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Credit: South Sudan – gettyimages

The end of a dream

The new millennium began with so much optimism. After decades of war and repression, in South Sudan first peace was finally within reach, and then even independence.

Isaac Vuni was already one of the best known journalists in South Sudan and had always written passionately on the matters of the people: all the people in the south of what was then an enormous Sudan in which the British colonial overlords had once installed the Arab-Islamic north Sudanese as rulers over the predominantly Christian black Africans in the south. And how “the Arabs” let “the Africans” know it!

Isaac Vuni had written about this too in the years while the South Sudanese fought the north for their freedom. Most notably, he wrote about how the “Sudan People’s Liberation Army” (SPLA) battled for a state of their own, how rebel leaders and the central government in Khartoum finally entered into negotiations and how, in 2005 after almost 40 years of war, peace was actually agreed and the prospect of an independent South Sudan became a reality. The South Sudanese were euphoric. Land in sight!

But Isaac Vuni was no freedom fighter. He was a journalist.

He remained in the south, where the one-time fighters of the SPLA switched to politics and administration, and he continued to write as a freelance reporter for independent newspapers that were finally no longer hounded by the north. Vuni lived with his family in the province of Eastern Equatoria, close to the border with Uganda, where the war had long masked the conflicts between the many different peoples in the region. Now these broke out into struggles over land and power.

But he also wrote about good news: the Ugandan terror group the LRA promising to withdraw in 2007; hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese coming home from exile; the central government announcing the independence referendum for 2011. But since Isaac Vuni was a reporter, he also wrote about the transgressions of his own people, who in some cases divided up the new state among themselves. He remembered their promises, for example that there would be a female quota of a quarter, which was far from achieved. He uncovered nepotism in state construction projects, even skirmishes resulting in civilian deaths.

Eventually, the provincial government withdrew Vuni’s accreditation and had him arrested. For him, the years of optimism in South Sudan had come to an end as soon as independence was achieved. In 2009 he discovered that the South Sudanese Nile Commercial Bank was running out of money and that this was down to interest-free credit being supplied to members of the transition government.

The comrades of the liberation movements soon came to see their former chronicler as a problem, and Vuni was twice arrested as a result of his reports. Afterwards, he no longer wrote under his own name. Two years before South Sudan finally became independent, Vuni had become the reporter without a name, out of fear of the new rulers, whose battle against oppression he had once followed.

And just two years after the foundation of the new state, the optimism ended for his compatriots too

when the new government splintered along ethnic lines, with the result that a new war broke out in 2013 among those who had felt like one people in the battle against the north. All sides attempted to silence critics and those who reported on their atrocities and irreconcilabilities.

Among these was Isaac Vuni, nameless but still prominent.

In June 2016 he was dragged from his apartment by six armed men wearing the uniforms of the President’s household guards. Like his wife, his colleagues and the associations of journalists protested about this supposed attempt at intimidation, but there were no more signs he was alive, and three months later Isaac Vuni was found dead on a farm close to his home town.

It was September 2016, not even six years after 99 per cent of his compatriots had voted for a new state that was finally supposed to fulfil their hopes of a better life. The state for which Isaac Vuni had always worked himself; founded, but not yet a reality.

written by Steven Geyer, Director of DuMont Hauptstadtredaktion

  • Isaac Vuni

    Isaac Vuni was from South Sudan- the fifth most dangerous country for journalists in the world. As a correspondent for the English-speaking news portal “The Sudan Tribune” and for the independent “Juba Monitor”, Vuni placed himself as critical voice of a country, which is marked by the civil war. Isaac Vuni’s body was found on September 26th. His murder was highly condemned by Irina Bokowa, secretary general at the UNESCO.