The Juba Lectures 2013 have started, and I am exhausted: I organised the speakers and panels in the last three weeks as the local Rift Valley Institute hand here, and have spent most of my time running around Juba on the back of a motorbike trying to meet a variety of VIPs and activists of various stripes to speak on the constitutional process in South Sudan.
Professor Akolda Tier, the chairman of the Constitutional Review Commission and a quiet, academic and conservative man, was our keynote speaker last night, on a panel set up to focus on practicalities: is there the political will to actually create a new constitution, and would it involve a consultative process? Why has the commission still not started, despite it overrunning its mandated period? Is the two year extension a political move designed to put off elections in 2015? Etc.
The questions highlighted some of the basic tensions underpinning the Commission. Professor Akolda became increasingly emphatic that the constitution was not a consultative process; it would be a “contract between political parties.” This makes sense because “political parties are a part of the people”; he did not agree that a constitution is a contract between people and government. Furthermore, he said, because constitutions have been traditionally made without social consultation or the involvement of ‘civil society’, it was unnecessary to include this consultation now.
This obviously invoked criticism; some complained that the current, unpopular transitional constitution was being endlessly redrafted by the same people, and that a constitution derives its authority from the will and complicity of the people; Akolda responded, poetically but probably unintentionally so, by saying that “no constitution is permanent”: if they don’t like it, he said, when ‘the people’ have enough education they can just amend it. Nor, he said, would he be able to tour the country consulting people to get what one speaker described as the ‘mangrove tree mandate’; “are we going to sleep under the trees?”
My thoughts on this and so many other Juba debates were really around the ‘us and them’ understanding of citizenship and ‘the people’. According to Professor Akolda and many others in debates across town, the ‘people’ are not Juba intellectuals. They are poorly educated and informed; have little independent political thought.
Henry Swaka, a young civil society activist on the panel last night, summarised as follows: there is a difference between having legal and technical constitution-drafting expertise and having general political intelligence. “The issues are with the citizens”: they know how they want to be governed, as does everyone in the room. “We shouldn’t look down upon them.”
Many Juba University students attended, although others used the light we provided from the debate to revise.