Two trips to Juba

Youth activism and the politics of violence in South Sudan.

UNMISS welcomes release of hundreds of former child soldiers in Yambio. Image credit Isaac Billy via UNMISS Flickr.

The South Sudanese political activist and Cambridge PhD candidate in politics, Peter Biar Ajak, was arrested as he boarded a plane in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, on his way to attend a youth conference in July 2018. At the time of writing, he is still detained without charge in a prison run by South Sudan’s National Security Services. He has not been granted access to legal representation nor has he been allowed much communication with the outside world.

His arrest is part of an ongoing effort by the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) to repress dissident voices in the seven-year old country. The SPLM was spun off from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in 2005 following the signing of the comprehensive peace agreement. The agreement ended the twenty-year war leading to the country’s independence in 2011. Though ostensibly independent, the party remains closely linked to the army which retains the SPLA name. The current president, Salva Kiir, was the former military head of the rebellion who ascended to the presidency following the mysterious death of Dr. John Garang, the SPLA/M founder, in a helicopter crash.

The campaign to #FreePeterBiar has generated considerable support with tens of thousands signing a petition calling for his release. Framing Peter as the brave advocate for reform that he is, the international campaign simultaneously elides his more complex relationship to the ruling party responsible for much of the country’s woes. Peter, a former “Lost Boy,” the name given to some forty-thousand youth displaced by the war for independence, is a founder of the Red Army Foundation, the former youth wing of the SPLA/M.

Though it claims to be working for political reform in South Sudan, the Red Army’s relationship to the violence that has ripped the country apart since 2013 is unclear. According to a recent report, over 380,000 people have perished in the fighting, a number comparable to the death toll in Syria though with far less international outcry. Peter, the son of an SPLA general, is on record calling for a generational shift in the leadership of the ruling party. His efforts to mobilize the Red Army and South Sudanese youth more broadly to take power has never rejected the violent politics that have brought the country to its current malaise.

A few weeks prior to his arrest he unleashed a scathing critique of the SPLA leadership on his public Facebook page:

our so-called leaders are too corrupt and morally bankrupt. They’ve forgotten why we fought for so many years. They are now ready to betray the ideals of our liberation in order to simply remain in power, which they used to loot our resources and terrorize our people.

Though never openly calling for violence, at least publicly, he made his intention to oust Kiir explicit: “The way forward is for us—the great people of South Sudan—to mobilize and organize ourselves and reclaim our country from these traitors masquerading as leaders!”

His arrest brings to the fore difficult questions about the legitimacy of violence in bringing political change, especially in a context in which non-violent activists have little space for action. Is violence necessary when seeking to overthrow a brutal autocracy? What is the relationship between violent and non-violent activism? And how should outsiders engage with political actors whose commitment to non-violence is less than sacrosanct?

For those of us outside of South Sudan, the question of how to interact with political figures inside the country is especially pressing. The country’s creation would not have been possible without the efforts of an unholy alliance of War on Terror apparatchiks, pro-Israel advocacy groups, Evangelical Christians, anti-genocide activists, and African-American political figures who supported the country’s independence bid while painting the SPLA/M as a liberal and inclusive party despite clear evidence to the contrary. With the limits of militarized nationalism now revealed, outsiders have largely abandoned the country at precisely the moment we should be questioning how so many of us got it so wrong.


In 2011, South Sudan declared independence after almost 50 years of almost constant warfare. The peace would not last. Just two years later, violence erupted again, this time between two factions that have long vied for dominance. President Kiir, a Dinka, responded violently to a challenge to his presidency by his long-time rival, former Vice-President Riek Machar, a Nuer. Though a recent peace deal has brought the two rivals together again, the intermittent fighting since 2013 has left the country in a state of ruins.

National independence has done little to restore faith in government, or indeed, humanity among South Sudanese. The country is being destroyed in fits and starts. The effect is a slow-motion devastation leaving an already worn populace exhausted and racked with anxiety about the timing of the next flare of violence.

The foremost cause of the country’s troubled path is the profound failure of the state, and hence the SPLA/M, the rebel group turned ruling party which now dominates life in the country. It does not provide security for the population—more often, it is the threat. It does not generate sufficient resources to cover its own expenses despite its vast state-controlled oil reserves. Few public goods are provided. Corruption is omnipresent. The military is riven by divisions and a lack of a discipline.

Second is the almost complete breakdown of South Sudan’s social fabric, a sense that the incipient nationalist dream that animated the country’s secessionist fever is already dead. Having chosen independence just seven years ago, a high point in national unity for a population long defined by its divisions, “South Sudanese” as an inspirational, or even aspirational, identity is increasingly meaningless. Instead, mistrust pervades social interactions and the notion of a desirable and unifying South Sudanese identity has been stripped of all dignity. In its place, ethnicity, religion and regions contest for primacy.

Permeating both the South Sudanese state and society is the constancy of violence. The violence of the state against its own people, but also the violence of the people against themselves. It is everywhere. In the bullet holes splattered across government buildings. In the snarling pick-up trucks filled with soldiers that roar through town. In the personal stories of harassment and theft spoken in hushed tones. In the mural depicting a child donning a “I hate war” t-shirt painted on the side of a building. To be clear, there is nothing normal about this violence. It is the result of choices made by political actors both in and outside of the country. But for young people, who constitute the majority of the population, it means there are few options for political engagement beyond the labyrinthine networks of violence that still determine the country’s future.


I arrive in Juba on New Year’s Day 2017 onboard an Ethiopian Airlines flight from Entebbe. I have a hangover and the sun blazes down on my freshly-shaven scalp with a vengeance. I clear immigration at a makeshift arrivals counter covered in corrugated iron. The airport, recently voted the worst in the world, has changed little since my last visit during the historic referendum in 2011 when 99% of the population voted for independence. A concrete structure arises signaling the development of South Sudan’s first modern airport terminal. But construction is halted and I learn later that the new terminal may be dismantled before it ever opens. The reasons are unclear but stories of corruption abound.

Juba is quiet. The sounds of gunshots that previously punctuated the night have been silenced since Christmas. Residents are wary but appreciate the relative calm. Speculation is that the government, facing pressure from multiple fronts, has reigned in undisciplined elements in the army. But few head out after dark if they can avoid it. Restaurants and bars remain empty and the town has a nervous energy as I venture out for my twilight walks. Despite warnings from the hotel staff about why I should not move around on foot, no harm comes to me. Fear is reserved for the strangers from within.

I am in South Sudan, which I have been visiting since 2004, to do research. My hope is to learn more about the SPLA’s behavior during the war. But stymied by internal travel restrictions, I am unable to leave Juba which only came under rebel control in 2005. Instead, I decide to speak to youth in the city, especially young men, about their views on the violence which has defined their lives.

Nostalgia for the war is a strange but surprisingly common sentiment. No one wants a return to fighting Khartoum. But an external enemy promoted a fragile unity among the divisive populations that call this country home. Without the clear external threat that Khartoum once represented, the guns have turned inward.


Figuring out how far back to trace the current malaise is a common debate among South Sudanese intellectuals. Most agree that the current crisis took root during the prolonged struggle to break free from Sudan, though its precedents go back to the 19th century when the region was first brought under British control. The war that eventually culminated in secession began in 1983 and continued to 2005 with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. South Sudanese are a bewilderingly array of ethnicities drawn from throughout North, Central, East and even West Africa reflecting the country’s location along the White Nile of which it encompasses the greatest portion. Throughout the conflict, the question of what these varied groups were fighting for became as contested as the war with Khartoum itself.

When the Second Sudanese Civil War broke out in 1983, the SPLA/M was led by a charismatic Colonel in the Sudanese army named John Garang. Orphaned at a young age, a teenage Garang joined the Anya Nya rebellion against the government during the First Sudanese Civil War (1955-1972). But southern leaders, recognizing his intelligence, encouraged him to further his education. He went on to earn his BA at Grinnell College, an elite liberal arts institution in a small, almost all white town in Iowa. Upon finishing his degree, he was offered admission to Berkeley, but turned it down in favor of a research fellowship at the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM).

At the time, UDSM was a hotbed for both radical Third Worldism as well as its regional corollary, the anti-Portuguese and anti-Apartheid struggles in Southern Africa. Walter Rodney loomed largest on campus having published his historic How Europe Underdeveloped Africa while teaching there between 1966 and 1974. Like many young people at the time, Garang joined the University Student’s African Revolutionary Front (USARF) while in Tanzania. Among USARF’s founders and its most revered member is Yoweri Museveni, who departed shortly before Garang’s arrival to start the National Resistance Army/Movement that continues to dominate Uganda today. Museveni eventually became a crucial frenemy for Garang and the Sudanese rebels.

A core belief of many of the young revolutionaries that moved through UDSM at the time was that violence was justified in a war for national liberation. Nationalism, especially in its anti-colonial formulation, has always had a tangled relationship to violence. The faith in violence espoused by African radicalism congealed itself around the emancipatory promise of the modern nation to break with traditional bonds. As Amilcar Cabral, building on Frantz Fanon, put it, there “cannot be national liberation without the use of liberating violence by the nationalist forces, to answer the criminal violence of the agents of imperialism.” But Cabral insisted that those who would deploy violence for progressive purposes must recognize it as an exceptional recourse and not allow it to become a defining characteristic.  “We are armed militants,” he famously clarified, “not militarists.”

Garang’s exposure to radical Pan-Africanism at UDSM, his experiences in the Sudanese national army and his time in the United States gave him a cosmopolitan worldview premised on a form of inclusive nationalism. Until his death in 2005, he worked to promote a sense of national unity predicated on an embrace of difference for Sudan. Despite overseeing the militarization of the region in pursuit of independence, Garang hoped that forging a strong national identity would serve as a bulwark against internal divisions once independence was achieved. His biggest fear was a replication of the ethnic fighting that almost doomed the movement during the 1990s when Machar, at the time Garang’s biggest rival, first broke from the group.

When Garang died, some of his closest followers attempted to inject his pluralist vision into the DNA of the new nation. But lacking the military resources of their competitors, especially now President Kiir, they were pushed aside. Garang’s message of inclusion never found a viable champion to take his place, though Peter Ajak has sought to resurrect it for a new generation through his work with the Red Army Foundation. Kiir who lacks Garang’s pluralist outlook has staked his claim to power on his support among the country’s largest ethnic group, the Dinka. Most of the key players similarly owe their power to narrow, usually ethnic constituencies. Machar emerged as the main challenger to Kiir drawing support from his Nuer constituents and other minority communities who resent what is perceived as “Dinka Domination” of the state.


On the last day of my first trip to Juba, I head to the airport only to be told that my Ethiopian Airlines flight has been cancelled. I decide to take a car instead. I’m headed to Gulu in Northern Uganda, a region once defined by its seemingly endless war. I haven’t visited since 2005 and want to see how things have changed since the Lord’s Resistance Army fled the region a few years ago. As I wait to depart, a motorcyclist swerves across traffic, snatches my phone and speeds off. I’m stunned, not by the loss of the phone, but by his dexterity and daring. 

The road between Juba and the Ugandan border has been paved. But tensions are high. When Machar fled the city with his army in late 2016, he came this way first before heading west into the Democratic Republic of Congo. Soldiers man an endless series of checkpoints. My fellow travelers are nervous. The vehicle was arranged for me by a member of a local defense force, lightly organized groups of young men who are preparing to do battle with what they perceive as the Dinka-dominated government. I’ll call him Joseph. He tells me his story as we speed towards the border.

In Juba, Joseph briefly lived a life of relative privilege as the son of a government doctor. But that changed after independence. As the Dinka and Nuer who controlled the government and army laid claim to much of the city, Equatorians like his family were pushed aside. When the Dinka and Nuer began to fight in 2013 over control of the government, his family kept a low profile and attempted to remain neutral. When the Dinka and Nuer fought again in 2016, this time ending with a Dinka victory and the violent expulsion of Nuer soldiers and civilians from Juba, there was no one left but the Equatorians to confront the increasingly autocratic government.

Like many Equatorians, Joseph had stories of government violence to share. He claims his mother, father and brother were all killed by Dinka soldiers. He spoke about moving his wife and five children across the border to Gulu. Now, he explains, he lives in a house with a group of young men preparing for war. They are stockpiling weapons, he says, and awaiting the return of Machar in March for a final onslaught. “We will rid the Dinka from Juba,” Joseph assures me.

An 18-wheeler lies on its side with its wheels spinning and skid marks still smoking. In front is a white minivan with the side door open revealing a woman staring at her phone. We slow down a bit, but do not stop. The woman says her companion has gone to see if the truck driver is still alive. I suggest we pull over but the others in the vehicle shake their heads vigorously. They explain that news will spread quickly about the truck and either bandits or soldiers will arrive. They have no intention of sticking around to see who it is.

Crossing the border into Uganda is like entering a new world. The road, built by the Chinese, is impeccable and the sky, free from the fires that send streaks of black smoke into the South Sudanese air, is incredibly blue. We arrive in the town of Pabo. Ten years ago, during the war in northern Uganda, I passed through aboard a bus in a convoy of civilian and military vehicles. Camps filled with villagers fleeing both state and insurgent violence lined the route revealing conditions that I can only remember as depraved. Now it is almost too ideal. Villagers stream along the road to a market at the edge of town. Music is playing and laughter rings out piercing the evening sky. It takes us all a moment to process the abrupt transition.

Joseph seems circumspect. He lived in Uganda for long stretches including in one of the camps that held displaced Northern Ugandans during the war. The country is like a second home, though he lacks the papers required to apply for a decent job. He decided to accompany me all the way to Gulu to visit his wife and children. After we pull into my hotel, we sit and have a drink—Castle Light for me and a Sprite for him. I’m on edge, rattled by my experiences and the transition to this peaceful scene. Joseph is anxious to see his family but lingers for a while so we can talk. He promises to keep in touch and that by the time I return, Juba will belong to the Equatorians once again. He says that it doesn’t matter whether he lives or dies since his family is safe in Uganda. Nothing will prevent him from expelling the Dinka from Juba, he swears. As the weight of what he’s saying sinks in, I search for an appropriate response. “Be better than them,” I lamely offer. It feels a bit mawkish but I deliver it with my most professor-like intonation aspiring to gravity. He considers my thought and for the first time since we met, laughs.


Six months later in August 2017, I find myself back at the immigration counter being shaken down for failing to get a stamp during my previous trip. I try to finagle my way out of a bribe by demanding a receipt. But what I thought was a power move is met with steely reserve. In the end, I’m forced to beg the immigration officer to accept my offering. Receipt-less, I gather my bags and head back into Juba. 

The city is calmer now. Things are returning to normal if normal can be characterized as a city buckling but not quite breaking under the combined strain of poverty, climate change and a slow-moving famine unfolding to the north. Refugees stream through Juba on their way south into Uganda where they overwhelm underserved refugee camps.

In the bars and restaurants, new plans are being made and new moves orchestrated. Almost every political and economic elite in Juba owes their position to the former rebel army. Business men openly boast of their ties to the state and even civil society leaders can recount their intimate and often contentious ties to the party. Many come from the Dinka community who continue to dominate the SPLA/M and whose increasing footprint on the city is viewed with overt contempt by the city’s original Equatorian inhabitants.

But inside the SPLA/M, youth are making their mark felt. The Red Army Foundation, founded by former child recruits, is seeking to transform the society, and with it, the party, from within. They openly long for a return to the pluralistic nationalism offered by the SPLA/M founder, John Garang, but are savvier about the ethnic challenges such a project would entail.

At the Afex River Camp overlooking the Nile, I have a drink with Peter Ajak. Peter is a cosmopolitan and brilliant millennial at the forefront of the party’s budding youth movement. 

The Red Army is the name once given to the child soldiers who were recruited into the SPLA in the early 1980s before the rebels largely abandoned the practice under international condemnation. It was resurrected after independence as a vehicle to promote the interests of the younger generation. Many of its leaders, like Peter, are exiles only recently returned to the country after long stints abroad. For members of the Red Army Foundation, the group represents the best opportunity to transform an aging and sclerotic party from within. 

Peter, a former “Lost Boy,” who moves with ease between the rarified halls of Cambridge and dusty remote villages where he recruits new followers into the Red Army, is recounting his latest efforts to challenge the dominance of the party’s elderly elites. His stories are audacious and I struggle to grasp the influence of the incipient youth faction within the crucible of South Sudanese politics. But his bluster is contagious. He is working, he tells me, to build a unified youth movement that would draw together the Red Army, non-violent activists and young men from rural areas who he recruits by organizing wrestling matches, a popular sport in the country. His vision for a youth revolution within the SPLA seems to offer one path for transformation for a movement that has had the same leaders in power for over three decades.

However, what South Sudan needs most is a demilitarization of the political and social space. While the Red Army is calling for a greater voice for youth in the country’s politics, it does not question the SPLA/M’s domination of the country. By challenging the leadership without questioning the position of the ruling party itself, the Red Army risks turning itself into yet one more faction vying for control. As Augustino Mayai, another lost boy and now a political analyst at the Sudd Institute explained to me, “The war isn’t about ideology. It is about who controls the SPLM, and thus, who controls the country.”


Despite their omnipresence in Juba, non-governmental organizations appear equally stymied. Violence, or the potential for it, inhibits their autonomy from state politics, the key criterion for civil society’s political relevance in liberal democracies. Instead, like elsewhere in Africa, civil society organizations are oriented upwards and outwards towards national and global elites rather than towards building the political capacity of local communities. Reliance on foreign funding and the relatively elite backgrounds of activists leads to a large disconnect between the work of civil society and the broader community. Reaching out to the youth, especially young men, is a challenge. They are omnipresent, hanging out on every street, clustered in every patch of shade. Yet conversations with civil society leaders reveal that there is little faith in their progressive potential. As one leader dismissively put it, street youth are “too illiterate, tribally minded, and lack a political vision.” 

A new youth movement, Ana Taban, is slowly gaining steam and its efforts to galvanize the country’s overwhelmingly youthful population is beginning to show promise. Founded by musicians and artists, many who returned to South Sudan from neighboring countries during the heady days of independence, the movement seeks to raise consciousness about the country’s economic woes through workshops, performances and rallies. But they face tremendous obstacles attempting to conduct political work without appearing too political. Dissent is not welcome in South Sudan and operating outside of the long shadow of the SPLA/M is a considerable risk. 

Manasseh Mathiang is a singer who grew up in Nairobi and like many of the regional diaspora, returned to South Sudan with hopes of building the new nation. “I grew up in Kenya but I never felt at home there,” he tells me, “I always knew I would go back home.” His initial optimism has been replaced with a steely reserve and it is hard not to sympathize with his vision of grassroots change led by the country’s creative and resilient youth.

“This conflict that is happening, it is the youth who are fighting,” he pauses before continuing, “the youth who are dying.” Most of the fighters on all sides are young men drawn from rural areas where environmental change combines with and fuels the devastation of war. They are young people with few options. The protracted violence has irreversibly transformed any sort of traditional way of life, and the country offers little in the way of viable employment opportunities.

He reflects on the challenge of changing youth consciousness in a place where entire generations have only known violence:

They grow up learning that as a man you defend your community. To engage these youth in unlearning violence is a process. They don’t feel they have much to lose. Developing a vision for the country is a challenge here.

Ana Taban is attempting to walk a tightrope. For bureaucratic reasons, the group chose to register as an NGO and faces restrictions on the types of activities it can engage in as such. For now, that means limiting their involvement to the cultural sphere and assiduously avoiding the perception that they are seeking to challenge the ruling party in any way.


Violence in service of national liberation has long been understood as palatable, even necessary, among a range of ideological positions. Western liberals, Third World radicals and even right-wing fascists all share a belief in the acceptability of violence to defend the nation. But there is a paradox that confounds how we think about the merits of violence in service of a justified political objective: Violence by the oppressed in pursuit of liberation may be necessary for strategic and emotional reasons, yet this same violence will produce pathologies that undermine the ability of the oppressed to overcome their oppression.

This raises two questions regarding the use of violence by contemporary political movements in South Sudan and beyond. First, does embracing violence, even if in self-defense, undermine the liberatory potential of political movements? Second, can the legacies of political violence be contained once unleashed? In South Sudan, the answer to the first question seems clear. And the second is the story yet to be told.

Joseph, the member of the local defense force, Peter of the Red Army and Manasseh of Ana Taban all represent different perspectives on violence and its relationship to youth activism. Most youth I spoke with are trying to navigate, and upend, the byzantine political tensions that define the new nation. While Joseph’s dream to overthrow the SPLA/M through force may be over with the peace agreement with Machar, Peter and Manasseh represent two different yet intertwined paths.

While the Red Army is currently embraced by the SPLA leadership, any attempts it makes to take over the leadership from within is likely to be met with repression, as Peter’s arrest makes clear. It is a generational reckoning some Red Army members, including Peter, have openly called for.

Ana Taban is the only force that eschews violence, and as such, its path forward is even more constrained. Few outside the country have heard of the movement. It has also yet to prove its own merits in comparison to more confrontational activist groups in Africa like the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Lucha or Senegal’s Y’en a Marre. This has forced it to rely on foreign donors and even build alliances with the Red Army, moves that further undercut its autonomy.

While it is productive that the different faces of South Sudan’s nascent youth movement are talking, there are fundamental disagreements that threaten to undermine their common ground. Should youth activists be focused on the transference of political power to younger faces within the party, as the Red Army would have it? Or, recognizing the limits of militarized nationalism, must the party itself be dismantled in order for a new democratic dispensation to take hold? The answer to these questions will determine whether South Sudan, born amidst so much tragedy, can transcend the paradox of political violence and become the type of nation its youth so desperately deserve.

Further Reading