The Catholic bishops of South Sudan seem to be unaware that they could easily squander their opportunity to be a clear and credible voice in articulating the interests of the citizens of Africa’s newest nation.
South Sudan is experiencing serious governance issues, but in their latest public statement, a bland sermon dwelling on generalities, the bishops fail to point out glaring failures that could scuttle the aspirations of the war-weary citizens for peace and prosperity.
As recently as Monday this week, the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy to the world’s youngest nation, Hilde F. Johnson, said South Sudan is “travelling a bumpy road”, beset by enormous challenges in extending the government’s authority, deadly inter-communal conflict and human rights abuses by the security forces.
But the bishops’ pastoral letter issued last week, titled “Message of Hope and Encouragement”, glosses over a number of these critical national challenges.
On peace, the bishops say: “Peace will not come without respect for human rights, and these rights are based on the concept of the dignity of each human person, created in the image and likeness of God…”
In a letter dated November 8, 15 African and international civil society organizations called President Salva Kirr’s attention to flagrant human rights violations in the country, citing specific instances.
“In 2013, soldiers from South Sudan’s army, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), and officers from the Auxiliary Police Force unlawfully killed over 95 people from the Murle ethnic group and Murle members of the security forces during an armed conflict in Pibor County, Jonglei state. These killings are serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law and the government of South Sudan has an obligation to hold those responsible to account.”
On the security crisis in Jonglei State, the bishops say: “We remain very concerned about conflicts within South Sudan. As we recall our own efforts to forge “one people out of every tribe, tongue and nation”, we are encouraged by the many initiatives of the churches, civil society and the government to reduce tension. We note that the number of armed rebellions has reduced considerably as many rebel leaders have come out of the bush with their followers. ”
Ms. Johnson, the UN Special Envoy, told the Security Council on Monday that the vicious cycle of violence in Jonglei, with inter-communal tensions between the Nuer and Anyuak and conflict with the David Yau Yau armed group risks intensifying with the approach of the dry season.
Commenting on national development in the two-year-old nation, the Catholic bishops said “building a new nation is not a quick nor (sic) easy task”, and rejoiced that “most of our people are living in peace and democracy for the first time in decades,” although “delivery of social services, infrastructure and other basic needs is proceeding more slowly than many would wish.”
They welcomed the new “leaner” government announced by President Kiir in July, but steered clear of the debilitating power struggles within government and Kiir’s emerging dictatorial tendencies.
Following the sacking of his vice president Riek Machar and the entire Cabinet in July, South Sudanese academic Dr. Christopher Zambakari accused Kiir of “ruling by decrees rather than legislation.”
The bishops state that they “remain concerned about governance issues, including corruption and nepotism”, without clarification.
In June, a group of US citizens who worked closely for more than 20 years for peace in oil-rich South Sudan wrote to President Kiir, saying they had concluded that “without significant changes and reform, your country may slide toward instability, conflict and a protracted governance crisis.”
“After almost nine years of self-rule, the government is still failing to meet the basic needs of its people. Despite claims that vast sums have been expended on investment in infrastructure, there is very little to show in the way of roads, medical services, and education for millions of South Sudanese who greeted the prospect of independence with eagerness and hope.”
The Friends of South Sudan further stated: “Those who have benefitted—who have become wealthy by misappropriating government funds—have often sent their families outside South Sudan, their children to private schools abroad, and have obtained the best medical services available in the world. This occurs while ordinary citizens who remain in South Sudan cannot afford even basic health services or modest educations for their children. Corruption is at the heart of the many problems facing South Sudan.