Washington, Asharq Al-Awsat- , With the South Sudanese referendum approaching, last weekend there were coordinated demonstrations in some U.S. cities, carried out by [American-based] Southern Sudanese protestors, in support of the referendum. In one city, Omaha (Nebraska), where there is a large Southern Sudanese community, demonstrators focused on the importance of holding the referendum in a timely manner. However, most demonstrators were declaring their support for secession, reflecting a wide trend evident amongst the Southern Sudanese in the US.
One of the most prominent supporters of secession is author Steve Paterno. He was born in Juba, in 1980, but is originally from Torit, Eastern Equatoria, and belongs to the Latuka tribe. He is the author of “The Rev. Fr. Saturnino Lohure: A Roman Catholic Priest Turned Rebel.” (2007). Paterno is now at Mercyhurst College in the United States.
Q: Many Sudanese from the North, including President Omer Al-Bashir and his top advisors, say that there are few differences between the two parts of the country, when compared to differences between some groups in other countries. What do you think?
A: The differences between South and North Sudan are as clear as the sun in the summer sky. These differences are the source of a bitter relationship, and often the cause of endless conflicts. I wish these differences were not that many, so that we didn’t have to endure decades of war and mistrust. Yet the differences are glaring, and we cannot ignore them, but rather we must face them head-on.
The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that was signed in 2005, attempted to resolve some of these major differences, particularly with regards to religion, power, and wealth. For decades, the North employed both Arabism and Islamism as a means of discrimination against the South. During the negotiation stage of the CPA, the issue of Shariaa law became stumbling block, almost destroying the entire process of the peace talks. The agreement was only saved when a compromise was reached to allow South Sudan to operate as a Shariaa free zone, whilst the North strictly adhered to Islamic rules.
This is a clear testimony to the fact that the South and North are completely different entities, particularly because of the Islamic radicalism in the North.
Q: Why focus on Islam? The religion of Islam itself is not against the Southerners, Christians, pagans or anyone else. Also, there are northerners who do not support Shariaa law, which was established by the al-Bashir government.
A: Even before Al-Bashir, historically Sudan has endured many brutal powers, from Ottoman imperial greed, then British colonial rule, and then Arab-Islamic dictatorship. Throughout all these, the Southern Sudanese are the ones who suffered the most.
Q: The Northerners says that, despite the past, after the CPA the Southerners now govern themselves, and also participate in ruling the North?
A: I think whoever says that should ask a series of questions before making such conclusions. For example: how has the South reached a point of self-governance, whilst sharing power with the Northerners in Khartoum? Why was it necessary for the Southerners to take up arms in order to be equals in their homeland? Do you really believe Southerners have power in the North under the current CPA power sharing arrangement?
I will not feel that the South is out of the North’s control until it has achieved full independence. Fortunately, we have the opportunity to vote to do so.
Q: It seems that the majority of Northerners want the Southerners to remain part of a united Sudan, and work together to correct past mistakes. They also want the division of power and wealth. What would you say to them?
A: Most of the potential wealth of Sudan is located in the South. Unfortunately, only a few are enjoying this wealth, whilst the majority, especially the Southerners, are languishing in abject poverty.
Q: Aren’t there many Northerners who also languish in poverty?
A: True, that there are many Northerners who also languish in poverty. However the context and conditions are always different given the factors that differentiate between the South and North, which I mentioned earlier.
Have the Northerners noted that they, whether intentionally or unintentionally, share the Southern oil wealth with the Southerners, whilst they keep the wealth of the North to themselves?
Q: The Northerners say they want a free and democratic government, in the North and the South, which represents all Sudanese, and a just distribution of wealth. Do you support this?
A: In an ideal situation, which is what they are speaking about here, they are correct. However, realistically, this is not the case. Therefore, the practical solution is for the Southerners to go there separate way, and manage their wealth in the manner they see fit.
Q: Recently, the “The Economist,” the respectable British news magazine, said that a Southern Sudanese state would be “a disaster”, and criticized the Southern leaders.
A: I am not going to deny the lack of quality leadership in the South. Corruption and incompetence are serious problems that need to be addressed. However, these problems should not be an excuse for the regime in Khartoum to continually persecute the Southerners. I believe the Southerners would prefer to be governed by incompetent Southern leaders rather than that. In the long run, the South will develop better leadership, as long as it is independent from the North.
Q: A recent London School of Economics’ report, “Southern Sudan at Odds with Itself,” warned of the threat of internal violence in the South, more than from the North. Do you agree?
A: Violence amongst Southerners is a fact that cannot be disputed. I actually believe that half of the problems in South Sudan are created by Southerners themselves. The other half are due to the North. Thus, by achieving independence, the South will inherit only half of its overall problems. That is actually why the South must go its separate way and sort out its problems rather than it having problems imposed from outside.
Q: Northerners have criticized southern separatists, saying that they have become prisoners of their anger and hatred for Northerners. These Northerners ask why the Southerners don’t turn over a new leaf with them?
A: How do you ‘turn over a new leaf’ when the same history of persecution against the Southerners still continues to this day? The real problem is not that the Southerners are angry with the Northerners. I think it is an oversight to say that anger is the driving force in the South. Also, it is an insult to the Southerners to depict them as angry people when they are simply demanding their basic rights.
Q. You live in America; will the Southerners be like the African Americans? They also fought for freedom and justice (with the help of some Whites). Then, the Whites apologized for past mistakes and asked to open a new page. Now, there is a Black President, Barack Obama.
A: I believe each and every oppressive situation is different in its own way. The case of South Sudan is unique, and cannot be compared to the African Americans. The freedom and justice that the Southerners are fighting for can only be achieved when they are free, in other words, when they attain independence.