The Juba-born politician and activist is fighting for her position in parliament, her citizenship and her life.
On December 22, 2021, Animu Athiei was leaving a café at the airport road of the South Sudanese capital Juba when members of the country’s secret police grabbed and put her into their van. That afternoon was the beginning of two months in detention for the 38-year-old youth activist and politician.
The plainclothes officers who took her merely told her while she was briefly detained by them, that she was under investigation but gave no more details.
They handed her over to the immigration police who kept her in custody, accusing her of having obtained a fake passport – a crime punishable by up to seven years in prison upon conviction.
“It was the most frightening experience I have ever gone through,” Athiei told Al Jazeera. “I was arrested without being told why, continually detained without contact to my family and lawyer. The fact that it was done in broad daylight without a flinch from bystanders scared me even more.”
She was also transferred from one prison to another without being registered as a prisoner, she said.
On February 17, Athiei was released on bail after repeated cries about her deteriorating health by her lawyer Philip Anyang and human rights organisations. Since then, she has been at the Juba Teaching Hospital, undergoing treatment for a severe lower abdominal pain she first felt on January 31.
In 2011, South Sudan got its independence from its bigger neighbour Sudan after a bloody civil war lasting 40 years. More than two million people were killed and millions of others displaced from their homes – and for some, country – in a conflict exacerbated by ethnic and religious identity.
Within two years of the predominantly Christian and multiethnic south’s secession from the north, deep divisions within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) crystallised into another civil war within the new country. This time, there were more than 300,000 deaths and approximately two million people were displaced.
Despite a 2018 peace deal, those fault lines are still present. And they often manifest in different levels of discrimination, sometimes from the administration, as Athiei, a Muslim politician in a Christian majority country, said.
Born in Juba just a few months after the May 1983 outbreak of civil war, Athiei and her family escaped to neighbouring Uganda the next year. She returned to the city of her birth only after the signing of the peace agreement between the Sudanese government and the SPLM, which metamorphosed into the South Sudanese elite.
But her homecoming has not been a smooth ride.
Athiei belongs to a minority ethnic group called Keliko, indigenous to South Sudan, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Keliko are mostly Christian by tradition, but she was born to a Muslim couple.
First in Sudan and now in an independent Southern Sudan, the Keliko are regularly subject to discrimination. Athiei said she is often described as not being true South Sudanese by immigration authorities and other security forces who routinely harass her whenever she has to travel.
The Keliko are also noticeably shorter and slightly lighter in complexion than the Dinka, the ethnicity of most of the elite who have run the country since independence. So her appearance has provoked questions too. “They would ask me about my blood relatives and stuff like that,” she said.
Once, her passport ran out of pages and she needed to travel. The document was confiscated and no replacement was authorised. Instead, she got a temporary travel certificate, which “only gives you some limited options as not all countries accept that”.
Her case is the norm, said Mabior Garang de Mabior, the chairman of the National Conversation in South Sudan.
“There are many cases of identity politics in South Sudan and this is part of the journey of South Sudan becoming a nation,” he said. “It’s part of the new contradiction … so it will take a national conversation for people to be able to become aware of these kinds of issues.”
In the public eye
Athiei’s sojourn into public service began in 2016, with a stint as a speechwriter for then-Vice President Taban Deng Gai. But a public outcry over her appointment and online trolls also describing her as non-South Sudanese, led to her resignation after two years.
Last May, President Salva Kiir named 550 parliamentarians, one of the conditions of the 2018 peace deal. Athiei – also known as Animu – was one of them, representing women of the Central Equatorial State on one of the 30 seats that went to the Other Political Parties (OPP) opposition coalition.
Within a week, Kiir withdrew her appointment from parliament following another round of heavy criticism online and offline. The disapprovals centred on her nationality; in public debates, many accused her of being a Ugandan citizen.
“Nobody seemed to be actually questioning my knowledge or what I was doing,” Athiei said. “It was about my ethnicity, which is sad because South Sudan is a young country and many of its citizens were refugees and being hosted by other nations.”
Her seat in parliament, one of the 178 occupied by women, was given to Joseph Lual Acuil, a septuagenarian and former cabinet minister. Lual, who was raised in Liberia, served as a civil servant in the West African country’s finance ministry in the 1970s.
Following her detention in December, she was taken to Nemuli City, a border town with Uganda and handed over to the authorities there. But the Ugandan government refused to take her “because they could not find my name in their system”, she told Al Jazeera by phone, from her hospital bed.
Brigadier General James Dak Karlo, the deputy police spokesman, told journalists that she was arrested not for being in possession of a fake passport, but for having a diplomatic passport.
In response, Athiei said her passport was an ordinary one. Al Jazeera reached out to the authorities by phone for comment but got no response.
Human rights groups have condemned her abduction and detention.
“[The] authorities claim to operate within the veneer or law but are in fact denying her basic rights, including the right to due process,” said Said Nyagoah Tut Pur, South Sudan researcher at the Human Rights Watch. “This is an injustice, an offence to the rule of law and should be brought to end by ensuring authorities immediately present her in court and prove their case or set her free.”
Athiei has filed multiple lawsuits against the government for confiscation of her passport at a Juba court, as well as regional and continental courts in Arusha. She is hoping for victory and official recognition as a South Sudanese citizen as well as a reinstatement to parliament.
She blamed misogyny and tribalism in what remains a deeply conservative society, for her predicament.
“What’s happening with me is because I am a young woman with political ambition,” she said. “Some people were advising me to marry so that I can become a full citizen. That’s very strange. I am basically a stateless person at the moment.”
But despite her travails, she is fully aware that things could have turned out differently if she were not one of the most popular women in the country.
“I am lucky because I am in the public eye, that’s why my case is being highlighted,” she said. “Others are struggling quietly and I wish my story will raise attention to this issue in South Sudan.”