South Sudan’s execution of two activists is a shocking betrayal of the struggle for freedom

Kenyan activists raise mock skulls during a protest against the politicians and leaders of war-torn South Sudan, in Nairobi, Kenya, 11 October 2018. EPA-EFE/DAI KUROKAWA

Just over two years ago, two prominent South Sudanese activists, Dong Samuel Luak and Aggrey Idri Ezbon, were abducted from Kenya and disappeared without trace. Last week we heard the shocking news that they had been extra-judicially executed shortly after they disappeared.

On Tuesday, 30 April 2019, the citizens of South Sudan were shocked by news of the extrajudicial execution of Dong Samuel Luak and Aggrey Idri Ezbon.

The two political activists were abducted from Kenya in January 2017, taken to South Sudan and have never been heard of since. All calls from human rights groups and civil society organisations for either their release or to charge and try them in a court of law were totally ignored and often ridiculed.

The government of South Sudan said it knew nothing about their disappearance from Kenya. The government of Kenya refused to get involved in the quest for information of their whereabouts. Anecdotal reports prevailed for the last two years after their disappearance suggested they were driven out of Kenya, through Uganda, and were detained incommunicado inside South Sudan, possibly at the main National Security Service facility, notoriously known as the Blue House, in Juba, capital of South Sudan.

Dong Samuel, a distinguished lawyer and co-founder of the South Sudan Law Society, and Aggrey Idri, a businessman, had joined the opposition following the outbreak of a civil war in 2013, and were living in Nairobi, Kenya. They had young families who have spent the last two years searching for them and pleading with the Juba authorities to at least inform them of the conditions of their missing loved ones; all to no avail.

It was not until this week that the United Nations Panel of Experts on South Sudan issued a report detailing that Dong and Aggrey were killed by the government of South Sudan at Luri, a Presidential Guard training camp northwest of Juba, close to one month after they disappeared from Nairobi. The panel of experts published the report on 30 April suggesting that the two civic activists were killed by the National Security Service.

It is highly probable that Aggrey Idri and Dong Samuel Luak were executed by Internal Security Bureau agents at the Luri facility on 30 January 2017, on orders from the commander of the NSS training and detention facilities in Luri, the Commander of the NSS Central Division and, ultimately, Lt Gen Akol Koor Kuc,” reads the report.

The report said that they were actually flown out of Kenya on a chartered flight and were killed within one week of their arrival in the country.

This news was not so surprising, as we had always feared the worst – that these brothers of ours were not alive. But it was still shocking to learn that they were killed so long ago, and yet their wives, their children and all of us were kept in the dark, despite the many collective petitions to the authorities demanding information on their fate.

If the report of the UN panel of Expert is accurate, Dong and Aggrey will have died for nothing. They did not commit any crime. All they did was to demand that the country be governed better, that basic civic rights of every citizen be respected as stipulated in the Constitution of South Sudan, and that the grave violations that have happened in South Sudan since the 2013 outbreak of civil war needed to be addressed if the country was going to be able to move past the history of acrimony that had so deeply gripped and divided the nation.

These were/are mundane expectations of ordinary citizens, which have continued to be demanded to this day; and killing activists who make these demands cannot be a solution to these woes that have so terribly divided the country for so long.

South Sudan is Africa’s youngest country and at independence in 2011, enjoyed both the international goodwill to support it in order to see it succeed and the rich hindsight that so many African countries could have offered from their own experience to make sure that the young state does not have to re-invent the wheel.

Ideas and narratives of state and nation-building were hotly contested. The direction the country needed to take was also debated by academics, activists, parliamentarians, political parties and by all citizens on a variety of platforms.

There was no agreement on what we needed to do in order to transform our young republic into a nation, a place to which all people would be able to relate, be proud of and express loyalty to. We all debated, disagreed, compromised and sometimes lost friendships over these debates.

But never for a single moment did any of us in the professional associations, civil society, youth groups, women’s groups etc lose sight of the ultimate goal, which was to build a diverse but cohesive, democratic, open and tolerant society from the ashes of the liberation struggle.

I personally knew the two gentlemen. Dong Samuel was on the board of the Sudd Institute that I work for, and when we disagreed, we wished each other long life, so that we could see in the future whose perspective was closer to the reality.

But with the news of Dong and Aggrey’s demise, we have altogether lost our way.

If history is anything to go by, I have to wonder if the killing of Dong and Aggrey is the beginning of another layer of conflict that will haunt South Sudan for the foreseeable future. The two men are survived by children who will now grapple with what their relationship will be to the country that killed their fathers. The two men were also prominent members of their own ethnic communities, and what will these communities think of the government of their country?

More importantly, while the country has been going through a violent conflict, the disappearance of political opponents, assassinations and extra-judicial killings have been rare. But now that this and a few other incidents of abduction have emerged as a new trend in the conflict, how will South Sudan ever rise above these horrific moments in order to become a stable, unified and prosperous country for which the citizens have aspired since independence? When did such cruelty, vindictiveness and utter inhumanity become part of the sub-culture of violence?

South Sudanese have been in a struggle of one form or another against foreign rulers since 1821 when Sudan was occupied by Ottoman Egypt, and the independence in 2011 supposedly marked an end to the brutalities, abuses, disdain, racism and slavery that had come together with the foreign rule.

The struggle had always unified the people.

But with these cruel killings occurring under and by the government of “liberators,” what chance does South Sudan have in trying to persuade all its citizens that independence was a good thing? DM

Dr Jok Madut Jok is the executive director of the Sudd Institute, a public policy research centre based in South Sudan and is professor of anthropology at the University of Juba in South Sudan. Following the independence of South Sudan in 2011, he served for two years in the government of South Sudan as under-secretary in the Ministry of Culture and Heritage. Jok is the author of four books including The Search for Peace (2017) and Sudan: Race, Religion and Violence (2007). He holds a PhD in the anthropology of health from the University of California, Los Angeles


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