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Feb 11, 2011 | Commentary

Jimmy Lemi Milla Joko, Minister of Cooperatives and Rural Development and Member of the Southern Sudan Legislative Assembly for Lainya, Central Equatoria, was assassinated in his ministerial office in Juba on February 9th.  It does seem that the alleged assassin, Lemi’s brother-in-law and former personal driver, likely acted with “no political motivation whatsoever,” as the Government of Southern Sudan was quick to describe.  The Ministry of Internal Affairs has ordered a full investigation, now under way.

Predictably, media quickly made a link with the good news story of the declaration of the final results of Southern Sudan’s independence referendum, announced on February 7th.  AFP described: “The mood was sombre outside the ministries on Wednesday, just two days after the announcement of final results from the January 9-15 referendum on independence for south Sudan triggered wild celebrations in Juba.”  BBC said that “the killing has also dampened the excitement in Juba following the announcement of the referendum results this week.”

Most Southern Sudanese will not have heard news of the killing, let alone know who Jimmy Lemi was.  Still, this violent incident does recall the conclusion of a recent LSE/Pact Sudan report: “violence is part of everyday life for many Southern Sudanese,” even if the elites of government are far less affected than ordinary citizens.  The killing is a vivid reminder of the ubiquitous presence and easy availability of small arms.  Whether sporting an ancient pistol or an automatic weapon, no passerby in Juba will give a weapon’s bearer a second glance – a gun is still almost as customary an accessory as a car or motorbike.

As a frequent guest to the ministerial compounds of the Government of Southern Sudan, a cluster of 1970s era 2 storey low-rises a few minutes walk from one of Juba’s main markets and the Legislative Assembly, I was always impressed by the ease with which one could visit these institutions of state.  Few countries in the world can boast of such openness to the highest reaches of government.  Almost anyone can wander into the ministerial complex.  Drive or on foot, it doesn’t matter, one enters unquestioned.  It’s still common for ambitious and determined folk – Sudanese and foreigner – to appear in the reception room of a senior civil servant or minister, unannounced, without appointment, hoping for a minute or two with the object of their attention, to seek assistance, advice, or money.  Even if a minister’s office manager keeps you waiting all day, you are permitted to remain and wait for an opportunity to see your chosen VIP.

Southern Sudan’s government may be slow, occasionally chaotic, and generally lack transparency and capacity, but at least to those in Juba, it has been open and accessible, not yet a fortress far removed from the people.  Jimmy Lemi’s killer abused the advantage of that access.  It would be unfortunate if a consequence of Lemi’s murder is a more closed and distant government, rigidly secluded and difficult to access.  The challenges of governing in Southern Sudan are already formidable; the tendency to prioritize security considerations above all others already strong.  Let us hope that Lemi’s death is not also the death of open government in Southern Sudan.