Words matter: I am not persuaded by Dr. Peter Biar Ajak’s ‘Revivalist’ narratives on South Sudan and here’s why you too should be skeptical.
Months ago, Dr. Peter Biar Ajak announced his ‘resignation’ from the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the current ruling party in South Sudan. Before we had a chance to process the real or perceived political implications of his move, he made another announcement, this time, for the launch of a political formation, which he called Revive South Sudan Party (RSSP). For what it is worth, I think South Sudan’s political space needs more parties and people with alternative ideas and vision, and the country ought to be accommodative of Peter Biar.
However, Peter Biar’s choice of the word ‘revive’ and the manner he intends to achieve this core objective of his party is interesting and raises all my eyebrows and reasonable people should, as well, be concerned. The Merriam Webster dictionary definition of the word ‘revive’ is ‘to return to life or consciousness or become active or flourishing again.’ For communication enthusiasts, like me, words carry power through their manifest and latent meanings. While I am in no position to read Peter Biar’s mind and intent, but in choosing ‘revive South Sudan,’ he appears to suggest that there was a phase of life in which the nascent state of South Sudan was flourishing, active, or practicably conscious. And heretofore, this active phase was lost and he, through RSSP, can take us back to this idyllic distant or recent past.
To that end, I want to say a couple of things.
1) Except for the few who had and/or continues to have unfettered access to the national coffers—both oil and non-oil revenues— after the independence of South Sudan, most South Sudanese do not believe we ever had a national life, at least one worth flaunting about. Before you dismiss this assertion, hear me out first: When South Sudan got her independence in 2011, there were (and there continues to be) embarrassingly high number of refugees from South Sudan living in Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, and everywhere in the world. It is fair to say that this sizeable swath of the population never experienced this utopic vibrant past, meriting revival. The people living in the village settings in most corners of South Sudan barely experienced the dividends of the independent state. In fact, the country’s independence coincided with a steep rise in intra- and inter-tribal conflicts, perhaps more than any time in our history with remote village settings bearing the brunt of these conflicts.
2) During the war of liberation; although there was an admirable resolve among South Sudanese to unyoke themselves from the shackles of Arab and Islamic fundamentalism, this resolve was not uniformly embraced or understood in letter and spirit as conceived by then leadership of the SPLM. There were counterinsurgencies against the vision of the SPLM, spearheaded by a section of South Sudanese themselves. Perhaps, this original inability to see shared destiny, in the same way, reflects the diverse situational needs of South Sudanese populace, which continues to plague the country. In his recent BBC interview, Peter Biar alludes to the spirit of the SPLA, the army wing of the SPLM, which he liked. Here, he conveniently managed to decouple the two entities, giving kudos to one and chiding the other despite being led by the same people. I think a nuanced view of the dark and bright days of the SPLM/A is needed.
That said, no matter which side of the war South Sudanese fought on, or which side of the national cake or lack thereof, they sit at today, there is one thing you cannot take away from South Sudanese people. And that is hope. South Sudanese are, hands down, the most optimistic people in the world. They lived and continue to live in hope in the refugee and internally displaced peoples’ camps. They live in hope, deep in unlit villages with their livestock and they live in hope in the face of nail-biting economic hard times in the heart of Juba. As ‘reviving’ hope features propitiously in Peter Biar’s messages, I strongly assert here that hope never left South Sudanese people—not even under the British rule or the Anglo-Egyptian condominium or under various Khartoum-based Arab regimes. Therefore, Peter Biar’s attempts to sell hope, through RSSP, is at best misplaced or frankly, arrogant. We are not a hopeless people.
Give or take, let us say Peter Biar’s RSSP is a great idea, the next logical big question is—WILL IT WORK? To get at this important question, some readers may find a bit of context necessary, particularly, on who Peter Biar is. I do not want to use this piece to opine unfavorably on or to indict the personality of Peter Biar. For starters, Peter Biar worked at some of the highest offices in the government of South Sudan and going by his Wikipedia (of course taken with a grain of salt), Peter Biar could and may have played a role in strategic decisions, both security and economic, affecting us for which he now complains about and wants to ‘revive’ us from. Some may disagree, but Peter Biar came into our consciousness (at least to those of us who follow news online), after three significant events:
1) He had a fall out with the government of South Sudan after allegedly diverting project funds into a political campaign pegged on ageism—arguing that the people serving in the government of South Sudan were too old to take the country forward and that a generational exit was a necessity. I study age-associated diseases, and I took issue with such discriminatory rhetorics.
2) Based on this campaign, he was charged and jailed in Juba, for nearly two years, leading to a justified international outcry for his release.
3) After his release, he went on a Kenyan TV program to launch a tyranny of ad hominem attacks on the person of South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir. The outrage and the aftermath of this, perhaps, precipitated his present asylum in the US.
In a nutshell, these three events gave life (revive, to use his word) the political career of Peter Biar Ajak.
As things stand, Peter Biar is a marked person (perhaps a fugitive?) in South Sudan, particularly for his personal insult of the President. I am aware, he sent out an open letter, in the form of a public apology to the President, but we are yet to see a response to this letter from the president’s camp. So, despite having noticeable godfathers in government (some of whom do not align with him), I do not see how RSSP takes root in a country that is unfortunately tribal. While RSSP messages may make rounds on social media, they won’t in my village of Tharakön or in Panyagoor, rubkona, or in Bäl Ariik Panthɛɛr village.
In closing, for his message to resonate, Peter Biar needs to come clean on what he did while in government. It seems, he wants to revive those good old days when he was in it— silent, and perhaps eating. Thereafter, he needs to understand that bravado and ivy league education do not win you elections in Africa, tribal numbers and marksmanship do. At this moment in time, Peter Biar has the former in abundance but not the latter. For this and for his record while in government, it is okay to be skeptical of Peter Biar’s RSSP— it is an experimental submersible. It can sink and implode.
Author: Alfred Maluach, B.Sc., M.Sc., PhD (ipr).
Detailed Bio: https://alfredmaluach.com/