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South Sudan’s Martyrs Day: Martyrs, Martyrdom and Inspiration to draw from it

South Sudan’s Martyrs Day: Martyrs, Martyrdom and Inspiration to draw from it




By Machien Luoi T. Dagoor,

After the untimely death of the founding father of the SPLM/A Dr. John Garang on July 30th 2005, the autonomous Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS) recognized this day as Martyrs Day. It was meant for the recognition and celebration of the lives and ideals of the individuals and political groups who resisted oppression, exploitation, domination and hegemony of the powers that pervaded the former Sudan and beyond. It is an occasion to appreciate and draw inspiration from martyrs’ courage, determination and risk-taking attitude. Most significantly, a day for future generations to remember and draw courage to deal with the contemporary challenges of social, economic, political and climatic change. This opinion hopes to make sense of South Sudan’s Martyrs Day.


Who is a Martyr and Martyrdom?

A martyr is ‘someone who demonstrates extraordinary courage in the face of persecution or oppression’ for reasons of his or her identity, social, economic and political beliefs or aspirations and martyrdom is a ‘psychological readiness to suffer and sacrifice one’s life for a cause.’ During the Rivonia Trial on 20 April 1964, Nelson Mandela said, “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” Consider the utterances of Chief John Both Diu of Southern Front (SF) during the Juba Conference (18-21 October 1954) on Southern Sudan federation or separation debate. He passionately asked of his colleagues, “may I draw your attention gentlemen, chiefs of all tribes, citizens present in this house, I should like to know whether you in this house want to be slaves or it will be better for you to be poor and free?” He then concluded, “we are here for freedom and not money.” Dr. John Garang De Mabior called for a “New Sudan ” –  a secular, inclusive, plural, just and democratic state for the people of former Sudan. Martyrs let go of wealth, relationships, hobbies and life to follow through an important cause. Martyrs ‘are not defined,’ they are ‘made’ by selfless acts of sacrifice in the face of adversarial existential situations.

30th July – Martyrs’ Day

While the narrow and minimalist approach to South Sudan’s martyrs and martyrs focuses on the sacrifices made during Sudan’s 2nd Civil War  (1983-2005) – the war of liberation, the maximalist perspective on the journey of South Sudan to independence is broader. The quest to be free from all kinds of oppression, exploitation, domination and hegemony, big or small, began over 100 years ago. The long list of our martyrs started with those who died resisting slavery and slave trade system; to those who challenged forceful raw material extraction and deprivation by Turko-Egyptian occupation;  To youth and native spiritual leaders who died for their vehement rejection to the evils of the Anglo-Egyptian condominium rule; And to our well-known martyrs of war against the Sudan’s Arab-Islamic neocolonial domination and hegemony.

On the 30th July every year we have the obligation to remember, thank and draw aspiration from the ideals for which our martyrs sacrificed. We remember and appreciate the South Sudanese who died while attempting to liberate Rumbek from the Turko-Egyptian occupation forces in 1883; We praise the Aliab Dinka heroes who were persecuted after the killing of the Governor of Mogalla Province in the Aliab land in 1919; We recognize and drew courage from the Nyuong-Nuer fighters such as Gatkek Jiek Puoch (hanged), Chuol Weng Khor (hanged) and Chief Dang-Dungjiek (mysterious death in jail in Malakal), in cold-blood between 1929-1931 for their contribution in the murder of an Anglo-Egyptian District Commissioner at Lake Jorr (Tayar) in December 1927; and inspiration from Guek Ngundeng Bong of Lou-Nuer who was killed for resisting the Anglo-Egyptian colonial rule among his people. We do not stop there. South Sudanese recognize the martyrdom of various South Sudanese who died in the massacres of 1960s and 1970s in different cities (Wau, Bor, Juba, Akobo, Malakal) for resisting the Arab-Islamic domination and hegemony; We remember sacrifices and celebrate the lives of William Deng Nhial, Aggrey Jadden, Fr. Saturnino Lohure, Gordon Muortat Mayen and all the Anyanya I leaders and fighters; We give special place to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/ Army fighters, leaders, and South Sudan civilians who died in the course of the 21 years of civil war in order to deliver the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) on 09 January 2005, which gave birth to the ‘right to self-determination’ plebiscite and the subsequent independence of the Republic of South Sudan on 9th July 2011.

We owe a great deal to the Anyanya II/ SPLM/A leaders, particularly Dr. John Garang De Mabior, Samuel Gai Tut, Akuot Atem Mayen, Kerubino Kuany Bol, William Nyuon Bany Machar, Vincent Kuany Latjor, Joseph Oduho, Arok Thon Arok, Nyacigak Nyaciluk, Martin Majier Gai, John Kulang Puot, Martin Manyiel Ayuel, Elijah Hon Top, Lual Diing Wol and more. As the famous hero and prominent South Sudan musician Emmanuel Kembe sings, “Many many heroes we lost along the way of freedom.” Each family, household, a village and a clan and tribe have a martyr or martyrs who gave their lives for our freedom and future.

Inspiration from the ideals of Martyrdom

On this day we remember and celebrate the lives of the individuals and groups who resisted and succumbed due to resistance to oppression, exploitation, domination and hegemony of the powers that were there. We appreciate their courage, determination and risk-taking attitude and draw inspiration from these in order to surf through the difficulties of the contemporary dynamic context. The Anyanya I – fought a vicious war with limited resources and external assistance, yet these men and women delivered the autonomous Southern Sudan Regional Government in 1972. This was garnered through thick and thin sacrifices and the first time South Sudanese had an autonomous government in Juba.

Dr. John Garang De Mabior and SPLM/A offered a vision for a “New Sudan” – Secular, inclusive, plural, just and democratic state for all Sudanese. He  recognized the suffering of all Sudanese (West, East, North and South) and went on a journey to give them hope. Today, does the Republic of South Sudan and its leaders have an encompassing and accommodative vision or ideals to safe and inspire all people of South Sudan to dream of a better republic?  While the New Sudan vision arguably vanished after his sudden death, elements of the ‘New Sudan’ – secular, inclusive, plural, just and democratic state are relevant to this diverse and plural society. There is a lot for leaders to draw from to make a South Sudan for all.

The new republic should have championed and perfect Dr. John Garang’s “taking of towns to the people.” Yet, what happened after and bound to continue is reverse – people coming to towns (rural-urban migration). This trend must be reversed.


In one of the addresses to his officers, Dr. John Garang said “poor people equal to poor government” and “weak people equal to weak government.” South Sudan is a rich country in land and other resources, but its people are increasingly poor and weak. Majority of our citizens depend on international humanitarian aid and on foreign food and commercial goods imports. Dr. John Garang imagined a South Sudan where oil money would finance agriculture and the manufacturing sector. 30th July – Martyrs Day is less meaningful if and when the current and future generation of leaders lose sight of the ideals to which South Sudan’s Martyrs sacrificed their lives to achieve. May our Martyrs’ revolutionary souls rest in eternal peace.

About the Author:

Machien Luoi T. Dagoor is a South Sudanese living in Juba. He worked with International NGOs and Government where he gained work experience and skills in governance, peace, security and development; partly working for the Ebony Center for Strategic Studies in South Sudan; earned a Master of Management and Bachelor of Arts (Political Science & History) from United States of America; received professional conflict management training at the International Peace and Security Institute (IPSI) at Bologna in Italy and Non-profit leadership with Atlas Corps at Washington DC, USA. He is pursuing a Master of Arts studies in Conflict, Peace and Security with University of Catalunya (UOC), facilitated by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR). This opinion is his alone and not shared with his family, employer or other associates. He can be reached at


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