Home | Comment & Analysis    Monday 17 December 2012

Building a National Culture and Character in a Corrupt and Chaotic Environment: the Case of South Sudan

By Remember P.D Miamingi

December 17, 2012 (JUBA) - It was Reade who said ‘sow a thought, and you reap an act. Sow an act, and you will reap a habit. Sow a habit and you reap a character. Sow a character, and you reap a destiny.’ If this statement is true, it is also true then to say that one can almost predict the future of a people or a nation from their thoughts, acts, habits and character patterns. The culture and the character of a people or a nation are, therefore, amongst the most important determinants of any preferred future.

However, it seems like in the Republic of South Sudan, we feel that the way we daily think and act is irrelevant to the future we want for our children and ourselves as a nation. May be that is why we can hardly see: the link between the kick-backs we collect from contractors and the kick-back-pot-holes on our streets in Juba, the link between right-wheeled and left-wheeled vehicles competing for the same roads and the number of accident victims in our teaching clinic, the link between the number of V8s/Hammers on our roads and the austerity measures, the link between coming out of the bush without the bush coming out of some of us, to mention just a few.

Of course, this cannot be true! We know very well that our lack of governance, our capture by corruption, and our inability to see or make others see our promised land are directly linked to why we are crawling when we were supposed to run, and run when we were supposed to crawl, as a nation. We know that corruption; repression, insecurity, abject poverty and indiscipline do not result into peace, equality, prosperity, freedom and justice. That is why we fought, killed and got killed: to dethrone these vices and enthrone the values of justice, liberty and prosperity. It is, therefore, not possible to explain the shameless looting going on in South Sudan in terms of ignorance.

How does one explain then why have some of our freedom fighters degenerated into freedom takers and others changed from liberators to liars? The answer, in my opinion, lies in culture and character. Culture is the repository of values, the shaper of identity, and the determinant of political behavior. Character is the transforming force that takes values and translates them into living realities in a nation. So, even though culturally strong communities inhabit South Sudan, the failure to harness and harmonize these cultures into a national culture and build an accepted character is at the root of things falling apart.

Culture, character and nation building

In principle, all nation-building processes are cultural processes. The values, virtues, talents, rectitude and patriotism needed for nation building are determined by culture. In a nation building process, therefore, there is no radical distinction between private morality and public character. That is probably why Thomas Jefferson reasoned: the American people should be ‘inherently independent of all but the moral law’. This is so because, according to George Washington, that private morality is the ‘surest pledge that the foundation of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality.’

People grow into nationhood when their character develops the virtues and values that propel them towards greater humanity. The destiny of any nation depends on the character of the people living in, and or leading it. Thus, when a geographical entity, in its quest for nationhood, is abundantly blessed with confused, factionalized and extremely corrupt elites with limited sense of nationhood, the state simply becomes a primary instrument of primitive accumulation. That is how a country finds itself governed by cabals and elites who directly or indirectly aid and abate gross corruption at various levels of governance, whose aim is to simply impede and frustrate the mergence of effective, honest and meritocratic institutions, streamed lined and clear regulations- all important components of successful nation building processes.

Unfortunately, South Sudan look like it is endowed with leaders who tend to see the country more as a mean to an end – the end being ‘pious material wooliness and self-centered patrimonialism’. Do not get me wrong: we have leaders who have the interest of the nation at heart, but they seem to be in the minority. It seems that the majority of our leaders are busy organizing themselves into formidable instruments of exploitation, suppression and a conduit for very primitive accumulation of wealth as a result of an insatiable appetite for wanton crave for illegal, unethical and often criminal acquisition of wealth- a corrupt leadership.

Corruption, as I have seen and experienced it in South Sudan, comes in different forms: political corruption (misuse by government officials of their government powers for illegitimate, usually secretive, private enrichment; this took the form of bribery, extortion, cronyism, nepotism, patronage, graft and embezzlement), bureaucratic corruption (stealing of public funds), money laundering (keeping looted funds and wealth secretly abroad), gratification (monetary, pecuniary, material or physical favors as a condition or reward for performing official duties).

In order to engage or benefit from these corrupt practices, one’s private and leadership values and character base must have faltered. How have we become so immoral or amoral as a nation?

South Sudan: a country in search of a national culture and character

In my opinion, there are at least three distinct but interrelated factors responsible for the emergence of a society struggling to craft a national value system and character supportive of effective nation building in South Sudan. These are: historical legacy, visionary deficiency, and what I call the ‘curse of the last-born’.

First, historically, South Sudan is still struggling to put together a coherent, consistent and compelling narrative of a useable past. Meanwhile, its historical path is rich in memories and experience that the country is fighting to forget. The colonial experience of looters and losers for instance: in the eyes of the colonial masters, the country was simply a means to a bigger end, a source of resource to fuel imperial lust. To achieve its aim,colonial governance policies in South Sudan divided and ruled, eliminated resistance and competition, delocalized useable resources, nourished paternalistic, vertical rather than horizontal aspirations.

Independence for Sudan meant no more than the change of masters for South Sudan. The new masters – the Arabs - who were probably different from the British only in one main sense: while the British introduced vices into governance practices in South Sudan, the Arabs destroyed values.

Unlike the British who could lay claim to some form of higher academic, technological and moral achievements to justify conquering, the Arabs, at least those in Sudan, could not. Therefore, in order to successfully construct a superior class, Arabs needed only to construct an inferior class using available raw materials (color, race, religion) since it was not in their own ability to do otherwise.

The immediate effect of this policy of inferiorization was that South Sudanese had to contend with the Arab without – the self-acclaimed masters, and the arab within – the inferiority complex, just for lack of a better word. The medium and the long-term effects of this value destruction or attempted destruction of values are cultural and character crisis across the board in South Sudan.

It was, therefore, logical that the first SPLA’s reaction to ‘the Sudanese problem’ was a comprehensive political, economic and cultural response. Political -because it involved power analysis, economic - because of the resources dimension, and cultural - as it asserts dignity and self worth. However, it seems as if when time passed by, during the liberation struggle, causalities mounting, outside support penduluming, the arab within reared its ugly head in the military and political wing of the SPLA. The leadership of the Movement started stratification in its cadre, rewarding natural linkages (such as tribes) and artificial loyalties, promoting patronage and patrimonial systems, eliminating differing views, and punishing healthy competition with death.

As a result, in order for SPLA/SPLM to survive, it started to kill its own political ideologues, to paralyze its political wing allowing only core military cadre to flourish under tight military ethics. The immediate effect was that, at the time of independence, SPLA was alive and almost ready, but SPLM, as a political institution ready for peace, state and nation building, was in a comma. Consequently, the professional army cadre suddenly found itself saddled with purely political responsibilities demanding civilian behavioral characteristics and values. Instead of admitting limitation, open up space and collaborate, SPLA leadership resolved to learn their new responsibilities on the wheels. One of the unintended consequences of this is that the government of the SPLA is today presiding over a historical looting of momentous proportion in a country it gave up everything to create. If it does not manage this well, the SPLA might become one of those freedom fighters in the world to prematurely and untimely lose grip of political power.

Second, visionary deficit: if you don’t know where you are going, you need not trouble yourself with how to get there; is one of the lessons in “Alice in Wonderland”. It is arguable whether South Sudan today has visionary leadership. But what may not be arguable is that leadership, nationalism, innovation, national vision that creates enabling environments for individuals and communities to bring their creativity to play in a peaceful social system breeds development. The indiscipline among leaders and the disrespect for leadership, the me-and-today lifestyle of leaders, the feeling of being exploited, persecuted, ignored, done-in, unrewarded, unmotivated and directionless that perverse leadership and societies across South Sudan may be symptomatic of serious leadership malaise- visionary void.

Third, the ‘curse of the last born’: people commonly talk of the first born curse in which case parents put their hopes and dreams, attention, pressure and push for the first born to succeed, only to be disappointed. From the first born’s perspective, it is said he/she feels ‘I am the one time forgot- the oldest-the ignored-I am the first born.’ But there is also the ‘curse of the last born’. The parents have seen it all, become lackadaisical towards the last born up bring, could be spoon-fed the last born to the point of laziness or simply considered the last born a baby for life. I will argue that South Sudan, as the youngest nation on earth, suffers from this type of curse. It is pampered, tolerated, spoon-fed and suffers from academic and policy liturgy – we have seen it all; it is ‘always-like-that’ syndrome. Thus, officials have taken this to mean license to steal with no consequence. So it is better to loot now when you are ignored, because time is coming when looters will lose,they think.

Building a national culture and character in such a corrupt and chaotic environment

It is practically impossible to forge a national collective consciousness - a necessary pre-condition for building a national culture and character - in an environment where it seem the official policy is ‘everyone for himself, and providence for us all’. To make any headway with effective national - building in South Sudan, leadership must be morally upright, governance process participatory, legitimate symbolic institutions must exist, and reasonable elite consensus must prevail over belly-politics.

Unfortunately, it appears, at least from the outside, that South Sudan leadership is going through a serious moral crisis. In a country where its president admitted hiring at least 75 alleged thieves out of a few 100s hiring, where all the president could do is to write an appeal letter to these shameless thieves to donate something back, and even that without any report to the contrary, the appeal seem to have been unheeded without repercussion, something is not morally right.

It is even worse when we see these thieves collect all kinds of exotic cars for personal use, build houses and run business using tax paid for time, instead of being vilified, they are eulogized. What is even more disturbing is that there seems to emerge a value system in support of the reasoning that if one worked for government even for few months and have no fleet of cars, houses or a harem to show for it, he will be deemed even by his family a failure, in fact even a disgrace. This seems to nurture an emerging symbiotic relationship between this unfair community expectation and the primitive accumulation and display of stolen wealth in South Sudan.

In such an environment, good laws and policies, in the absence of cultural values of honesty, hard work, justice, proper attribution and retribution, are exercises in futility. In a country where no one seems to be in-charge, and everyone a republic to himself or herself, where what is shameful is actually glorified and what is noble vilified, how can we build a nation?

I will submit that to build a nation befitting sacrifice made and meeting challenges of the future, we need:

Moral leadership: if a nation has incompetent leaders, they may be capacitated, but when it has leaders with no morally acceptable values and character, replacing them is the only solution.

A supportive culture: a culture that rewards thieves with honor runs the risk of breeding more thieves. We need a value system that honors the fruits of hard work and despises stealing.

Supportive legal and policy environment: truly independent, well resourced and staffed oversight bodies with the power to investigate, arrest and prosecute even the holder of the highest office in the land is indicative of an intention to proceed in a noble path.

We need a national culture; we need a national character.

Remember P.D Miamingi is the Ag. Managing Director of Sudan’s Institute for Human Rights, Good Governance and Development (SIRD). He can be reached at remember.miamingi@gmail.com