticizing the local morality initiative.
Juba County Commissioner Redactor on Thursday also issued an order closing all bars from 10 p.m. until 5 p.m. the next day.
Daniel Van Oudenaren form Washington contributed to this story