South Sudan: 'we are not totally free yet'

Deng Gach Pal is a senior civil servant in the administration of the world's newest country, South Sudan. He talks to Ann Morgan about the challenges his country faces, and the excited determination of its people.

Deng Gach Pal decided to commit his career to working for South Sudan’s independence after a brush with Sharia law. Having graduated from the University of Juba in 2004, he went to bring his 9-year-old sister home from school in Ethiopia to visit his parents. But when they crossed the border into Sudan, there was a problem.

‘My sister was not allowed to spend the night in a hotel because she was an unmarried girl,’ Pal says. ‘We went to many hotels but they all said “Sorry, your sister is not allowed to stay by law”. We spent the night outside the police station. It was really cold. All night I was thinking, is this Sudan? We’re supposed to be Sudanese. Why is this Muslim law applicable to me? I decided that day that it was better to be in my own land and enjoy freedom there. That was the turning point.’

Deng Gach Pal.

Tim Pestridge

This is our desire

Change was afoot on a national level too. That year, the Second Sudanese Civil War, one of Africa’s longest and most violent conflicts, was moving into its final stages before the signing of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement. This made provision for an autonomous governing body in the predominantly Christian and secular south of the country, and laid the groundwork for a referendum on South Sudan’s independence from the Muslim north.

The war, which saw an estimated 2 million people killed between 1983 and 2005, had shaped the course of Pal’s life. Fleeing to Ethiopia in 1986 with his mother and father, a former separatist fighter in the First Sudanese Civil War, Pal was recruited into a Spartan military camp for child soldiers under the pretence of being sent to school. The fall of the Ethiopian Mengistu regime in 1991 saved him from being sent to fight, but the ongoing conflict forced him to travel between Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya throughout his teenage years in an effort to find an education.

So this month, on 9 July, when the Republic of South Sudan finally declared its independence six months after its people voted 98 per cent in favour of separation, Pal, who is now a senior civil servant in the new administration, was keen to share in the celebrations.

‘This is what we’ve been longing for,’ he says. ‘Everybody in South Sudan has been waiting for this great moment. Everybody is excited and jubilant. We suffered for it, our fathers fought for it, this is what we wanted. This is our desire.’

Independence celebration.

Steve Evans under a CC licence.

A mountain of challenges

However jubilant, Pal has no illusions about the challenges ahead. In a country with few schools, hospitals or qualified staff to run them and a chronic lack of basic infrastructure, the South Sudanese government has much to tackle.

‘We don’t even have roads,’ Pal says. ‘The only tarmacked road you’ll find is in Juba, going from the airport to President Salva Kir Mayardit’s office. And without roads, how do you get goods in?’

Oil is another serious consideration. Although rich in natural resources, South Sudan is dependent on its former enemy for the facilities to refine and export the oil it produces – a situation that Pal worries his country could be ‘held hostage over’.

But infrastructure is just one of many issues facing the world’s newest country. With no demographic information beyond the data gathered during the 2008 census – in which Pal says neither he and his family, nor five of the staff in his 10-strong office were counted – it’s almost impossible to calculate the scale of work that needs to be done.

Communication is a problem too. Keen to differentiate itself from North Sudan, where Arabic is the mother tongue, South Sudan has drawn on its colonial past and made English its official language. But, as Pal discovered when he travelled the country training politicians, civil servants and members of the public about democracy, English is by no means universal in this land of some 300 tribal languages and dialects.

‘Even in many legislative assemblies the majority of members of parliament only speak Arabic. If it’s like that for MPs, what is it like for normal people?’

Travelling the country-to-be threw up more troubling discoveries, too. ‘I was shocked to discover [that although] some of the states I went to received 2 per cent of oil revenue, they had paid civil servants no salaries for one full year,’ he says. ‘But strangely, MPs received their monthly salaries without fail. [People told me] the leaders put the revenue in their personal accounts and treated it as their own money.’

‘I went to one drug store in Bentiu, in Unity State,’ he continues. ‘It was almost empty. The owner told me he was going to close it down because people had been buying drugs on account for a year because the government had not paid their salaries. That’s when I began to say: “There’s something wrong. Is our politics services-delivery politics or self-service politics?” I began to question our system and think how I could solve this problem.’


Stein Ove Korneliussen under a CC licence.

Not free yet

Deciding he needed skills, Pal convinced his ministry to grant him a sabbatical and he got a scholarship to study an MA in Public Administration at the University of Exeter in Britain. Finishing the course this September, he plans to return to his new home country to work for positive change.

Top of Pal’s priority list is finding a way to break the stranglehold of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, which won more than 90 per cent of seats in the 2010 elections, prompting allegations of rigging and coercion. He believes press freedom, freedom of expression, strong political opposition and peaceful protest will be crucial to this.

Reports from the International Freedom of Expression Exchange that the South Sudan government closed down six newspapers that had published critical reports within hours of independence suggest campaigners may have a tough struggle ahead. But Pal is confident that the South Sudanese people will make their voices heard.

‘It will not be business as usual,’ he says. ‘South Sudan citizens are organizing themselves. They are forming civil society organizations, advocacy groups and you will see they will speak up. When we have liberated ourselves from this oppression – from lack of freedom of speech – then we’ll say we are totally free. Independence from the north doesn’t mean that we are free yet.’