Late last month, South Sudan’s Minister for Information Michael Makuei Lueth told Agence France-Presse that the national anthem could only be sung in President Salva Kiir Mayardit’s presence, by official decree: the anthem is “not for everybody.” National radio, MPs, and South Sudan’s busy online community have responded with a combination of mockery and concern. Some have asked whether Kiir feels threatened by the frequent mentions of God in the lyrics; one commenter wondered if the national anthem is as transitional as the constitution.
South Sudan’s national anthem was composed by competition in 2010 (much like Nigeria’s in 1977, and St Kitts and Nevis’s in 1983); the winning version was written by a local university team. The competition included artists and poets who had composed songs during South Sudan’s struggle for liberation in the 1980s and 1990s. The aim of the competition committee was to find a less martial, and more inclusive and hopeful tune than the old Sudan anthem. The new tune barely had time to bed in before the new civil war in 2013. But written in a time of relative optimism, with lyrics focused on peaceful unity and prosperity, it still has potential as a symbol of hope.
Popular derision of the order has prompted clarification from the Ministry. Lily Albino Akol Akol, Deputy Minister for Information, explained this decree aimed to stop ministers, under-secretaries, or state governors having the anthem sung to them at functions; schools and embassies could carry on using it, and people could sing it if they wished to. The Ministry has emphasized that the Presidential decree also orders security and military men in uniform to stop speaking at public rallies, something welcomed by prominent Juba civil society representatives as a step towards curbing the militarization of public life.
There are two obvious interpretations of this combined order. Firstly—and most obviously, as pointed out on Twitter and Facebook—the President is feeling insecure. This insecurity is not just about the possibility of nationalist lyrics being used or re-crafted against him, but also about his immediate rivals using national symbols to build their own legitimacy. Ateny Wek, the Presidential Spokesperson, was quoted in a Juba newspaper last Thursday, July 25th complaining specifically of state governors getting the anthem sung to them “even when the event has nothing to do with the sovereignty of South Sudan.” The President’s Office is quite concerned with the risk of other powerful commanders and politicians building credibility as statesmen, particularly when it is obvious that the President himself has so little of the same.
There is a second interpretation that is more mundane but possibly more insidious. The President’s Office and the Ministry of Information are very good at playing with the South Sudan gossip circuit. Shrewd local observers have noted that this decree is the latest in a long line of dramatic, confusing and hard-to-implement declarations—recently including bans on tinted car windows, skin bleaching creams, particular forms of dress, etc.—from the “Ministry for Controversies.” These news stories soak up attention from a small critical South Sudanese public and (particularly) the international and humanitarian community, providing a convenient few weeks of outrage and “clarifications” that distracts from, for instance, questions around the new land act, or public oil revenue accounts that are quite a bit late.
In some respects, then, South Sudan is bucking the global trend of authoritarian governments. Most states use their anthems to unite, and police, a governable corpus, and many polities sanction those who don’t sing or stand for the anthem (for example, Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, and Colin Kaepernick in the USA). This last week, the Chinese government has played their national anthem over speakers to Hong Kong protesters. Not singing the anthem is more often a concern.