A former child soldier, a peacemaker, a South Sudan Pioneer

At age ten, John Penn de Ngong became a child soldier so that he could go to school. After South Sudan’s independence, he continued the fight for human rights in his community and country as a journalist. Opposing fresh military brutality and corruption, he and his fellow civic leaders then found they had to battle oppression again. “People like the Murle live the same way they did hundreds of years ago. Their lives are bad. And they are armed. They should see some of our petrodollars.” An interview with John Penn de Ngong, rebel for a different South Sudan.

The Association of Facebook, Twitter and Blogger (or Online) Operators of South Sudan, AFTABOSS, has 388 ‘likes’ on Facebook – about 29 million less than the Britney Spears fanclub, and around half the amount of ZAM Chronicle likes up to now. But judging by the attention the AFTABOSS activists attract from the authorities in their country, South Sudan, they might as well be millions. “You created the trouble in Jonglei state,” one irate post says, referring to current rebellion in the rural area John Penn de Ngong himself hails from.  And another: “The government’s hand is long and John Penn should not think he is safe.”

John Penn de Ngong doesn’t, actually, think he is safe. Which is why he has been in exile in Kenya since January this year, when his fellow civil rights activist Karbino Kolen went missing. This was after the disappearance of another colleague and the assassination of yet another one, most probably by, as Penn de Ngong puts it, ‘Khartoum in Juba’. Khartoum is the Sudanese dictatorship, against which John Penn, as a member of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), fought until independence for the Republic of South Sudan was achieved in 2011. Juba is the capital of independent South Sudan which, according to Penn, is now mimicking the dictatorial ways of the erstwhile enemy.

“It is very disappointing. What is happening in Juba today is a recurrence of what the Khartoum government did to us in our recent past. I am back to a refugee life, my family that fled home in 1993 during the war of liberation is now fleeing home again in 2013. This is just two years after the independence millions of South Sudanese donated their lives for. Like (Sudan’s dictator, EG) Omar al Bashir used to do, the new government is witch-hunting simple critics, labelling them traitors. The Khartoum regime carried out massacres of our rural people, but in December 2012 the Juba government did the same. About 9 people (including women and children) where shot dead when a protesting crowd was sprayed with bullets. (Later, the government claimed that the crowd had wanted to rob a bank – on a Sunday?)

Pupil-soldiers

South Sudan’s erstwhile liberators turned into oppressors because of lack of education – and fear, says Penn de Ngong. “The majority of our new leaders spent half of their lifetime fighting in the bushes. Upon independence, the rebel commanders became ministers and their foot soldiers were converted instantly into bodyguards, security operatives and other government support staff. They are a different category from the youth who went to refugee camps and other settlements during the war and who attained education either in the West, East Africa or North Africa. Now we have returned home to clash with the old guard. The old guard fears this new, better educated, contingent. Because of this fear, the leaders now lock out the youth and persecute those who protest.”

John Penn himself was in the ‘bush’ as a child soldier from when he was ten years old, “but that was precisely because I wanted to get an education.  For me, and many like me, the way to get educated was not to stay in the village. There, we were only herding cattle and getting bombed by Khartoum. We wanted to go and join the SPLA.”  Every male child felt like he did, then, he says. “It started like madness. We wanted to join the movement to go to school. I composed songs to mobilize more boys from our villages. It was an opportunity because the Government of Sudan did not care about our education as Southern children. We needed to escape the militias and the air raids on our villages. On my Facebook page you will see a picture of me sitting on a scrap of a MiG-23 fighter jet in my own village of Kolmarek in Bor County. That part almost landed on us when herding our cattle in 1988.” In the bush, John Penn and thousands like him studied under adult fighters who were also teachers. “We were 'pupil-soldiers' or ‘soldier-pupils', juggling both formal education and war survival skills in the early 90s.”

When the war was over and independence attained, John Penn and his fellow young, educated freedom fighters held great hopes for the new government of SPLA leader Salva Kiir. But Kiir soon behaved more like a cowboy, with his trademark black cowboy hat – a gift from former US President George Bush – than as a state builder. Penn: “President Salva Kiir has ignored intellectual capabilities, which he could have attracted from all the regions of the country, and instead embarked on rewarding the liberators and their relatives and friends.  In my book, 'The Black Christs of Africa', I have called this 'employment by tactical know-who instead of technical know-how.'”

Securocrats and scapegoats

The focus on creating a new class of leaders all personally known to Kiir did little to achieve peace in a country rife with regional clashes over resources such as cattle and land, and between groups with old allegiances. South Sudan now faces a rebellion of the Murle community, of which many during the war had been armed as a pro-Sudan militia by the Khartoum government. “The Murle and other militias should be the first peace project of the new nation. They should see some improvements after independence; they should see public services, clinics, schools. They should see some of our petro-dollars. But they still don’t even have roads. They are cut off from the rest of the world, living as they did hundreds of years ago.”

AFTABOSS’ Facebook page recently showed a picture of a Murle village woman, bare breasted, with traditional lip adornments –and an AK-47. “These people are so cut off that many of them don’t even know that South Sudan is independent, let alone what that means. They just know that their lives are bad. And they are armed. They can be used as tools of politics, and they are.”

It’s not just that ‘Khartoum’ can use or encourage them to fight a rebellion against the new independent government; they also serve as handy scapegoats. When fellow Jonglei civic leader Karbino Kolen disappeared in January, the Murle were blamed. Government press statements said that a Murle militia attacked a peace mission of the Jonglei Civic Association led by Kolen. It was true that the Jonglei Civic Association was headed by Kolen together with Penn at the time, and that the organisation engaged different ethnic communities in the Jonglei area in a joint development endeavour.  Only there was no peace mission in Jonglei on the day Kolen disappeared.

On his personal website (of by now 50,000 views) Penn describes how he and Kolen were headed out of Juba after attacks on fellow activists and threats against themselves. Penn managed to board the plane; Kolen didn’t make it. He disappeared as he went to fetch his suitcase. Penn: “The people who persecute and attack us, critics of the government, are not rural people. They are our former boys from the bush who have now turned into securocrats. They like their new jobs and their access to resources and power. They see us as dangerous troublemakers who want to take over.”

Government, NGOs and “netizens”

Looking at AFTABOSS, the Facebook page that aims to ‘unite South Sudanese netizens (citizens online) all over the world to contribute in unison for their solidarity, rights to information and contribution to the development of their new nation’, one cannot help feeling that the insecure Juba rulers may have a point. One blogger puts the finger on a weak point in the new Constitution: there is no rule governing the issue of state contracts and payments.  Could this absence explain why contracts and jobs are dished out to incapable buddies, and therefore why service delivery fails? Another attacks the dictatorial way president Kiir recently ordered parliament to accept his choice of a new deputy. A third points out that a government cannot prescribe motorcycle taxistas that they must only use Honda or Yamaha bikes. A fourth that parliament itself should choose its speaker, not the President. A fifth calculates the income Juba receives from oil and in development aid, and can’t find where in the country these monies are spent on anything useful. Then it’s a free for all in laughter and jibes when The Economist highlights the expensive cars in use by the authorities and their friends in Juba. Every day, dozens come together on the AFTABOSS page to laugh at cartoons –always with the Prez in the George Bush cowboy hat – and to highlight unwise choices.

Mightn’t this bunch of Facebook activists find it equally difficult to govern if they were given power? This is a country that has seen decennia of war and has very little state or state building history to speak of. Intellectual knowledge may help but still – the challenges are enormous.  Penn: “First of all, I have no political ambitions. I am a teacher and writer and (Penn loves linguistic games with homophones and alliteration, EG) a rioter.  And even if I had them, I would not express them –in the current situation, it is not wise for anybody to declare that he has such desires. But the leadership has to change the way it uses state resources. Now, services are delivered in a system of patronage: those who toe the line get something and those who oppose get nothing. We fought the liberation struggle for all South Sudanese, not just for those in the SPLA. Secondly, the mistake that our insecure leaders make is that they surround themselves with quantity rather than quality. They are scared of people with integrity and competence and prefer those who tell them what they want to hear. Even without years and years of government experience, just using those two principles –of developing equitably and choosing competent officials to do that – would already be an improvement.”

There are of course many who talk of development in Juba. Ever since independence in 2011, the place has been crawling with NGOs and UN offices, vehicles and officials. Is there no development emanating from all that activity? Penn scoffs.  “I have not seen it. What we see in Juba is an empire of NGOs who hold our government to account, but who are not accountable to anybody themselves. They are not governed by the laws of South Sudan, so nobody can touch them. They report to be working on humanitarian crises, but our refugees are still in the border camps where they were two years ago, and promised food aid has not reached our communities where hunger is a problem. Then they live lives of kings, splashing out on even more ostentatious wealth than our leaders.”

But there are plenty, South Sudanese and foreign, who benefit from the NGOs’ and UN’s presence.  Sex workers, for example. It was reported some time ago that when you see a girl in a very short skirt, with a lot of make-up, walking the streets of Juba, and you ask her where she works, she will tell you she ‘works for the UN’. Penn: “It’s true. Many sex workers have migrated from East Africa to South Sudan, specifically to find clients among NGO workers. I witnessed this in most of the night clubs in Juba and other capitals of the states.  Some locals are concerned about this and have gone to the extreme by suggesting the expulsion of foreign NGO workers. There was a case in Bentiu, the capital of Unity State, whereby a Kenyan expatriate impregnated an underage girl. Many of such cases are not reported due to our cultural conservatism.”

What the future holds? “I am going to shift my 5 000 personal Facebook friends and fans and the 50,000 readers from my blog, www.weakleak.wordpress.com, to the collective AFTABOSS page. The 388 members that are there now are not just ‘likes’. They are quality members who run blogs and other businesses on their own.  After I add the quantity of my other readers, I believe we will set off a 'Facebook' sort of revolution. We have quite a few members in Juba and other regions of the country, also activists who choose not to have a presence online because of security concerns.  As soon as there is need for street action, we will be there. But at the moment the best protests are online.”

Evelyn Groenink is Investigations Editor at ZAM Chronicle.