[lg policy] For South Sudan, It’s Not So Easy to Declare Independence From Arabic

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Thu Nov 15 15:41:02 EST 2018


Boys in their senior year at the Protection of Civilians Camp 3 study after
class in Juba, South Sudan, on March 23. (Alex Potter for Foreign Policy)
Dispatch <https://foreignpolicy.com/category/dispatch/> For South Sudan,
It’s Not So Easy to Declare Independence From Arabic When the world’s
newest country broke away from Khartoum, it discarded Sudan’s main official
language, too. But casting aside the oppressor’s tongue did not heal the
country’s divisions.
By Laura Kasinof <https://foreignpolicy.com/author/laura-kasinof/> November
14, 2018, 8:49 AM

JUBA, South Sudan—When South Sudan declared independence in 2011, breaking
away from Republic of Sudan to become the world’s newest country, all
facets of state-building had to be finalized: ratifying a new constitution,
printing money, and distributing passports.

There was also the issue of language. South Sudan is a diverse country,
with some 60 languages spoken by dozens of ethnic groups in a population of
around 13 million. The majority
<https://www.unicef.org/esaro/UNICEF(2016)LanguageandLearning-SouthSudan.pdf>
of South Sudanese also speak what is known as Juba Arabic, a dialect far
removed from standardized Arabic and named for the South Sudanese capital.
But Arabic was also the language of the Sudanese government in Khartoum,
which the South Sudanese viewed as their longtime colonizer.
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“People developed hatred toward Arabic partly because it was imposed on us
by the regime in Khartoum before our independence,” explained Rajab
Mohandis, the executive director of a local group called the Organization
for Responsive Governance. As with Afrikaans in South Africa, a language
that has declined in status due to its image as the medium of apartheid
policies and its history of being forced upon black students, Arabic was
seen as the language of the oppressor.

Consequently, in July 2011, South Sudan embedded in its new constitution a
declaration that English, not Arabic, would henceforth be the country’s
official language, while “all indigenous languages of South Sudan are
national languages and shall be respected, developed and promoted.”

English, of course, was also a “colonizer” language, brought by the British
empire, but that colonization was not as recent a memory. And because
English wasn’t the language of the most recent oppressor, it seemed a
positive step to use English for official purposes.

Moreover, South Sudan’s government envisioned a future in which the country
would position itself closer to Anglophone East African nations such as
Kenya and Uganda. Leaders of the liberation struggle, who subsequently
became politicians in the new state, had lived in exile in English-speaking
parts of East Africa. The government thought it could avoid the sort of
conflict that comes with making one indigenous language dominant over all
the rest by designating English as the language of state affairs

The government thought it could avoid the sort of conflict that comes with
making one indigenous language dominant over all the rest by designating
English as the language of state affairs

instead. In theory, the plan seemed viable. But in reality, the government
lacked the capacity to provide proper education so that English could
become more widely spoken, rather than just a lingua franca of the upper
echelons of society and government.

Seven years later, the hope of a new nation—one that was initially cheered
by the United States and Europe—is hanging on by a thread. South Sudan has
been engaged in a brutal civil war that displaced a third of the country’s
population and killed tens of thousands. A September peace deal between
President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar offers a hint of
optimism, but whether peace will hold is another more troublesome issue
altogether. South Sudan’s conflict often breaks down along ethnic lines, as
infighting among elites has polarized South Sudan’s diverse population. And
despite all of the government’s ambitious linguistic plans, English remains
the language of a minority, and indigenous languages have become more
politicized than ever.
<https://foreignpolicymag.files.wordpress.com/2018/11/2_potter_sudan.jpg>

Left: Nuer students in the Protection of Civilians Camp 3 write in their
native language, which is not taught in schools outside the camps, in Juba,
South Sudan, on March 23. Right: Students sit in class at a school where
teachers struggle to teach in English, rather than in Arabic or their local
languages, in Juba on March 21. (Alex Potter for Foreign Policy)

Language is inextricably tied to the modern nation-state. Around the world,
official language policy has been used to create coherent national
identity. It has shored up governments and unified diverse peoples within
borders. Leaders, especially those who rule over multiethnic territories,
have known this and exploited it. Through language, politicians can
brandish their anti-colonial credentials and avoid favoritism toward
particular tribes or ethnic subgroups. Language policies can also serve to
marginalize peripheral minorities within a population or bring them into
the fold of the centralized state.

In the post-colonial world, many countries have pushed back against
designating languages imposed by former colonizers. Yet in multiethnic
nations—with borders drawn by former colonial powers—sometimes the language
of the outsider has turned out to be the best compromise for state
institutions. If a country functions in the language of a particular group
of people, tribe, or ethnic group—even if that group is the majority—it
marginalizes the rest of the population, leading to protests. Linguistic
hegemony, after all, can lead to other forms of cultural imperialism as
well.

India is a prime example. When the country adopted its first constitution
after independence from Britain in 1950, Hindi became India’s official
language, while English was permitted for official purposes, with the goal
of phasing it out over the course of the next 15 years. But Dravidian
language-speaking regions in the south pushed back. There were deadly
protests in Tamil Nadu (then Madras State) over the issue, and the
constitution was amended so that both Hindi and English would continue as
the country’s official languages. The issue remains heated today,
especially under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whom critics accuse of
trying to make Hindi more dominant in politics, going so far as to put in a
bid for Hindi to become an official language of the United Nations.

In other countries, language planning took root, proliferated, and
accomplished its goal largely as a result of more aggressive education
policies and timing. Periods of intense nationalist fervor seem to make
people more willing to learn new languages for the sake of the homeland,
especially if a new language does not come with the threat of one group’s
hegemony over others.

Following its independence in 1945, Indonesia, another multiethnic country
where some 700 languages are spoken, was faced with the problem of
designating an official language. Javanese was spoken by nearly half of its
citizens and the elites of the country, but, as in India, the same
conundrum existed as to whether Javanese should be promoted over all other
languages. Ultimately, the government decided to make what is known as
Bahasa Indonesia the state’s official language, even though it was spoken
as a mother tongue by only a small portion of the population at the time.
Bahasa Indonesia is derived from Malay and was a trade language that for
centuries was the lingua franca of much of coastal Southeast Asia. Its
successful propagation came as a result of an aggressive education campaign
by the government and advantageous timing, because the initial adoption of
the language was during a period when post-colonial nationalism was running
high.

In Tanzania, the country’s first post-independence president, Julius
Nyerere, pushed his countrymen to learn and speak Swahili while downplaying
tribal affiliations, a move that is credited with unifying the nation

In Tanzania, the country’s first post-independence president, Julius
Nyerere, pushed his countrymen to learn and speak Swahili while downplaying
tribal affiliations, a move that is credited with unifying the nation

and helping pacify the sorts of tribal tensions that continue to exist in
neighboring East African nations. Like Bahasa Indonesia, Swahili was a
trade language used in the region prior to European colonialism, though it
was certainly not spoken by everyone, especially inland tribes, at the time
of independence. Also, as in Indonesia, Nyerere’s government invested in
linguistic education. Today, Tanzanians’ mastery of the so-called purest
form of Swahili, which comes from the island of Zanzibar, is endowed with a
sense of national pride.

Turkey also manufactured major changes to its language at a time of
sweeping nationalism under the republic’s first president, Mustafa Kemal
Ataturk. Ataturk shifted modern Turkish from Arabic to Latin script in its
written form and purged the language of many words that were of Persian or
Arabic origin and replaced them with Turkish equivalents. The move was part
of his larger reform agenda of pivoting Turkey toward Europe and
constructing a modern secular nation-state following the founding of the
republic in 1923.

A more repressive version of language imposition is the history of much of
Western Europe and the Americas. Native Americans were forced to enroll in
English-language schools in the United States, and post-revolutionary
France sought to stamp out minority languages like Breton and Occitan
through standardized schooling in French. In more recent times, Chinese
authorities have slowly eroded minority languages within their borders such
as Tibetan and Uighur—and they have tried to do so with Cantonese—by
promoting Mandarin through education and the media, ostensibly for the sake
of national unity, though also as part of an effort to curtail the
political power of ethnic groups that are viewed as a threat to the state.
<https://foreignpolicymag.files.wordpress.com/2018/11/akp_3-21-2018_southsudan_languageportrait36.jpg>

Girls write on the blackboard during English class in their high school in
Juba, South Sudan, on March 21. The school’s mandate is to primarily teach
in English, but teachers admit to struggling to stick to the curriculum
without any Arabic. (Alex Potter for Foreign Policy)

South Sudan’s efforts never made it as far as those of Indonesia, Tanzania,
or Turkey. Public schools today in South Sudan use a variety of
curriculums. The closer a school is to the border of Sudan, the more likely
it is to still rely on the Sudanese curriculum. University of Juba
professors have found that students who had gone to Arabic-speaking schools
that switched to English following independence, particularly those just
entering high school at the time, are now struggling to keep up

University of Juba professors have found that students who had gone to
Arabic-speaking schools that switched to English following independence,
particularly those just entering high school at the time, are now
struggling to keep up

at university because they essentially lost their high school education due
to poor English comprehension and instruction.

“The current generation has a problem. When we were a country before, it
was all in Arabic, and they thought that they would study in Arabic,” said
Venansio Muludiang, a professor of statistics and demographics at the
University of Juba.

Bakhita Ireneo is an education student on the same campus and, after
graduation, she will be expected to teach in English. She had attended
school her whole life in Arabic in the Bahr el Ghazal region, so her
English is quite weak. “It’s difficult for me when I am taking the exams.
It’s really hard for me to understand the questions,” she said.

When hostilities broke out in Juba in December 2013, marking the start of
South Sudan’s civil war, government soldiers reportedly spoke to civilians
in the Dinka language to distinguish those who belonged to the
pro-government Dinka ethnic group from those who belong to the Nuer, that
of opposition leader Riek Machar, whom the army targeted during the
fighting. (Dinka and Nuer people tend to share a similar physical
appearance, but Nuer living in the capital often cannot speak Dinka.)

Approximately 40,000 people
<https://reliefweb.int/report/south-sudan/unmiss-poc-update-22-may-2018>
who fled violence in Juba, most of whom are Nuer, now live in ramshackle
camps for internally displaced persons inside a U.N. compound on the
outskirts of the capital. Nuer students who study at the University of Juba
while living in the camps make sure to conceal their ethnic affiliation
when commuting to classes and even on campus grounds.
<https://foreignpolicymag.files.wordpress.com/2018/11/akp_3-21-2018_southsudan_languageportrait24.jpg>

Bakhita Ireneo, an education student at Juba University, struggles with the
English curriculum after studying in Arabic her whole life. (Alex Potter
for Foreign Policy)

“We speak Nuer, but not in front of people. We have to hide our
identities,” a law student told me when we spoke inside a tent that served
as a tea shop for the displaced. He asked to remain anonymous due to
political sensitivities.

On the other side of the camp, inside a school for displaced children, a
teacher taught Nuer language to an overfilled classroom. Children of
various ages dutifully wrote Nuer sentences in an adapted Latin script into
their notebooks. The head of Nuer language education at the school, Lam
Deng, insisted that teaching Nuer wasn’t a political act. “This has nothing
to do with the conflict,” he said, but that surely is not how it is seen
from the outside.

Periods of political tension tend to cement an us-versus-them mentality,
and South Sudan is no exception. In such fraught times, language and the
way one speaks it becomes a loaded act, signifying a specific identity.

In such fraught times, language and the way one speaks it becomes a loaded
act, signifying a specific identity.

In recent years, the emphasis on Nuer language among Nuer people has
coincided with the prevalence of Dinka on Juba’s streets as the civil war
has ground on. Both groups are retreating into linguistic cocoons, with
little to unite them under the umbrella of a common national identity.

There was a brief moment in South Sudan’s short history when an inclusive
nationalism devoid of ethnic divisions was running high, as in
post-independence Indonesia, Ataturk’s Turkey, and Tanzania—but the country
struggled, and ultimately failed, to create a coherent identity before that
window began to close. The failure to turn English into a unifying force
did not destroy the country, but it is one among many failures. The new
deal between Kiir and Machar could renew a sense of common national
identity in the coming months, or old divisions could spark a return to
civil war.

Meanwhile, South Sudan’s foreign policy has since switched course, a
symptom of having isolated itself from regional allies. Rather than
courting Anglophone leaders in East Africa as it once hoped, South Sudan’s
government has made a U-turn and, according to reports
<https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/03/south-sudan-requests-join-arab-league-180312141145631.html>,
requested to join the Arab League, a group of 22 mostly Arabic-speaking
nations, including its old nemesis: Sudan.

The country, once hailed by world leaders such as U.S. President Barack
Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron, has fallen into an identity
crisis, flip-flopping on the foundational question of where and to whom it
belongs. In the end, its failure as a modern-day state-building project has
shown that while selecting and adopting the right official language may not
be able to make or break a new nation, it can certainly hasten its success
or collapse.

*Laura Kasinof* is a journalist and author of *Don’t Be Afraid of the
Bullets: An Accidental War Correspondent in Yemen
<http://arcadepub.com/arcadepub?catid=0&id=1204>*. She was the *New York
Times* correspondent in Yemen during the Arab Spring. Reporting for this
story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation, as part
of its African Great Lakes Reporting Initiative. @kasinof
<http://www.twitter.com/kasinof>

-- 
=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+

 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com
http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/~haroldfs/

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