While I was writing these lines I was- and continue to be- full of sorrow over loss after loss of many people- all over the world in general and South Sudan in particular-due partly to Covid-19 and other causes. Some of the departed South Sudanese public figures were either friends or individuals I have worked with or known for varying lengths of time. Among those who have passed on since early this year- in the order the precedence- are Edward Lino Wuor Abyei; Dr Mansour Khalid- a Sudanese national but a compatriot by deeds and spirit- and former SPLM Politburo member; former Minister for Justice, Paulino Wanawilla; Prof Aggrey Ayuen Majok, former Vice Chancellor of the University of Rumbek of Science and Technology; Justice Bullen Panchol Awal, former Judge of Supreme Court; former Minister for Wildlife and Environment, Jonglei State, Nyang Lul; the immediate serving East African Affairs Minister, John Luk Jok, and General John Diing Deng Arok, formerly of South Sudan Prison Service. The last two passed away the same day on June 2, 2020.
I have written full appreciations, each of for the persons named here, but only abridged versions will be released separately, beginning with this tribute.
Most members of South Sudan’s members of the ruling elites are likely to have known each other during their school days, in the region’s bushes or in exile during the two civil wars of the 1960s and that one from 1983-2005.
I first met John Luk Jok Ruach at Rumbek Secondary School, then relocated to Omdurman in Northern Sudan towards the end of 1960s because of the then prevailing insecurity in Southern Sudan. We went to the University of Khartoum but to separate faculties; he at Law while I was at Arts. Although we remotely knew each other, one would not claim any form of friendship existed between us during those student days.
Before his admission to the university, John Luk, Hussein Ajuong (from Renk), Timothy Tot Chol, and Abraham Kot, among others, had already been taken as the first batch of new public administrators- provincial and district administration- when the Government of Southern Region was formed in March 1972.
After obtaining his law degree in the second half of the 1970s, John Luk made history in then sub-national entity, Southern Region, as one of the two graduates to enter politics almost straight from college. The other was his fellow law graduate, Hugo Dhol Achuil Aleu, who was appointed in 1978 as commissioner of Lakes Province by the newly elected President of the High Executive Council, Joseph Lagu.
While John Luk was a member of the legislative body, the People’s Regional Assembly, where he represented public administrators, I was with the press. Although my assignments as a reporter and later as an editor, took me to follow debate in the House’s press gallery, I don’t remember ever listening to John Luk taking part. But I learned from his fellow legislators that he was a keen observer of parliamentary procedures, and that he was a bright and competent debater, who used cogent arguments in defence of his position.
John Luk the politician, was known to have been a protégé of the President of the High Executive Council, Abel Alier, and Peter Gatkuoth Gual, who like John Luk hailed from Akobo District. Peter Gatkuoth, after whom Luk had named one of his sons, Peter, was a widely respected politician for his fairness, intellectual acumen and staunch patriotism. Gatkuoth and his colleague, Hilary Paulo Logali, whom he succeeded at the Finance and Economic Development Ministry, have been described by those who knew them as the Presidents Southern Sudan never had. The two politicians who were staunch supporters of the SPLM/A died before the region gained its independence in 2011.
Fellow students in the UK
In 1981, John Luk and I were travelling to study in London, both of us for the second year as students. He was going to begin a post graduate degree study in law at the London School of Economics. I was in transit to Cardiff, where I was to do a research for a post graduate degree in media at the University of Wales.
There is a local saying that when two or more persons are faced with a common problem, their hardship usually brings them closer together. This is what happened to John Luk and me in September 1982. We had booked a Khartoum-London flight of Sudan Airways. Since our flight was scheduled for early morning departure, we would wake up and prepare for a taxi drive to the airport around three in the morning.
For about four consecutive days, we had to return to the hotel where we were living after we had been informed the flight we were to board had been cancelled. Reasons for cancellations were always different but flimsy and hardly convincing. These including claims such as weather being not good or at other, that one the aircraft’s engines had developed a technical problem. It was very exhausting and financially draining. Our shared disappointment built in each of us a kind of solidarity: comrades in victimhood. It was widely believed that the airline’s management were conducting a sabotage mission against the government of President Jaafar Nimeiri, in the hope that the disgruntled populace would rise and rid themselves of the system.
By the time we arrived London, we had become friends. Since we were going to study in different cities, we only met whenever I went to London for matters related to my research or for a break. When his family joined him some months later, I would stay with him at his rented house in Brixton, a suburb in southern London.
During those brief stays, from time to time I learned a lot- from my conversation with Luk- about laws governing natural resources, as well as how countries rich in natural resources, apportion national wealth accruing from wealth such as minerals. Elites from the former Southern Region had particular interest in the knowledge of percentages allotted to a central government, and its regions, particularly the area where such resources like oil are located. At the time the Government of Sudan was doing what was in their power to deny the South its rightful share of revenue from the oil that had been found in Bentiu District, renamed Unity by Nimeiri for the purpose of obscuring the place of origin- Southern Region. Late William Kon Bior, Luk’s colleague at the Faculty of Law was also studying Law of the Sea with special emphasis with carriage of goods, a field related to what Luk was studying. Southern Sudan had a bright future considering that its citizens were acquiring technical skills that were going to be of paramount importance in the development of the region and its future. Juba had invested in its citizens. The challenge then as is now remains: do we utilise skills paid for by our taxpayers? In a few cases, the answer may be yes. John Luk could be cited as one of those exceptions because he happened to have been appointed to where his expertise could come in handy: Ministry of Legal Affairs.
I was not surprised later after the region became a sovereign State to learn that John Luk was one of the architects behind the creation of the “sovereign fund”, money from oil revenue set aside for future generations and their benefit. The scheme was conceived and spelled out on the Norwegian model.
Events in London to remember
During one of my visits to London, as usual I put up with Luk’s family. One morning as he was waiting for a telephone call from overseas, I volunteered to take his two children to their school, which was a walking distance from home. When we reached the school’s gate other children were entering the compound. Brixton at the time had a sizeable population of people of African descent, most of them from West Indies. The presence of the West Indian in the area was also reflected in the number of their children in the school Luk’s boys attended.
For the first few minutes the boys and I passed through a bevy of generally happy schoolchildren, without anything untoward. But after we had left the gate behind us and a few steps towards the classroom buildings, where I was intending to leave the boys and then return home, a boy of about eight years old stopped, stepped forward and pointed at me as he was shouting “Nigger!” Although he had a slightly lighter skin colour, he was of mixed race. Surprised by the unexpected and unprovoked rudeness I was unprepared for an appropriate response. For Ruach, it was a reflex.
“Why do you call my uncle like that…” Before he could finish his angry words Ruach had already slapped hard his colleague on the left check. I was having a full blown fight and altercation on my watch. I quickly rushed to separate them, with a rebuke to Ruach that it was not good for him to resort to force. As Ruach was fuming with anger, three of his friends, who were all whites, joined- showing an open solidarity with him- as they walked into parade ground. It was time for me to return home.
Days later when I narrated the incident to a fellow Southern Sudanese, the answer was a compliment to Ruach, of course, in absentia, who according to him had done “the right thing. He is a typical Southern Sudanese. That is what we are; proud not ready to accept an insult lying down. I am proud of him. You should have complimented him.” I prefer here to withhold the response I gave to that friend’s remarks.
A row in a sitting room
That incident involving children was of minor significance compared to the following story. While I was preparing to report to the SPLM/A headquarters, I moved to London where I was going to spend the few days there before my departure. That was in May 1984. As usual I put up with John Luk and his family.
Most of us- former students- had by that time dissolved our underground political organisation- the Sudan Revolutionary Movement – to transform it to a chapter of the SPLM in the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland. John Luk’s residence sometimes served as a venue for meetings as well as other social events as most of the members lived outside London.
One after noon, a semi-official meeting related to the affairs of the SPLM took place in Luk’s house. We were about 10. The only person whose name I will reveal was one of my trusted friends, John Ruach Jal, who like me was staying with the Luk’s family at that time. He had come- for the meeting- from Liverpool where he and his family lived. As we were talking, Rhoda, Luk’s wife, was preparing a meal for us in the kitchen very close to the lounge, and as such she could clearly hear our voice, especially as tempers were rising unexpectedly.
In the middle of the talk that was supposed to be quiet and friendly, John Luk began to raise his voice. He was questioning one of our comrades over a matter related to the affairs of the organisation, this time the SPLM.
Worried about what she had noted as out of the ordinary, Rhoda came out of the kitchen to politely tell Luk that a quarrel with visitors or guests in one’s own home was unacceptable and had to stop. But Luk politely waved her away and continued with the sensitive subject. His words were more of a reprimand to our comrade than they would be under a normal conversation.
For fear of a possible inaccuracy in a verbatim recall and rendering of the quotations from what John Luk was saying to the colleague, I will here have to paraphrase the substance of the topic and John Luk’s message. Likewise, I will be concealing some of the facts that may give away the person John Luk was arguing with.
When the SPLM/A was formed, its leaders had to solicit for both diplomatic and material support for its cause. Chapters abroad had to acquire rented spaces and facilities for their activities. That required funds from both members, supporters, foreign or Sudanese.
In London a mzungu businessman gave financial assistance to the SPLM Chapter. The amount received was too small by corporate standards, but since the needs for the office that had just been established were modest, so the gifted amount could be judged to be quite sufficient, at least for the time being. The funds were strictly for official use, not for personal benefit of any member of the movement. Without any known exception, all the members of the chapter had their different sources of income for their individual needs, including livelihood. None of us was rich, but neither a pauper, desperate for daily bread.
The donor was a crafty person. He told- separately and secretly- several members of the chapter’s steering committee, of which John Luk was one, the amount of money he had given to the organisation. The businessman then instructed his secretary to do likewise before she could hand out the money to a nominated member one behalf of the chapter.
In the house the member of the committee who had signed for the donated money declared an amount that was about 20 percent short of the figure the businessman had disclosed to the other members. Matters came to head when John Luk asked his colleague to explain the discrepancy. When his colleague was firm that the sum he had declared was the exact money he had signed for and received from the secretary, Luk was not convinced. He continued to ask question after question, concluding the session with a lecture: the SPLM/A was waging the liberation war to end a bad system of rule in Sudan, and that it was regrettable that fraudulent practices had been detected at such an early stage of the revolutionary fervour.
Since none of us sitting and quietly listening had attempted to say a word to contradict or request Luk from grousing, Rhoda, who didn’t have a clue about the problem, had no single ally, with the exception of the one receiving the lecture from John Luk on probity and trust. To Luk, those norms were some of the principal objectives the SPLM/A was fighting to achieve.
It was time for the meal to be served. Days later I was gone to Africa. A couple of months after that I learned that the problem had been solved by means of what was called a refund, repayment, return- I am not sure the exact word that was used to describe the remedial settlement. That was became possible thanks to Luk’s decision to dispense with civility, which could have been maintained at the expense of lofty principles.
SPLA Penal and Disciplinary Laws
At the formation of the SPLM/A, Martin Majier Gai, a former magistrate, legislator and minister in Government of Southern Sudan in Juba, was appointed as the head the Legal Affairs and Administration. It was his office that drafted the SPLA Disciplinary and Penal Laws of 1984. Martin Majier and John Luk were credited with softening the originally harsh tone of the laws that were designed to guide the conduct of the war. The laws assigned the SPLA fighters as well as the civil population the responsibility of protecting the environment in general and the wildlife in particular, which with the availability of man guns in war zones would be vulnerable to poaching and large scale slaughter for food.
Days of split within the SPLM/A
During the split within the SPLM/A of 1991, John Luk was with the Nasir faction led by Riek Machar while I remained with what was known the movement’s mainstream or Torit faction under John Garang. When the rupture occurred while I was at Kapoeta, where Garang and most of the members of the leadership were preparing for a scheduled meeting in which the commanders at Nasir were expected to attend.
At that time members of my nuclear family was among the thousands of Sudanese refugees who had fled from western Ethiopia- after the change of regime there- to Nasir across the border. Although there were flights operated by international humanitarian NGOs between Nasir and Kapoeta, my family, who were with very young children including a two-month old daughter, were unable to find seats on those planes, to join me in Kapoeta. They remained at Nasir from 1991 to 1994.
For much of that time I was living in the displaced persons’ camp at Ame in Eastern Equatoria, where I had to depend on the generosity of two friends and their families since I was not receiving relief food rations. (Although food and other necessities were given to the displaced persons on the basis of headcounts, the corrupt camp administration denied persons without families their share).
In 1993, a friend, Dr Lual A. L. Deng secured me a consultancy at the African Development Bank in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, where he was a senior executive member. While in transit in Nairobi, I was able to meet members of the Nasir faction. I had to seek their approval to grant me a written permission to facilitate family reunion.
To state that relations between the two factions were not good at that material moment would be an understatement: raw emotions on both sides were very high. It was therefore natural my visit to their humanitarian office in the Kenyan capital was a trying time for me and the friend I had requested to accompany me to what we considered as a lion’s den.
In the factional fighting that erupted immediately after the declaration of the abortive overthrow of Garang, thousands of people, mostly civilians, died in the ensuring fighting and later in the retaliatory skirmishes. Loss of hundreds of thousands of livestock in the affected areas were stolen, leaving their owners destitute. The resulting insecurity also created what was later called Hunger Triangle- Waat, Ayod and Kongor, my native home area. Figures from the reports from humanitarian organisations about death from famine and disease vary, but they are very high; in hundreds of thousands of people of all ages and gender.
On a personal note, such devastating losses in human lives, affected me as I lost many members of my extended family. Those included my elderly step-mother, her daughter (my half-sister) with her husband and their four children, my two elder brothers, of whom one of them lost six of his children; while three of my nieces all under the 14 were abducted. The losses also included several cousins and their families.
Just a day before my visit to the Relief Association for South Sudan (RASS) office, my colleague, Cdr Meshach Madol Yol. * and I were walking on Nairobi’s Denis Pritt Road when we suddenly came face to face with John Luk, Simon Mori Diduma, Gordon Koang Chol, Barry Wanji, and other senior members in the Nasir faction’s leadership. Could we detour to avoid meeting them? No. It was too late to come face to face with them, as they were about two metres away, walking to their cars parked nearby. There was also some hesitation on the other side until John Luk shouted “Hi my friends Atem and Brezhenev!”1 John Luk had broken the ice, so to speak. We were soon hugging each other, the Sudanese way.
As were about to leave for our separate directions, Barry Wanji2, who was a member of the Nasir faction, and who was with the group we had accidentally met, got hold of my hand and pulled me aside. What he wanted to tell Meshach and me was how puzzled he was. He told us he couldn’t believe his eyes seeing us greeting each other as we, on both side of the political and military divides, behaved as if we were the best friends ever at the time when nobody (on both sides) was prepared to put aside the conflict with its bleeding wounds since the August 28, 1991, the date when the BBC’s correspondent in Nasir town, Collin Blaine, reported the announcement of Garang’s overthrow as the leader of the founding leader of SPLM/A. What its leaders later dubbed as a creeping revolution was soon followed by heavy fighting with an immense loss of many lives and unleashing of anarchy- lasting a more than four years- at the theatre of fighting, mainly in Jonglei Province.
Time is the greatest healer of wounds and broken hearts. A couple of years after that John Luk and some of his colleagues re-joined the SPLM/A mainstream. He did the right thing by establishing a centre for documentation: he created an assignment for himself that gave him a sense of independence, not someone seeking for an assignment. Documentation was in itself a service to society since the war had largely destroyed important documents in major towns of Southern Sudan.
The centre produced a monthly magazine, South Sudan Post in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. Some years later John Luk offered me a job as a consulting editor on the magazine he founded and ran in Nairobi. The fees I was receiving became a source of income in a Nairobi in which life for most of the refugees was most brutish and almost short. My co-worker was Stephen Tut Puol, who instantly became a friend to me. We are still good pals to this day.
While on the publication I learned that John Luk would only supervise a staff member when that person appeared to be in need of help or couching on the job, but on the whole he would give everyone working with him a lot of room for taking an initiative or action. I learned also that John Luk was a widely read person, who effectively and judiciously applied the vast amount of knowledge he had accumulated over the years of study and voracious reading of serious authors and their works.
Both friends and adversaries admitted John Luk’s brilliance and clarity of thought. During negotiations, for example, friends and allies welcomed those attributes, while opponents dreaded them like lethal weapons.
In the second half of 2016 I met John Luk in Nairobi, where I was passing in transit from Uganda on my way to Australia. He and his colleagues who were arrested and detained- after being accused of an attempt to overthrow the government in Juba-and later released to Kenya after the charges had been dismissed by court.
Consistent with my habit of collecting a few choicest paperbacks and ties as gifts to friends on my return home from a long visit to a foreign country, that time I gave Luk a copy of The Road to Ruin: How Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin Destroy Their Own Government, an expose by an Australian journalist, Niki Savva. The book is about how a chief of staff, an office holder we in South Sudan usually call either as office manager or private secretary, ran the office of the former Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, in a manner that even ministers could be denied seeing their boss. Friends advised the prime minister that such insubordination by the chief of staff had created bad feelings within the government and outside it, and that such behaviour would bring ruin or his downfall. The advice of those friends and from party senior advisers went unheeded. Soon, a colleague their ruling party challenged the prime minister for the post. At the party boardroom the majority of the MPs voted out the prime minister. The way his office was run had alienated and angered a lot of colleagues. It is a book with good lessons for nearly everyone in public life, whether corporate, political or in life in general.
I knew the story would not be a surprise to John Luk; he must have read similar abuses of public office of a similar nature by public servants worldwide. When I gave him the book I added “Please pass it to some of your friends after you are through with it.” Until his passing I haven’t had any feedback on the book from him or whether he had lent it to any of his colleagues, especially after he later re-joined the government in accordance with the terms of the peace agreement of 2016.
Not the time for criticism
I have read some writings critical of late John Luk at the time he was Minister for Justice and Constitutional Development. Such criticisms, along the line of the one published in the recent edition of the Kenyan Daily Nation, cite some changes to the constitution of South Sudan, especially the sections that removed some powers from state governors to the country’s executive head of State as a point of censure for his role.
Like the rest of us, John Luk erred in his public life. But writers of such complaints unfortunately don’t mention anything about his courage to acknowledge the mistake he made and went out publicly with a written apology. It is human to make mistakes, but it requires honesty and huge amount of moral courage for one to admit an error, intended or inadvertent.
It is rare for many politicians to admit their shortcomings. John Luk will go down in our history as one of the few people of my generation to own up. This is important considering that until recent times, in some Nilotic societies it was not considered to be “manly” (my apologies for the use of this sexist word) for one to publicly declare mea culpa (through my fault) as it was considered to be a form of weakness. John Luk was such a civilised person that there was no room in his mind to accommodate obsolete concepts and practices which are in conflict with modernity and a changed world.
Finally, it is not only in bad taste to lash out at a deceased person- who will not be able to defend themselves- at the time his family, colleagues and the country are mourning his loss; in many cultures the world over, this is not done as it is inappropriate soon after the demise of the person, no matter how that person was regarded in life.
Atem Yaak Atem is a South Sudanese journalist and author.
1Meshach Madol Yol, is a telecommunication engineer who trained in the former Soviet Union was my deputy while we were running Radio SPLA. It was from that Soviet background where he acquired the nickname of Brezhnev, who was one of the prominent leaders of the former the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Meshach Madol received military training at the SPLA officers’ centre during the war and was commissioned captain. Captain Meshach Madol Yol later served in Western Upper Zone as deputy to Major Riek Machar. He is currently a senior director in the Department of Telecommunications within the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in Juba.
2Barry Wanji was an academic and a firebrand revolutionary. He was a friend to me. In 1985 Barry Wani and I attended SPLA batch three officers’ course, known as Shield Three. Some of my colleagues during the 1985 military training included Gen Obuto Mete Mamur, late Gen Philip Chol Biowei, late Cdr Majok Ayuen Kur, Judge Ayuel Parmena Bul.