Dear President Salva Kiir Mayardit and the people of Southern Sudan,
September 10, 2011 (SSNA) — I want to extend my warmest greetings and congratulations to the people of the now independent Republic of South Sudan on the birth of your new nation on July 9, 2011 after years of oppression, war, death and the dispersion of the people to all parts of the world. With great regret, I had to decline the wonderful invitation to attend the celebration in Juba this past July; but yet, I still wanted to share with you my great joy at this remarkable achievement after over thirty years of civil war.
Now, the sounds of laughter, the tears of joy, the prayers of thanksgiving and the happy singing and dancing to the accompaniment of African drums, have all subsided; however, on this two-month anniversary of your new-found freedom, I want to congratulate you from your family on the other side of the river.
We Ethiopians know of the great suffering you, our Southern Sudanese brothers and sisters, have gone through over the past years. Whatever happens to you, whether joy or sorrow, affects us on the other side of the river and the same is true of you. Just because a national boundary splits us; our deep bonds of our shared humanity cannot be broken and now, with your independence, we are rejoicing with you that this victory for human dignity is finally yours.
Growing up as a boy in Gambella, the arbitrary border line drawn by the British made little difference; I had one foot firmly planted in Sudan and one foot firmly planted in Ethiopia. My family was on both sides and I have lived in both places. Eventually, Gambella became a sanctuary for those on the Sudan side during the civil war and when under threat in Ethiopia, like during the 2003 genocide of the Anuak in Gambella, nearly 10,000 Anuak found sanctuary in southern Sudan when fled as refugees for safety. When food was more plentiful on one side and lacking on the other; the people simply crossed over a manmade boundary that could not separate the people from each other. We drank the same water from the Akobo, Gilo, Alwro and Opeano rivers that flow to the Sobat River from the western Ethiopia. The Sobat’s discharge is considerable; at its confluence with the White Nile just south of Malakal, the Sobat accounts for half the White Nile’s water. We walked the same land and we were all one people and still are.
Right after the British left in 1955, the southern Sudanese people ended up in the hands of the northern government of Sudan, who attempted to brutally dominate over all the people of the south; forcing assimilation into another culture and religion while exploiting the people and the land. The thirst for freedom grew as the injustice deepened. The southern Sudanese simply sought to live like everyone else.
I remember hearing stories about the Anyanya (also Anya-Nya) the southern Sudanese separatist rebel army formed during the First Sudanese Civil War (1955-1972). I heard about Joseph Otheao, an Anuak leader from southern Sudan who was one of the first to take up the struggle to resist the oppression; but unfortunately, he gave his life for the struggle we are now celebrating together. Some people claim that had he not been killed, southern Sudan may have become a country long ago. Some of my family members, who acted as a mentor to me in my youth, joined the resistance movement and became very involved. Sadly, they also were among those who lost their lives. Tens of thousands of men lost their lives.
The Addis Ababa Agreement in March 1972 brought a ceasefire, but when the rebels went back home to start new lives, the northern Sudanese Arabs did not abide by the agreement and the oppression continued. This failure was the reason Dr. John Garang went back to the bush to create the SPLA in 1983. During some of the most difficult years, the SPLA found a safe-haven in Gambella. Nearly half a million refugees who fled from the war-stricken south, went through Gambella on their way to Ethiopia and Kenya. Many lived in refugee camps in Ethiopia where they lived for years. Others made Gambella their permanent home and are still there. Gambella was your base to fight for your rights.
For me, the horror, suffering and countless deaths of not just the soldiers, but also civilian refugees, many of whom were as young as I, was an unimaginable human tragedy I will never forget. Though I was young at the time, I learned that those who were fighting and dying were doing so because of the lack of dignity, freedom, equality, justice and opportunity. I saw many of the young people, come through our land; barely able to walk or move for lack of food and strength. Their bodies looked like living twigs. Others, including many elders, could not make it and Gambella was where many died as they fell over on the road; never rising up again. Hundreds of thousands came, but a great many of them did not make it; however, the people of Gambella tried to share food and shelter with them.
The young and older men with guns did not follow the Southern Sudanese refugees to the refugees’ camps, but demonstrated their commitment to justice and freedom by returning to Sudan to claim their God-given rights. Many of them died. Some of these were my own relatives who were never seen again after returning to Sudan to fight. Even though they lived on the other side of the river in Gambella, Ethiopia, they saw the struggle for human rights in Sudan as their own.
As we continue to celebrate your nation’s new independence; it also is a time of commemoration for the two million Southern Sudanese; both civilians and those fighting in the bush, who all perished. They did not dance side by side with others in joyous celebration of their hard-fought for battle. They were not present to hear the sound of laughter return to the land. They were not present to see the answer to their prayers; yet, what began in silence many years ago has now been revealed to the world as many outside of Sudan joined in the struggle for the liberation of the Southern Sudanese and now are sharing in your joy.
The birth of a new country is like the beginning of life for a newborn child. It is a tremendous challenge and responsibility to raise a child to live up to its potential. Neither is it easy to establish a new country to live up to its potential. It will require faith, wisdom, determination, commitment and sacrifice. People know this new country is among the poorest countries in the world; however, with God’s help, you can overcome this obstacle for God has blessed your soil with fertility, provided to you rivers of abundant water and endowed the land with plentiful resources. You are not living in a desert, but in a rich land with oil, water, agricultural land and many other resources. You are people of great skill, intelligence, faith, beauty and strength. Now you must become a country of people who can demonstrate to the world how to care about the well being of others; for how the most vulnerable are treated in any country, will tell you how well that country is doing.
When you were oppressed and denied your God-given rights by the north, you were lumped together as one people; not as tribes unless it was to exploit tribal differences in order to weaken all of you through “divide and conquer” strategies. You suffered and died together and now you must nurture this new child at this most fragile time of your existence. The future of this new country belongs to all of you and you can nurture it by recognizing and embracing the humanity in every member.
I encourage all the beautiful people of southern Sudan the Dinkas, Nuers, Anuaks, Shilluks, Equatorians, Latukas, Taposas, Turkanas, Moru, Madi, Bari, Acholi, Zande and other people of the entire southern Sudan to stand together to live up to your responsibility to generations who will come after you. Show to the world your uniqueness and how you are committed to creating a healthy and great nation that puts humanity before ethnicity or any other differences because God, our creator, breathed his divine breath into every human being He created. Because of it, each of us has worth, dignity and deserves universal human rights. To the extent you uphold these God-given truths will determine the ultimate success of your nation. I believe you can do it as Dr. John Garang dreamed that one day you will be free!
Guard your new nation; protecting it from outside external forces that seek to destroy, to divide or to exploit the country in the same way that predators seek vulnerable victims or as hawks wait for weakened prey. The only way to prevent such vulnerability is by vigilantly guarding truth, morality, unity, justice, equality and the rule of law.
Do not fall into the traps of neighboring regimes that divide the country by ethnicity and put their own ethnic group and personal self-interests at the top at the expense of the nation. Please take care to not fall into the trap of ethnic favoritism because it will greatly endanger what you have achieved at such a great cost. Be wary about having relationships with these kinds of authoritarian regimes that claim to fight for freedom when they were rebels; but instead, after years of iron-fisted rule, they have failed to bring peace, stability, harmony, democracy and the rule of law into their country and have pro-actively undermined peace in the entire region.
Do not forget that those leaders, who came into power claiming to be ridding their country of dictatorship, but then became the same and even now still refuse to leave office. They become one-party states, rig elections, arrest opposition members, suppress the media and freedom of expression, exploit natural assets, bring deeper levels of poverty and violate the human rights of the people. They pretend to be fighting for the people but instead bring misery as they become dictators for life.
The leaders of the Republic of South Sudan can take an exemplary role in defying these examples by respecting term limits, creating an independent judiciary, an independent military, an independent election board, strong local governments that can represent the interests of the people, by empowering strong civic institutions to hold leaders accountable and by respecting the rule of law as being above all the people; including themselves. By doing so, it could impact Ethiopia, the Horn of Africa and all of Africa!
As you build a strong and productive country; look nearby; thinking always of how in this global world, one’s relationships with neighbors can either contribute or sabotage to what you have and hope to achieve. We live in the neighborhood of the Horn of Africa. What kind of neighbors do we want?
If we want to enhance trade, industry, business, transportation networks, access to markets, security, medical services, banking and finance, education and regional development; we must build a neighborhood where we see each other has fully human and create institutions to protect the rights of all; including those with whom we “do business.”
Think about easing obstacles to economic growth and trade by creating more open borders, trade agreements and interconnected roads, railways and even using the rivers for transport as we build greater cooperation within the greater Horn of Africa; reaching from Juba to Addis Ababa; from Khartoum to Kampala; from Asmara to Bujumbara; from Kinshasa to Kigali; from Mogadishu to Dar es Salaam; from Djibouti to Nairobi and beyond!
Can you imagine a Horn of Africa or East Africa where the boundaries of our rivers or ruthless leaders, with their own ulterior motives, do not make us enemies? As you work to build this beautiful country, can you envision the creation of such a region where humanity would come before ethnicity; where people would see themselves as one people—coming from the tribe of human beings rather than from the tribe of one’s own ethnicity, nation or some other distinction?
What would happen if we created a culture where we would care about the well being, rights and opportunities of our neighbors as ourselves; realizing that our own freedom is protected by protecting the freedom of others? As an Ethiopian from Gambella who has joined with the greater family of Ethiopians in our own struggle for freedom, we hope that you can continue to be an example to us of building enduring peace, freedom and stability as you create a government of the people.
As the beautiful and proud Ethiopians now are rising up to demand a government of, for and by the people; it may only be a matter of time before you will see us celebrating ourselves; with tears of joy, songs of justice, dances of victory and hearts of thankfulness. When we finally achieve this end, the union of the people of the region will no longer be impossible.
I have no doubt that you are ready to make your country proud and help us create a condition that will bring a lasting change to our entire region. You are the greatest source of hope for East Africa’s future. I felt this after meeting with President Salva Kiir in Washington DC this 2011. So, I can say with confidence that the peaceful East Africa’s future starts now!
In closing, I again congratulate you for your new country. Nurture and protect it; always knowing that we, the people of Ethiopia, are your relatives on the other side of the river and are ready to embrace a new future where we can live in harmony together.
May God bless the new Republic of South Sudan!