The Nation (Nairobi)

9 July 2011

South Sudan: Daring Woman Who Played a Leading Role to Secure Freedom

After lowering the Sudanese flag, the Republic of South Sudan raises its flag during its independence celebrations. ( Resource: South Sudan Raises Its Flag

There were not too many women involved in the main programme of events to mark the independence of South Sudan on Saturday but that does not mean women did not contribute their fair share to the hard-fought liberation of the country.

They were key members of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), with one entire battalion branded the "girls battalion" being led by the noted female commander, Agier Agum.

They also played various roles in the struggle, including co-ordinating relief efforts and helping in mobilisation of forces.

Jemma Nunu Kumba, now the Minister for Housing and Infrastructure in President Kiir's government, was one of those who quit her university studies to take part in the fight for independence.

She was born during the first Anya-Nya war that was fought from 1963 until 1972. She decided to go to the bush during the second Sudan civil war that began in 1983 for reasons she puts in starkly simple yet emotionally forceful words.

"Every human being is born with an instinct for freedom".

"We all want to be free and the regime we were under wanted us to give up our right to liberty. That is why we chose the hard option of war," she said.

Mrs Kumba served for four years as coordinator for relief for the New Sudan Council of Churches - an agency that sought to limit the casualties from the war who mainly died due to starvation and lack of supplies caused by displacement.

She and her husband were eventually posted to Southern Africa by SPLA leader Dr John Garang to help marshal support for their cause in the region.

She enrolled to complete her studies at the University of Namibia and was later posted to take part in one of her most important assignments as one of the representatives of the SPLM in the 2002-2004 Naivasha peace talks.

She says they approached the talks with a degree of scepticism due to the failure of the North to honour repeated agreements reached in the various rounds of talks in the past.

"The key difference this time was the pressure from such players as the African Union, the European Union and the United States," she says.

A key moment arrived when the SPLM leadership led by Dr Garang drew a red line in the sand and said they would not agree to integrate the Southern army with the Northern one after the peace agreement.

"This had happened before, in 1972, to end the Anya-Nya war and it proved to be a trick. All the Southern troops were laid off later.

"This time we said we had to maintain the SPLA for it to serve as an organic guarantor of peace."

That stance prompted a walkout from the Northern representatives. But intense pressure from the mediators eventually led to a softening of positions.

Even after the deal was signed in 2005, there was still universal scepticism over whether they would avoid war until the moment of the referendum for self-determination on January 9.

The sceptics were proved wrong. And now, women such as Mrs Kumba who joined the struggle in the bush have at last been witnesses to the birth of the youngest nation on earth.

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