On the Choice of an Official Language in South Sudan[1]

The choice of an official language has a significant role in garnering a national identity, and I cannot overstate its centrality in the processes of nation and state building. In the case of South Sudan, the lingua franca is “Arabi Juba” in the Equatoria states, and many vernaculars of Arabic in the states bordering Sudan. The Interim Constitution of Southern Sudan, 2005, designated Arabic and English, the official working languages of Southern Sudan. It also designated all indigenous languages as national languages. It is significant to note here that the foreign languages are not dubbed the “national” language(s), rather the “official.” Moreover, due to the historical struggle against Arabization, some decisionmakers in South Sudan deemed Arabic the language of the oppressor, leading to its removal from being the second official language in the Transitional Constitution, 2011.

As a result of decades of war, the South Sudanese people speak different languages based on their former areas of displacement and refuge. The many people who found themselves in East Africa now widely speak English and Swahili, in addition to indigenous languages. While others, who found themselves in North Sudan and further into the Arab world, now speak Arabic, and some have also retained their mother tongues. For the South Sudanese who remained at home their geographical location and proximity to markets, determined which languages they now speak. Some speak some Arabic and or multiple indigenous languages. Moreover, many of the Diaspora who emigrated to western countries returned and added their flavors to the linguistic soup that is South Sudan.

The State inherited a populace with a variety of experiences and tongues. It would have been prudent, in my opinion, to maintain both English and Arabic as the official working languages since a sizable number of South Sudanese were educated in Arabic or speak a vernacular of Arabic. Alternatively, the State should consider instituting a wide-reaching adult literacy program that focuses on teaching English to the masses. The youth, with access to education, are currently being taught English in schools, and most schools have policies that prohibit pupils from speaking any other language within their premises. The primary challenge is that a considerable subset of the middle-aged group, are the most affected, for not many in this age-group are bilingual (Arabic and English); translating into a substantial loss of productivity while working in English.

The fact of the matter is that Arabic is still a working language in South Sudan, although stripped of its official designation. You hear it across the nation – in the streets, markets, classrooms, and on television and the radios. Government officials are also using it in internal as well as in external interactions with the public. This reality would only change with the advent of a new generation that is currently receiving educational instruction in English. The designation of English as the official language in South Sudan, in my view, wasn’t an elitist construction, for many of the so-called elites in South Sudan do not have a command of it. Liberators are often inclined to fight to remove the vestiges of oppression, in our case these are perceived to be Arabic, Arab culture and Islam to varying extents. In South Sudan, the linguistic makeup of the State is a historical construction; the removal of Arabic, however, is an emotionally charged decision.

English became the only choice for an official language, a default. Of course, it’s also the language of a colonizer, but one that has no severe imprints on the psyche of South Sudanese. This is consolidated by the fact that no indigenous language readily offered herself as an alternative. As  history suggests, there needs to be a heightened sense of patriotism and or other national sentiments for the State to rally its people to recognize one indigenous language as the national official language. I am optimistic that such is a possibility for South Sudan, given the fact that most, if not all, its indigenous languages relate within four or five major language groupings.

Although the recent conflict in South Sudan had grave expressions of hatred and violence along ethnic lines, we must remain hopeful that our people have and will transcend and recognize their shared destiny. I visited Duk Padiet earlier in the year and was amazed at how its diverse community (local, displaced and seasonal) spoke Dinka and Nuer interchangeably. I am further encouraged when I listen to messages from some of our folk singers in both languages, preaching reconciliation, peace, and co-existence. The wounds are deep, and there are no shortcuts. We must engage and speak to one another, and what better way to reconcile with your brother or sister, than when you talk in a language you both comprehend, or better yet, in his or her tongue.

They say that the language of your enemy is your weapon. However, we must equally recognize that language is a powerful tool for reconciliation, and as a tool, it isn’t inherently evil. I say this, very mindful of constructs of oppression and dominance built into the languages used for oppression. A prime example is the connotations of black vs. white and the inherent dichotomy of good vs. evil, among others, characteristic of racial, gender and other forms of oppression in English, Arabic and other languages. Such issues do not usually exist in our indigenous languages, and hence they are powerful tools for reconciliation. I am not discounting here the fact that discrimination is an inherent human trait. We make distinctions between self and the other, and hence all languages are rife with attribution of positive and or negative characteristics to these two categories of identification.

The views from outside about South Sudan often polarizes its people, emboldens hardliners, and widens the divides. As far as I know, there isn’t a sanctioned process of politicization of indigenous languages in South Sudan, nor is there a move towards linguistic hegemony, as some would suggest. Teaching the Nuer language to students displaced in the Protection of Civilians (POC) Camps for over four years is the right, privilege and some may even say the responsibility of the community. However, to imply that it is the case because the language is barred from being taught outside the camps, in Juba, while others are, is entirely irresponsible. It is highly plausible that the drive to teach the Nuer language in the POC camp is a function of the community’s sense that they are facing an existential threat. It is a fact that only Bari, the local language of Juba, is being taught in local and community schools in and around Juba. As we speak, indigenous languages are taught to pupils in localities across South Sudan from primary 1 to primary 3, though with inadequate support. However, non-bari indigenous community schools, churches, and other associations can and do organize to teach other indigenous languages, where they wish, including in the POC camps, and other camps for the displaced around Juba. Furthermore, the Ministry of Education is mandated and committed to providing curriculum in local languages to facilitate the development of promotion of all national languages. It has recently announced the successful translation of the curriculum into five indigenous languages, as a first step.

Nation-building and state-building processes often span generations, they are no easy feats to be completed in a decade, or so. The same goes for the development or entrenchment of a national language. Therefore, I vehemently reject the premature and unfounded determination that South Sudan is a “failure as a modern-day state-building project,” for oscillating between English and Arabic and experiencing a conflict with heightened ethnic tensions. Admittedly, in South Sudan, we need to do more – draw up new plans, institute more proactive measures towards the lofty project that is the State and the Nation. We have had multiple setbacks, we have lost time due to conflict, but there is always a way, where there is a will. It is also essential to state here that South Sudan belongs to the South Sudanese of yesterday, today and tomorrow. Though we stumble now, as a people, we will overcome, and our diversity will be our strength. That is to where, and to whom South Sudan belongs, no flip-flopping on this matter. On the implicit issue and question of political alignment and interactions regionally and internationally, we hope for prudence and wisdom of leadership to ally and align per the enlightened self-interest of the State, and for the development and prosperity of all its people.

© Apuk Ayuel Mayen 2018. All rights reserved.


[1]This article was prompted by Laura Kasinof’s 14 November 2018 Article in Foreign Policy, entitled: “For South Sudan, It’s Not So Easy to Declare Independence From Arabic.”

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