Sudan Faces Difficult Road to Democracy

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The Sudanese People's Liberation Army has won the battle for autonomy over the southern part of the country. Now, the military may face its hardest fight to date: governing civilians in a multi-party democracy.


The crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan led to a pair of arrest warrants today. The International Criminal Court at the Hague wants the arrest of Sudan's former interior minister. A militia leader has also become a wanted man. They are both accused of war crimes for attacking civilians in 2003 and 2004, crimes of murder, rape, torture, and the forced displacement of entire villages in Darfur.

A different part of Sudan is trying for a fresh start. Southern Sudan has autonomy now after a civil war. The one-time rebel leaders of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army are trying to build a democracy, which is the kind of role where former soldiers do not always fit comfortably.

NPR's Gwen Thompkins reports.

GWEN THOMPKINS: Once a soldier has eaten a monkey for the cause in a time of war, it doesn't seem right to deny him a seat at the victory table in the time of peace. Take Luka Biong Deng, for instance. In the 1980s he was a graduate student in Brussels when he joined the Sudanese People's Liberation Army. The rebel army, which is also known as the SPLA, was challenging northern Sudan for control over southern Sudan.

During those early campaigns, the rebels could only get to destinations within southern Sudan by marching through neighboring countries.

Mr. LUKA BIONG DENG (Minister for Presidential Affairs, Southern Sudan): But then we ran out of food, so they sent the money to get for us meat and we'll cook it. So we had this delicious meat and suddenly somebody told us after it was finished, gentlemen, you have eaten, actually, the meat of a monkey because you need to prepare yourself to face these conditions.

THOMPKINS: Years later, Deng's time spent in the harsh and hungry bush paid off. He played a key role in the negotiations that ended the war between north and south. Deng is now the minister of presidential affairs in the government of southern Sudan. That means he's probably the closest adviser to Salva Kiir, who is the president of this semi-autonomous region.

Kiir is himself a veteran of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army, as are the regional vice president, the speaker of parliament and countless other leaders in today's civilian government. But author and newspaper columnist Tobam Laliyu(ph) doesn't have much confidence that former military leaders will make a lasting democracy.

Professor TOBAM LALIYU (Newspaper Columnist): Can the military create a democracy? They can create a pseudo-democracy. So long as the army can have their candidate, who will be dressed in civilian clothes, and is accepted, and they will be the power behind the throne, that's fine.

THOMPKINS: After all, democracy is tough. It takes a mental shift almost as dramatic as basic training for a military officer to lead unruly civilians in a system in which everybody's opinion counts. Salva Kiir became the surprise president of southern Sudan when the region's first president, John Garang, died in a helicopter crash in 2005.

Even Kiir's supporters say that his learning curve has been so steep that it's almost been at a 90-degree angle. Sibrino Barnaba Forogalla is the vice chancellor of Juba University.

Mr. SIBRINO BARNABA FOROGALLA (Vice Chancellor, Juba University): Salva has to deal with a different situation altogether, where people have to sit and debate and you need to talk more to people, convince them that, yes, this is the right way. They come up with their own counter-propositions, you sit and discuss it, and then you arrive at some compromise, which is of course the best thing. You see, it's a very difficult thing that he has taken on now.

THOMPKINS: In east Africa, military leaders have an especially bad record on governing civilians and on leading democracies. In Uganda, for instance, Idi Amin was commander of the army when he seized power in 1971, and later appointed himself president for life.

In Ethiopia, Mengistu Haile Mariam overthrew a monarchy, but then presided over a domestic terror campaign and one of the worst famines in history. He was overthrown in 1991. And in Somalia, Mohamed Siad Barre seized power in a military coup in 1969, and that nation has never recovered.

Lieutenant General JAMES WANI IGGA (Speaker of Parliament, Southern Sudan): In the army they are dictatorship. Everything is orders. In the parliament it is the opposite of the dictatorship. It is democracy. So you must be able to share your ideas with others, you must be able to learn to use words like please.

(Soundbite of laughter)

THOMPKINS: That's Lieutenant General James Wani Igga. He's the speaker of parliament in the government of southern Sudan and his old comrades from the Sudanese People's Liberation Army make up the biggest political party. But there are others, including the National Congress Party, the South Sudan Defense Force and the United Democratic Front. Although recent corruption scandals have eroded some public confidence in the former SPLA rebels, Igga says that civilian politics is a snap. And like any good general, he's cagy about revealing his methods.

Lt. Gen. IGGA: Well, it's not always a good thing to disclose one's tactics, because (unintelligible). This is the way it has been totally (unintelligible). They will begin to block all the holes. So a good general will not want to disclose his tactics. Otherwise, you won't win the next battle. Anyway, I'm using good tactics, so I'm getting their support. I'm able to persuade them and we are cooperating together. That's why I'm happy.

THOMPKINS: Julia Aker Duany's job is to advise members of parliament, the executive and state governments, many of whom are army veterans, on how they must comport themselves in a liberal democracy. She is the undersecretary of the ministry of parliamentary affairs.

Dr. JULIA AKER DUANY (Undersecretary, Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs): So we are doing a workshop on how to train the members of parliament to become the members of parliament. So with all these military commanders appointed as politicians inside the parliament they call themselves comrades instead of saying honorable. And we are teaching them to say, Mr. Comrade, you have to change from comrade to honorable. Honorable is higher.

THOMPKINS: Duany and others in government say that active-duty military personnel, as well as those who are transitioning out of the army, need a major refit. They need mental health counseling to put the past to rest. And they need training to do the kinds of jobs that people who live in peacetime do, and not just jobs in government.

But Luka Biong Deng, who heads the Ministry of Presidential Affairs, cautions that this counseling and training must be done respectfully.

Mr. DENG: These officers, they may not have adequate skills, but they are on a higher moral ground to lead.

THOMPKINS: But Julia Aker Duany doesn't see it that way. She questions whether any person in southern Sudan can claim moral authority over anyone else here.

Dr. DUANY: All the people in southern Sudan have participated in this war in one way or another, even being a housewife. You have been cooking food; that food has been eaten by that man who was a military guy. Do you think that woman has not contributed, you know, in the war? This is how we convince them it is not only being carrying the gun that you have been a liberator. It's a very narrow way of defining the struggle of the people of southern Sudan.

THOMPKINS: Southern Sudan is gearing up for parliamentary elections, which may occur as early as next year. Former rebels will, in some cases for the first time, have to explain their past actions, their future goals, and why it is their honor and privilege to serve at the pleasure of the people.

Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Juba, southern Sudan.

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