How do you enshrine the rule of law in a nation that did not exist a year ago? One that is, moreover, riddled with economic and security challenges? Add a change of official language into the mix, and the job may seem little short of daunting.
Rajula Atherton, IDLO Country Director for South Sudan, is not one to obfuscate the scale of the task. She credits her national counterparts for her undiminished confidence: “smart, committed, and immensely appreciative”.
Ms Atherton is keen to point out IDLO’s latest achievement: a bill which it helped draft is shortly due to be approved by the government in Juba. It sets up a Legal Training Institute, whose mission is to re-equip lawyers schooled in the old Sudan to work in their new country. With less than a year’s training, they are to switch from Sharia-based law to common law — almost certainly the world’s only such example of skills transfer. The course includes training for the new diploma exam, without which lawyers may no longer practise.
South Sudan’s judges too are being re-trained, in a project run by IDLO in partnership with the US State Department, the Dutch government and the European Union. With the new country ditching Arabic for English, language classes must also be provided, alongside topical training.
While many South Sudanese understand English, speaking skills remain limited. The language training involves applied dialogue drills, with judges pairing up for conversation about a range of subjects. The exercise adds a layer of peer-to-peer socialising to the substantive and procedural law coursework.
The intense classroom activity reflects a radical reinvention underway in South Sudan, aimed at reversing decades of political, cultural, and religious domination by the North. Independence last July did more than draw a new border on the map. The new nation chose to de-couple from the Arabic-speaking Islamic world, aligning itself with a different geopolitical space: that of Anglophone East Africa.
The move involves rewiring values, outlooks and institutions, as well as embedding English in all areas of national life. Tellingly, IDLO’s work on the judiciary in South Sudan is being led by a ‘re-pat’ from Uganda, who trained there after arriving as a boy refugee.
This regional re-positioning also explains why IDLO is drawing on its Kenyan experience for another of its projects: helping South Sudan draft a new Constitution, funded by the Canadian government. With the organization’s support, a Constitutional Commission came into being in January. Yet progress has been slow: the body has yet to meet in session.
Sumit Bisarya, IDLO’s Lead Legal Officer, is a frequent visitor to Juba. He says the Commission’s teething troubles are, at least in part, down to South Sudan’s sharpening political competition. “There is a sense that the national consensus, which lasted for about six months after independence, is beginning to fray.” Smaller parties are increasingly claiming a share of the spoils from the dominant SPLM, which draws its legitimacy from the armed struggle.
The political factor may yet slow down the wholesale remaking of South Sudan. That such a vast institutional endeavor is taking place in a nation with fragile security, little infrastructure, and a largely subsistence economy is nevertheless being seen as an encouraging sign. High aid levels suggest donors remain committed to the country, ensuring that IDLO is there to stay.