South Sudan: Interview with Paul Oleyo Longony, Boma Community Initiative
As South Sudanese vote on becoming an independent state, in what has internationally been billed as a “new dawn” and “new chapter in history” for the long-suffering and neglected South, ethnic minority communities harbour guarded optimism.
MRG’s Africa Regional Information officer, Mohamed Matovu, talked to Paul Oleyo, the Executive Director of Boma Community Initiative (a Sudanese organisation working on peace-building based in Boma, Jonglei State , South Sudan) on the situation for minority communities in the South amidst the referendum vote.
What is the situation like as people cast their ballot?
I am in Boma and have just finished casting my vote. The situation is calm and there’s a high voter turnout. By end of the day yesterday about 15,000 people turned up in Boma alone and the queues are still long, going into day two of the referendum.
Have members of minority communities embraced the exercise with as much enthusiasm?
Unfortunately not. Firstly, because many of them have systemically been excluded from political participation over time, many don’t really know what is happening right now or its implications for their situation. Secondly, many of them live in ‘hard to reach’ areas and because there were no provisions for vehicles or other transport means to carry ballot papers, many will sadly not participate. Thirdly, due to inter-ethnic clashes, some community members fear it is not safe for them to move to some voting centres.
Is this security scare a spill-over of the violent episodes that have been reported in the disputed Abyei region?
No doubt. Moving forward, it’s as if the referendum result is a foregone conclusion. However, tension is now rising regarding the ownership of Abyei and this situation is not helped by self-seeking politicians who are playing the ethnic card to incite violence. For instance, the Government of South Sudan is accused of supporting the Dinka in Abyei to vote in favour of joining the South while the Khartoum government is accused of supporting the Missseriya, Arab nomads who claim grazing rights for their cattle in Abyei, to vote in favour of joining the North. The result has been those clashes you read about in the media and there may be more if the situation is not handled intelligently.
Logistical challenges notwithstanding, do minority communities involved in the referendum exercise share in the optimism that this is a new day for them or their communities?
One thing for sure is that minority communities were not sensitised as they ought to have been. But after several decades of leadership from the North in which they didn’t see their situation change at all, many know things are going to change. How much? Nobody knows.
Was there no national conversation at all in the run up to the referendum regarding how minorities in the South want to be governed?
That is the unfortunate bit. There was not enough time to talk about post-referendum governance issues. The political tide, including the international community, was obsessed with the referendum. How we move from the referendum or how we share political and economic resources will be another thorny issue which many critics have predicted might throw us back into ethnic clashes.
Isn’t there is a real chance of minorities getting a raw deal in a newly independent South State?
It is too early to say, especially when you look at the current governance structure of the Government of South Sudan, which has three minority community representatives. Of course our issues as minorities go beyond three representatives and our strategy is to engage the new government with a dossier of minority communities’ minimum demands immediately after the referendum.
As a member of the civil society, what are some of these minimum demands you’ll put before the new government?
As civil society, we feel minorities crucially need access to basic services. Right now most minority communities in the South access basic services from Boma town which is very far from where many of them live. We need roads, health services, education facilities as well as equitable distribution of the national resource envelope.