By John A. Akec
The world media has written much about slave trade as well as use of child soldier in North -South conflict that ended in 2005. Substantial resources and effort have gone into stamping out those practices.
However, nothing has been mentioned about forced labour despite the fact that it has been utilised throughout the war from 1983 to 2005, and is still going on unimpeded in rural areas under the newly formed government of South Sudan such as forcing of men to work in roads construction and maintenance without being paid. And since over 90% of Southern population live in the countryside, this practice is affecting the lives of a significant proportion of the population of South Sudan.
During the war, it was quite understandable that Sudan People Liberation Army (SPLA) often asked for voluntary services in form of a helping hand from local population in their constant movements from one location to another. Young and fit men were asked to volunteer to move ammunition and any other heavy equipment from one village to another. Those who refused were often forced at gunpoint to carry heavy load. To their credit, once they camp in the next village, the volunteers were released and new volunteers are drafted in.
Hence, any rational person reflecting on this kind of practice could easily realise that the SPLA combatants were themselves volunteers who risked their lives for the cause of all the population. Even so, some local SPLA commanders did not exercise that right with sensitivity and wisdom it deserved but in many occasions some of them treated the members of civil population severely or worst than the northern occupation army. Hence, it was not uncommon that the rural population sometimes felt under heavy load of oppression by their own citizens who claimed were fighting for their freedom. Understandably there is always that bad egg expected in anything involving more than one pair if hands.
Another practice that had flourished unchallenged alongside forced labour is the practice of charging taxes on travellers at military checkpoints manned by the SPLA. No one is sure how the funds collected from taxes was used within SPLA, nor has anything been used to pay for service provision such as education, health, and roads. These taxes are still collected. No service is rendered in return.
But what one must find hard to swallow is that two years into the signing of comprehensive peace agreement (CPA), which led to the birth of the government of South Sudan (GOSS), little has changed in lives of populations in rural areas in the way of provision of basic services. Instead of carrying load of ammunition and artilleries as they did during the war, many are now being forced against their will to carry out unpaid work on road maintenance and building. The unpaid workers are asked to use their own means to support themselves while at the work site and away from home. The working conditions are often poor and with no health services. Many are taken ill and die without any sort of medical attention. And this has and is going on unquestioned.
Most of the population in the countryside are illiterates and do not know their legal rights. And since the colonial era, the roads connecting main towns and countryside have been constructed and maintained through forced labour. In the past, it was the local chiefs who would organise who would attend and who would not. Now, it is the SPLA forces that go about rounding up anyone in their sight. This was the same method used by the Pharaohs to build pyramid thousands of years ago - forced and slave labour.
And with advent of United Nations and the Declaration of Universal Human Rights, all types of forced labour together with slavery have been deemed illegal. All civilised nations have been encouraged to abandon slave and forced labour and to ensure that the principles are enshrined in their constitution.
In fact Article 17 (2) of South Sudan Interim Constitution (2005) states:
“No person shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour except as a penalty upon conviction by a competent court of law.”
And Article 29 (2):
“Formation and registration of political parties, associations and trade unions shall be regulated by law as is necessary in a democratic society”
All this is much in line with widely agreed International Labour Standards that among other things endorse: Freedom of association, right to organise and bargain, freedom from forced labour, minimum age for employment, and provision of fair working conditions at minimum wage, a cap on maximum working hours any employee can do per day that applies to all, and ensuring health and safety at workplace.
Yet and as I write, there are many people in South Sudan countryside who are forced to work for free. This is at the time when 99 percent of their children have no access to primary education, when the government provides zero health services. Still they are randomly taxed whenever they sell a goat, a cow, or chicken. If they travel to large towns and are coming back home carrying whatever they have purchased, they are taxed.
All this is happening under the watchful eyes of Legislative Assemblies in Juba and the 10 Southern states. And while there is much complaint that the implementation of Comprehensive Peace Agreement is facing obstacles from the central government, we still find the GOSS to be unable to live by up to its own constitution.
Poor rainy season last year resulted in poor harvest. Adding to it the inter-clan fights in many places in Southern Sudan, which made it impossible for a significant number of people to cultivate their farms or harvest them. Forced labour is the last straw. They could have done without it. What these people need are paid jobs. That we need to build roads and more of them should have been opportunity to improve the lots of the deprived poor in the countryside, not threat to their freedom. States should have come up with budgets for road building. The GOSS should have approve those budgets. Anyone ready to work and earn should be doing so to earn a living. This could have been be an opportunity for our population in the countryside to get their share of national wealth. Yet this is not the case.
At the moment, we are much richer than we ever have been. Two fiscal years have gone. And yet we hear of hospitals going without medical supplies, acute shortage of beds nurses and doctors, even in the capital of South Sudan, Juba. Schools running without equipment and teachers. Roads going without maintenance in the heart of Juba. Annd as to roads in many Southern States, we still do as Pharaohs did thousands of years ago as just explained.
Forced labour is cruel, is inhuman, and is illegal according to our own constitution and according to all acceptable international labour standards. It is on the same league as slavery. Two years have gone since we have been in charge of our own affairs and yet, such practices have been used as the substitute for provision of basic services and basic jobs. Now many former combatants are paid as regular soldiers. So why should our people continue to work for free in the countryside?
The continuation of forced labour is foremost a failure by the SPLM as a movement that once prided itself in taking up arms in order to bring development to the marginlaised in the countryside to live to its ideals. It is the failure by the supervisory branch of the government (Legislative Assembly) to hold the executive branch (the GOSS) to account. It is also the failure of the civil society (NGOs) to be the voice for the people. All of us we should be ashamed for failing to live up to expectation of our people.
Forced labour must stop and stop soon.