Emmanuel Jal: ‘Our freedom fighters have become dictators’

The musician, activist and former child soldier gives a sombre assessment of life in South Sudan two years after independence. By Chris Matthews.

Emmanuel Jal.

Gatwitch Records

‘Ask yourself, what can I do as a South Sudanese to make my country better?’ asks Emmanuel Jal from the stage of Hackney’s Round Chapel Auditorium, during a break from the delirious dancing, hand-clapping and flag-waving that greets the rest of his performance. It is a question that both the diaspora and those inside the world’s newest nation have been asking for two years now, and one that Jal has been attempting to answer for quite some time.

Marking the country’s second anniversary of independence in July, South Sudan Oyee Live brought together diasporans from across Britain for a night of celebration, fundraising and live performances, with Jal the stellar attraction. After the performance we sit down to chat in a small room in the church’s underbelly, Jal evidently exhausted from his contortionist-like movements on stage and the physical and mental excursions of such an emotional evening:

‘It’s an event to remember the whole of Sudan,’ he says. ‘To remind ourselves that the freedom we have, the identity that we have now did not come easy. The women who were raped in the war, the women who gave up their children, the soldiers who died in the war – it is to remember them – and to celebrate that we are here.’

From child soldier to peace activist

An outspoken critic of the government, Jal has had a remarkable journey, from boy soldier to refugee to acclaimed hip-hop musician (his debut album War Child tells his harrowing tale) and prominent peace activist (he has set up the GUA Africa, Lose to Win and We Want Peace charities to help development in his homeland). Not surprisingly, the softly spoken artist has become something of a cultural icon for the new South Sudan.

Despite the jubilant scenes which welcomed independence – and an end to a 35-year civil war – on 9 July 2011, two years on and democracy and peace are increasingly fractured. President Salva Kiir Mayardit and his government have been accused of mass corruption and misusing public funds since coming to power, with money for agriculture, food and basic infrastructure reportedly swallowed up by ministers and government officials – cabinet affairs minister Deng Alor and finance minister Kosti Manibe were recently suspended by Kiir over such allegations. According to the UN, over 30 per cent of the South Sudanese population are food insecure, and Jal is clear as to where the blame lies.

Music is the only thing that speaks to your mind, your heart and your soul system, and influences you without you even knowing it

‘The very people who fought for our freedom now attempt to take our freedom away – they become dictators. Even though the government says they want money to build roads and invest in agriculture, that money is being pocketed for themselves.’

It was this fight for freedom that Jal took part in. A soldier in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) from the age of seven, Jal, like thousands of other ‘lost boys’ fighting in the rebel movement, was indoctrinated with the ways of war and an acute hatred of those in the North. By the age of 12 though, he had become disillusioned with the war effort and sought a way out.

What ensued was a treacherous three-month walk to eastern Sudan, being smuggled onto a Kenyan plane by British aid worker Emma McCune (the inspiration behind his song 'Emma') and finally reaching Nairobi where McCune looked after him and gave him an education. However, when McCune was killed in a car crash only months later, Jal was forced to the streets and it was from there that he began to use music as a way to convey the extraordinary experiences of his young life.

‘Music is the only thing that speaks to your mind, your heart and your soul system, and influences you without you even knowing it. You can use music to reach out to the people and give a positive message and the unification of our people requires a lot of different things to move together. I have an opportunity to have a voice in my country and push my country forward, so I’m just trying to do the best I can.’

A common identity

And his is a voice which is being heard the world over. Appearances at Live 8, Nelson Mandela’s 90th Birthday Concert and this year’s Glastonbury Festival among others have helped spread his message to millions. And his work for GUA Africa, the charity set up to build the Emma Academy – a school in the country’s Lear county in memory of Emma McCune – and We Want Peace – which aims to ‘raise awareness on the fundamental principles of justice, equality, unification and conflict prevention, through the power of music’ have provided Jal the platform to bring about change.

Jal in concert.

Tamam Global

‘I use my music to inspire and educate the young people and to call the people to action. You just have to try to do whatever you can. No one man can change the entire world, but you can leave your philosophies and your ideas and try and inspire someone to carry them on.’

His efforts have come at a cost, though. During a trip to South Sudan last September to promote International Peace Day, Jal was beaten unconscious by police and National Security forces. Reports of police brutality against individuals across South Sudan are becoming alarmingly frequent and threaten indelibly to damage the fledgling government.

‘The police are terrorizing the citizens. There are many brave journalists in the country who have been attacked, too – some are kicked out, some remain and get beaten and one of the greatest, Isaiah Abraham, was actually killed.’ Abraham, a freelance journalist and persistent critic of the government, was shot dead by masked gunmen outside his home last December. Although the government promised a full investigation, it is widely believed the order was carried out by government officials and to date no arrests have been made.

With security of ordinary South Sudanese a major issue, confidence in the government plummeting and escalating ethnic violence, implementing stability and peace is becoming ever more difficult.

The police are terrorizing the citizens. There are many brave journalists in the country who have been attacked, too – some are kicked out, some remain and get beaten and one was actually killed

Jal talks of a ‘common identity’ that is being eroded by inadequate government policies and rising unrest among rival ethnic groups angered by the government’s lacklustre actions. One such policy was a nationwide disarmament programme that has been virtually impossible to implement. Vast numbers of weapons remain from the civil war and government efforts can barely begin to scratch the surface, given the sheer volume of arms in the country. Some of those carrying out the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration programme have also been accused of human rights abuses: accounts of torture, rape and killings are common in many communities.

‘One of the greatest pieces of advice I’ve heard was from the President of Uganda, who said: “If your teeth have a gap, it means you can’t chew your meat properly”. If our politicians have those gaps and divisions in them and they’re not with the common identity then there will be a lot of tribal fights and then what will happen is, the resources that we have, we will not be able to enjoy,’ Jal explains.

However sombre Jal’s assessment of his homeland may be, the affable musician still remains hopeful that the country will one day prosper and its people unite. After all, it is his mission to help make South Sudan better. And if he can help inspire others in his country to do the same and come together as one, then South Sudan’s third birthday could be something very different.

‘Nobody can change our country but ourselves. It’s not the president that’s going to make our country move forward. The most important people, the biggest resource, is us – the people.’

Chris Matthews is a freelance journalist.