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)
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)


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.

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 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.

“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 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.

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 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.

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 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 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.

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 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, 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. She was the New York Times correspondent in Yemen during the Arab Spring. Twitter: @kasinof