Is South Sudan's President Mayardit wearing a black hat or a white hat?
The president of the world’s newest country, South Sudan’s Salva Kiir Mayardit, famously wears a distinctly old-style hat. It’s a black Stetson. The sort associated with US cowboys, John Wayne, Alan Ladd, Gunfight At The O.K. Corral, all of that.
The Stetson hat dates from the 1860s. It’s quintessentially “American”. So why does Mayardit, in east Africa, in 2012, wear one (and not just occasionally, but apparently all the time)? See examples here, here and here. (He really likes that hat). Well, Mayardit was apparently given his first Stetson by George W Bush, and it’s widely believed the Sudanese president is (so to speak) doffing his cap (politically speaking) to Bush by making the hat his trademark look.
One commentator has noted that South Sudan actually has quite a bit in common with the USA’s great Stetson-wearing state, Texas, where the Bush family famously have their ranch and go around in their cowboy gear. Both places are hot, rugged, rich in oil and have violent pasts. In South Sudan’s case that violence is also very much in the present. Here’s a section from a new Amnesty report, describing attacks on civilians in the sprawling Jonglei state, bordering Ethiopia in the east of South Sudan:
J.G. recounted how on 21 July: “I was digging in my farm when the soldiers came and captured me. They surrounded the whole farm. I was beaten at my home and brought here [village centre]. I was speared [cut] with a knife on the left side of my head and on my neck. This was the second time I was beaten. I was asked and told them ‘I am the same person you beat last time’. They said I was a criminal from the bush and threatened me with a knife and asked me for a gun. They told me ‘if you don’t bring guns we will kill you.’ I said ‘I don’t have a gun, if you want to kill me, kill me.’”
The soldiers then tied the hands of J.G., T.G., L.N. and seven other men and took them to an abandoned school on the outskirts of Thangajon village where the SPLA soldiers were staying. T.G. said “They beat me and brought me back [to the village centre] and connected me with rope to the other men. They took us to the school, beat us and put my head in water. I was about to die. While they were putting people in water, they tied the rest of us to a tree while a soldier was watching us.”
This is just one of dozens of examples of villagers in Jonglei being terrorised by soldiers from the South Sudan Army (the SPLA) and members of the country’s Police Service Auxiliary Force. The irony (if that's even the right word) is that the security forces - who have been deployed to Jonglei in their thousands - are carrying out this reign of terror while supposedly disarming former fighters in the region. The disarmament programme’s called … Operation Restore Peace.
The security forces - the SPLA soldiers in their green uniforms, the police auxiliary forces in their beige outfits with brown army-style patterns - are pretty distinctive. Maybe they should also be wearing black hats, to show that they’re not necessarily the good guys?
President Mayardit needs to ensure the Wild West-style rampages of his security forces in Jonglei come to an immediate end and that perpetrators are held to account. He needs to show he’s the man in the white hat here.
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.