Komiru tragedy a lesson in nation building

By Jacob K. Lupai


March 22, 2012 (SSNA) — People were horrified to learn of a tragedy in Komiru where innocent lives of women and children were unnecessarily lost. Komiru is in the suburb of Juba. The circumstances that led to the tragedy in Komuri are still being investigated. However, the point to make is that for South Sudan that had lost millions of lives in difficult circumstances in armed struggle against colonization and marginalization, there shouldn’t be a repeat of unnecessary loss of lives again. South Sudan fought two bitter liberation wars against successive governments dominated by North Sudan. In aggregate it fought for 39 years with an estimated loss of over 2 million lives and 4 millions of displaced persons, some fleeing to foreign lands to live as refugees in uncertain conditions while others became miserable internally displaced persons (IDPs). This is notwithstanding the destruction of the available rudimentary infrastructures. However, through sheer determination against all odds South Sudan won its independence to the overwhelming relief of the majority of people after decades of endurance of what might have been rightly considered serfdom. Now to experience a tragedy such as that in Komiru after independence is unacceptable. Every human life in South Sudan is precious.

Background of conflict in the South

It may be convenient to give a brief background of conflict in the South for an understanding of the extent to which South Sudanese are traumatized. After World War Two Sudan was the first African territory administered by Britain to be granted independence. This was when Sudan’s de facto status was what could be considered as a colony of two countries, North and South Sudan. Sudan attained independence on 1 January 1956. However, up until 1947 Britain had not been fully committed to administering the South as part of Sudan. Instead Britain entertained the notion that the South might eventually be linked to the East African colonies. This option, however, was closed when Egyptian and northern nationalists insisted on a united Sudan. When it was obvious that the British were leaving Sudan and in order to protect the interest of the South, southerners raised the issue of a separate administrative status for the South. A federal system was proposed as a constitutional solution. As the situation was not bad enough when the results of Sudanisation were announced, southerners were bitterly disappointed as northerners were appointed to all the senior positions in the South. Southerners, of course, saw this as the beginning of northern domination and colonization of the South. Partly as a result of the Sudanisation process in the rapid increase of northerners in the South as administrators, senior officers in the army and police and teachers in government schools, southern fears of northern domination and colonization increased. This naturally made people in the South dissatisfied and with growing tension anything could happen. Indeed the dissatisfaction and growing tension eventually erupted into an open armed rebellion in 1955 against the perceived northern domination. In brief 1955 marked the beginning of protracted armed struggle against the successive northern dominated governments that perpetrated gross injustices in the South.

Peaceful resolution of the conflict

The South went through two bitter wars of liberation as highlighted above. In the two wars serious attempts were made at peaceful resolution of the conflict. The first war was resolved peacefully through what became known as the Addis Ababa Agreement. It was a series of settlements defining powers of self-government in the South and regulating relations between the central government in Khartoum and what became the Southern Region. In summary the Addis Ababa Agreement granted the South a local autonomy, a kind of a federal system supposed to address southern grievances of domination and colonization by the North. However, in their ethno-centric behavior dictated by greed for power southerners gave the North the golden opportunity to abrogate the Addis Ababa Agreement. There again began another armed struggle that took a different route from the first one. This time it was the liberation of Sudan from ignorance, poverty, uneven development, religious bigotry and inequality in citizenship to mention but a few. The message was crystal clear. For Sudan to remain united far reaching reforms must take place. Unfortunately the ultra conservative in the North preferred the South to go separate ways to the expected drastic reforms to keep Sudan united. The conflict was, however, peacefully resolved through what became known as the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that granted the South self-government in the interim period of six years and thereafter the right to self-determination. The right to self-determination gave the South the choice of either to remain united with the North or to opt for an independent status. In a referendum that saw the overwhelming majority of southerners voting for separation after the interim period, Southern Sudan became the independent Republic of South Sudan precisely on 9 July 2011.

Traumatised people

Unlike the Addis Ababa Agreement the CPA was received with jubilation unheard of in the South. People thanked God the Almighty for delivering them from the jaws of slavery and gross injustices they had endured for ages. Soldiers of the southern liberation army were saluted and held in high esteem wherever they went. Women ululated and laid their veils and garbs on the ground as a sign of heartfelt welcome of the liberation army. However, as people were traumatized and as common sense seemed to have flown out through the window, people began to experience what they did not expect from a liberation army. Land grabbing started to become a behavior unheard of during the war of liberation. Respect of civilians for their rights to their property was no longer observed. The barrel of the gun was used to grab land from legitimate owners. Worse of all even if the law is being broken with impunity there seems no stopping of the criminal behavior. The plea of legitimate land owners seems to be ignored with the resultant perception of injustices being perpetrated with impunity. Criminal land grabbing in Tongping residential area in Juba is a case in point. Land is being grabbed with owners being beaten up and chased away like rats by people in uniform and with guns. It is a shame that yesterday liberators are now land grabbers and there seems to be no law to stop the criminal land grabbing. Although there may not be scientific evidence, land grabbing may be associated with the traumatised. In addition to counseling the solution to land grabbing is to allocate land to land grabbers so that they become peaceful legitimate owners. However, if there is the law when will it be enforced to provide legitimate land owners justice? The government is in a better position to answer the question. The President of Republic of South Sudan when witnessing the swearing-in ceremony of the Governor of Central Equatoria State on 17 March said no one is above the law. However, for more than three years people’s plots of land have been grabbed and justice has not been done despite court orders. No one is above the law seems to be in theory. In practice land grabbers are defying the law with impunity. What will the President do to enforce the rule of law so that it is seen no one is above the law. Please Mr. President act now for people to have confidence. 

No room for generalisation

It is unfair to generalize that all soldiers are criminal land grabbers. The majority of soldiers may be good people who respect the rights of others. It may be a tiny minority of soldiers that are causing problems. It is known that a rotten apple may cause a bag of apples to be rotten. The message is that it is important to remove the rotten apple before the whole bag of apples is spoiled. Similarly in our situation it is important to weed out those rouge soldiers who are tarnishing the image of our beloved army. Above all the rule of law must be supreme. There must be a body to monitor the enforcement of the law. Those individual soldiers who grab people’s land at gun point may be good citizens. However, they may be opportunistic in taking advantage of the weakness in enforcing the law. There are cases where the courts ruled in favour of legitimate land owners but when it comes to the implementation of the court order there is absolute weakness in the enforcement of the law. Sometimes law enforcement agents flee the scene with the legitimate owners of land fleeing after the agents leaving the criminal land grabbers celebrating. The Komiru tragedy should offer a lesson to all who are keen on building a united and prosperous South Sudan. Taking the law into one’s own hands is not the way to build a nation such as ours.

The Komiru tragedy

No one in their healthy minds should think South Sudanese are homogenous so that nation building is as easy as walking into a restaurant. Like any people on the continent South Sudanese are of diverse cultures, ethnicities and regions just to be brief. However, South Sudanese may be proud that they had managed to forge an alliance among themselves during the armed struggle to tackle the menace of northern domination. Nonetheless there seems to be no of evidence that South Sudanese are now as cohesive as they were during the heat of the armed struggle. Even then there was a split among southerners. It was only the glaring threat of northern domination and colonization that magnetically pulled southerners together which made the eventual attainment of independence possible. With nothing magnetic to pull southerners together as during the period of the armed struggle, nation building may become an uphill struggle. However, should we despair? I do not think so. When we were united as evidenced by the 98 per cent yes vote for separation and eventual independence, what will make us not to repeat the united stand of the 98 per cent vote in nation building? The Komiru tragedy should be a lesson to double our efforts in building a strong united South Sudan that even the dead will identify with. The Komiru tragedy clearly seems to suggest that a weak system where the rule of law is hardly enforced is public enemy number one and tribalism is public enemy number two in nation building.

Kokora revisited

People shy away and do not say it openly but Kokora is a contributory factor in most of the bad things happening to the people of Equatoria. There seems to be an instinctive hatred. Unless we re-educate ourselves we are in for a long uphill struggle in nation building. We are now a nation but not tribes or regions. We therefore need to take our national duties or responsibilities seriously by applying the rule of law to the letter. Many bad things had happened in Kokora but they are now history. Also many bad things had happened when the Sudan People’s Liberation Army first entered Equatoria but they are now history. This suggests that we should not live in the past but should be forward looking for better times, better conditions of living for our people and better security for all. However, one contributory factor may be that the illiteracy rate is very high and that an abstract understanding of issues is lacking and with it the lack of a robust practical plan of action. What we get, though, are carbon copies of language other than our own defunct of practical action. This may explain the sheer disappointment and frustration people have when services are hardly delivered and the rule of law is hardly upheld as land grabbers enjoy occupying the property of legitimate owners without shame. Kokora should be blamed on ethno-centralism and greed but not on people of Equatoria who were responding to excesses just like anybody else could.

Implications of Komiru tragedy

The Komiru tragedy should be of concern to peace loving nationalists who care much about nation building for prosperity in South Sudan. The tragedy has highlighted the extent to which South Sudanese are divided as shown by the differences during the debate in the national assembly over the demolition of illegally built houses in Komuri area. The demolition had sparked an over-reaction from some of the squatters in the area who took the law into their own hands. The squatters not only used guns to terrorise people but went on an indiscriminate shooting spree killing innocent civilians including women and children in what could be described as a massacre. The Komiru tragedy could have easily sparked a wider tribal and regional conflict as the response to contain the tragedy was dismal to save the lives of innocent civilians. Huts were set ablaze in the attack on the innocent civilians. The response to save lives and contain the conflict should have been swift in a matter of minutes. How could a tragedy of such magnitude raged for three long days without a robust response to save citizens’ lives. Anyway South Sudanese are not of the same culture. They are multi-cultural with dominant sedentary and pastoralist cultures. In some cultures human life is valued less than that of the animal. The death of an animal may even be mourned more than that of a human. Some cultures are rebellious of a system. They want what the Arabs call fauda. For the sedentary and pastoralist cultures to co-exist is not an easy task in nation building. It is worse with very weak or indifferent leadership where apathy may become dominant in people’s approach to issues. However, this should not discourage people from marching forward confidence and a clear vision of where they are going as a united people in diversity.


People of South Sudan may not be homogenous but they are of one destiny as people of one nation, the Republic of South Sudan. When the nation is under attack it will neither be one tribe nor one region to protect it. It will be the national duty of each and every citizen to stand up for the very existence of their nation. It is here that nation building should be an easy task because the concept is collective responsibility. The use of Kokora as a hidden agenda to victimize people should be a thing of the past in the effort to build a modern united nation based on participation and active contribution of all to the wellbeing of the nation. People cannot be called active participants in nation building when the machinery of the state in unrepresentative. For example, what will happen when over 50 per cent of state machinery comes from one single tribe? Most probably this will not be seen as nationalism but tribalism. How will that promote effective nation building is not clear. However, there is growing hope that with reforms in place people in their diversities will be enthusiastic to participate actively in nation building.

In conclusion, the Komiru tragedy provides a lesson to be learned for all to be very serious in building a nation that people can easily identify with. For criminals to be shielded by tribal sentiments and sympathies is not the way in nation building. The rule of law should be supreme not in words but in deeds. The parliament did the right thing by ordering an investigation into the massacre of women and children to frighten people off their land for criminals to profit from land grabbing deals. However, a public enquiry would have been appropriate for the public to know the truth of the matter. The parliamentary investigation may turn out to be political and hence may be doctored or not to see the light of the day. Land grabbing should have not been an issue if the law was swiftly enforced in order to make people law abiding. When proper procedures of land allocation were systematically followed probably the tragedy in Komiru could have been avoided. This could be one line of enquiry.

The author can be reached at [email protected]

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