JUBA, SUDAN — “If someone from southern Sudan trusts you, they will tell you enough to write a book.” So says Sr. Cecilia Sierra Salcido, a Mexican nun and media entrepreneur who runs Radio Bakhita in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, set to be the world’s newest independent state after a January 9 referendum.
Preliminary results suggest the vote will be overwhelmingly in favor of independence, a vote that came after two million people died and over 4 million fled their homes during a long 1983-2005 war. For the most part the conflict entailed the Sudanese Army fighting southern resistance groups, before a U.S.-backed peace deal that included a secession vote provision.
During the war, local militias piled in, either fighting autonomously or backed by the main northern or southern protagonists, and there were various intra-southern clashes mixed in. Vast areas were laid to waste, and though some iconic stories made it out, such the tale of The Lost Boys, a lot of what happened during the long war, or wars, remains unheard by the wider world.
“We broadcast a special history series, as so much here has not been written or recorded, and so many people have stories to tell,” Sr. Cecilia said.
Radio Bakhita – named after Sudan’s first Catholic saint and backed by the Archdiocese of Juba – was established on Christmas Eve 2006. It has a transmission range covering most of Greater Equatoria, or the three southern-most states in southern Sudan.
At Radio Bakhita, the broadcast content is varied, covering local, national and international politics, along with practical topics such as hygiene, sanitation and healthcare advice. “Problems and issues that matter to you whether you are Christian, Muslim or animist”, as Sr. Cecilia put it, referring to the three main faiths in Sudan.
Old Media Only
The ballot format itself is an indicator of the challenge facing media outlets in the region, and why it is likely that, as Sr Cecilia puts it, “radio has a major advantage over newspapers and other media.”
Stations such as Bakhita and Radio Miraya – which is supported by the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) – play a key role in informing the public. An estimated 9 our of 10 people in southern Sudan are unable to read or write, so voting in the January 9 plebiscite was done by thumbprint. Voters placed their print near a clasped pair of hands to remain part of Africa’s largest country, or beside a single hand to back independence.
The format is a common substitute for a signature in the country – with mothers using their thumbs to sign for malnutrition screening for their children, at a clinic close to the north-south border.
Community health worker Isaac Perez told me that education or healthcare in this region is “not much better than before the war ended,” something perhaps shown in microcosm by the almost forty mothers lining up to have their children assessed on a Saturday morning at the clinic, which is run by GOAL, an Irish NGO working in southern Sudan since 1985.
The long wars in southern Sudan eviscerated the education system, while electricity is only available in some of the larger towns and then often only via generators that can only be afforded by the wealthy, United Nations agencies, or NGOs. Rural areas and smaller villages are almost all comprised of straw-roofed mud huts, where there are often no schools or electricity. Clean water can often only be found at a communal borehole or well.
Even though mobile phone usage is growing, widespread illiteracy limits the range of options available to both consumer and provider. Cellphone companies are trying out ways around this, and one, Vivacell, is rolling out a new service allowing the consumer to “speak” a text message into the handset, which will then deliver the remark in text format, with the obvious caveat that this will only work if the recipient is able to read.
The relatively peaceful and orderly referendum had an estimated 80 percent turnout – testimony to the interest in the vote and to the information campaigns carried out by the regional authorities, UNMIS, NGOs – and media outlet, particularly local radio stations.
English and Arabic are the official languages, but these are not understood by a majority of the almost 10 million southern Sudanese. Radio stations often broadcast in a variety of local languages as well as in English and Arabic, which is another huge advantage over print media and over still-rare social networking or online media.
Different in the North
Media in the Arab-ruled northern part of Sudan is tightly-controlled – but in Khartoum and other big urban areas, education and literacy levels are vastly higher than in the south.
The incendiary example set by the recent, social network-organised protests in Tunisia led to a brief attempt to organize something similar in Khartoum as the southern referendum wound down. The outcome was the arrest of long-time opposition figurehead Hassan al-Turabi, formerly the Islamist ideologue behind the Khartoum government, but long estranged from current president Omar al-Bashir.
Opposition parties in Khartoum may use the secession of the south to push for a more open system of government in the north, and to pressure the current ruler on the grounds that the 2005 deal in the end resulted in the loss of one-third of the country’s land and 80 percent of Sudan’s oil.
By comparison, the southern part has featured a relatively-free media since the 2005 peace deal. “When I first came here, I immediately noticed the difference in freedom of expression compared with Khartoum,” Sr. Cecilia said.
However, there are concerns about corruption and tribal favoritism in the structures of the southern administration. Dr Kim Adiebo is Executive Director of Juba University. He said “some ministries and departments are dominated by Dinka and Nuer,” referring to the two largest ethnic groups in South Sudan.
This “will have to change” post-independence, he said.
An official at the UN Mission, who asked his name not be used, said an independent southern Sudan would be held to a higher standard of accountability – it will no longer able to hide behind the history of northern oppression. Freedom of expression will likely be one of the benchmarks by which the new state will be measured, which should be good news for media there.
You would think so. But, already officials in the would-be state of South Sudan have told Radio Bakhita that it is “overstepping the mark.”
Stick to religious coverage, don’t delve into politics or testy social or economic issues, was the message.
They told me that we “should be just singing Ave Maria,” Sr. Cecilia said.Show