By Amir Idris
April 28, 2014 - The recent politically motivated violence against unarmed civilians seeking shelter from the violence in South Sudan in the United Nations compound in Bor exposed not only the criminal act of the perpetrators but also the mindset of those who ordered and executed it. The unprovoked brutal attacks on the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) camp had been justified by the government spokesperson Minister of Information and Broadcasting, Michael Makuei Lueth, and interlocutors’ reaction to the IDPs celebration of the fall of the city of Bentiu in the opposition hands. The IDPs were labelled as ‘rebels’ and ‘supporters’ of the opposition who deserved to be punished for their act of celebrating the defeat of the government forces. Hence, the victims were asking for it. The attacks and its bogus justification have raised questions about how the government of South Sudan understands the key concepts of citizenship, responsibility to protect, and the rule of law. These three concepts are considered to be the sacred pillars of any modern political community.
After all, those who were subjected to violence in their UN shelter are South Sudanese citizens. Their rights and duties as citizens of South Sudan are enshrined in and protected by the Transitional Constitution of the Republic of South Sudan which the government claims to respect and defend in its war against the opposition forces. None of this has stopped the government from blaming the IDPs, calling them pejoratives such as ‘lazy’, ‘lovers’ of free food and handouts from the UN. The justification of the attacks not only dismisses the claim to equal treatment of the IDPs as citizens of South Sudan, but also denies their very existence as human beings. Ironically, instead of exposing the fraudulent assertions of the government spokesperson, government supporters, including a handful of intellectuals, bought into the bogus explanation. The bogus official narrative about the IDPs began earlier when the violence erupted last year. Government officials circulated distorted propaganda about the IDPs’ connections with opposition forces. They were unsuccessfully portrayed as enemies of the state – ‘rebel fighters in civilian clothes’, and ‘potential agitators’ from within.
However, the truth is the government is attempting to escape responsibility by placing the blame for crime at hands of the victims. The IDPs are not guilty for violence committed by government forces and armed youth in Bor. This violence occurred because the government failed to protect them in the first place. The government could have prevented the attacks by disarming the youth and holding those who broke the law accountable. To say that government’s claim is a woeful over simplification would be to give it way too much credit. In fact, the claim is an embarrassing debacle filled with worthless platitudes to back an argument that is insulting not only to the IDPs and the people of South Sudan but to anyone who respects critical reasoning. It also seems to make the tribalistic assumption that all Nuers are rebels and worthless of trust. And even those Nuers who have the interest of mending bridges of peace and reconciliation are categorized as potential enemies. The tendency to smear a whole population of IDPs or an ethnic group reflects what is among the worst aspects of the human condition, where perpetrators blame the victims for their experiences. The danger of this kind of mentality and attitude may worsen hostilities between the conflicting communities, incite ethnically driven revenge, and drag the whole South Sudan into chaos and an uncontrollable bloodbath with unimaginable human tragedy in the 21th century.
The unfolding tragedy in South Sudan is a man made one. And to end it and restore the deep respect for human virtues in particular respect for life to all South Sudanese irrespective of their ethnic, religious, and gender identities, collective political efforts have to be made by the victims and the perpetrators of the violence. This of course can be done if the government and the opposition first recognize that the IDPs are human beings and citizens deserving their constitutional entitlements including protection from both the government and the opposition forces. No valuable lessons will be learned from this inhuman tragedy in South Sudan so long as the government and the opposition and their interlocutors continue to perpetuate the monstrous claim that those who are victims of political violence, including unarmed IDPs, deserve such a fate.
The writer is a Professor and Chair of Department of African and African American Studies, Fordham University, New York City, USA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org