Meet Manasseh Mathiang (@manassehfanan), an exiled South Sudanese musician and peace advocate. Mathiang participated in the Human Rights Foundation’s (HRF) Freedom Fellowship, a one-year program that provides hands-on, expert mentorship across seven critical areas: leadership, movement-building, organizing, fundraising, media, mental health, and digital security.
In his many years of activism, Mathiang has harnessed the power of art and music to foster public discourse and bring awareness to social injustices. In 2016, he co-founded the South Sudanese youth movement and artist collective #Anataban, and after fleeing to Kenya, he founded Hagiga, a pro-democracy movement promoting freedom of expression through artistic storytelling.
Learn more about Mathiang’s activism in the exclusive interview below.
Q: How did you begin your journey as a pro-democracy activist in South Sudan?
A: When South Sudan won its independence in 2011, I didn’t think for a second I would become a pro-democracy advocate. But two years after independence, our country went back to war, and I, with other youth leaders and civil society representatives, decided to advocate for peace.
We formed the Coalition of Young Leaders of South Sudan to convince government leaders to agree to inclusive dialogue. In 2015, a peace agreement was signed, and I thought our country had a second chance. Unfortunately, a year later, South Sudan was pulled back into war.
This time, 19 other artists and I created a campaign called Anataban, which means “I am tired.” Anataban was meant to be a short-term campaign aimed at redefining the dominant media narrative fueling ethnic divides. We wanted to show the world that the citizens just wanted peace. Our campaign grew into a movement with thousands of South Sudanese artists and their followers addressing, through art, issues of poor governance and corruption.
I stepped down from my role in 2021, shortly after which the South Sudanese government cracked down on activists heavily. I had to flee, and was exiled. While in exile, I formed Hagiga, which creates artistic platforms for the South Sudanese to tell their stories. Through the Hagiga movement, more and more South Sudanese are growing bold enough to talk about social and political issues that affect them.
South Sudan is meant to have its first democratic elections since independence in 2024. Through the #AintagabaatBelSalaam (“Peaceful Election”) campaign, we are pressuring government leaders to ensure a peaceful election and election period. We will investigate human rights abuses, and mobilize citizens to sign a countrywide petition for peaceful elections and a peaceful South Sudan. We will ensure candidates don’t employ hate slogans in their campaigns.
Q: How do art and activism interact in your work? What makes art a powerful tool for dissident expression?
A: I believe art is universal. It’s simple: Art can be understood by people from all walks of life. Art can unify people.
Through our work — music, visual art, murals, cartoons — we have shared messages and simplified complicated issues. We’ve seen that you paint one mural, and the message speaks to citizens every single day. And with the songs, when they play on the radio or on phones, the more people listen, the deeper the message gets into their systems.
Through art, we have managed to change the culture. You can see how artists in different parts of the world impact how people dress, what is cool, how people speak, and the slang. That’s the beauty of art; you can change people’s views or attitudes.
In South Sudan, we have used art to speak against hate and corruption and promote unity. We have used art in different ways to do powerful things.
Q: In the lead-up to its 2024 general elections, can you briefly describe the state of democracy in South Sudan?
A: We haven’t had an election since 2011 because of conflict and irresponsible leadership. Right now, no single leader in South Sudan is elected — the president, all the members of parliament, commissioners, no one. Everyone is appointed. So, the leaders don’t speak for the citizens but for their parties.
The Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan, the peace agreement, stipulated that some steps must be taken before the election. But the leaders haven’t been willing to implement them.
First of all, legally, we are meant to have a permanent constitution, but the constitution-making process has yet to commence. We need to pass so many election laws and security reforms. If candidates want to contest the election, they might not get a fair trial because we have a weak judicial system. And the government has made it clear they don’t have money to carry out this election.
A lot needs to be done for the elections to happen. We know the country needs elections, but we need free, fair, credible elections.
Q: How can the international community and the diaspora help your mission?
A: The international community can play a huge role. But if the world abandons us, we may face greater problems.
The government has asked for United Nations support for the elections, and I hope this will lead to the full backing of the international community. Citizens are nervous, and only when they see the international community’s support will they feel confident enough. The citizens pile as much pressure as possible but can’t do it alone. So, we need the world to stand with us.
Q: How has your activism evolved since participating in HRF’s Freedom Fellowship?
A: I joined the Freedom Fellowship when I was on the verge of ending my activism. But through encouragement from fellows and mentors, I picked myself up. I learned skills that have helped me structure my work. I learned how to narrate a powerful story and get a community interested in particular issues. So, through the fellowship, I learned to organize.
Hagiga is basically a result of the fellowship. And now, I can proudly say I am a better activist because of the fellowship.
Q: What is Hagiga’s vision of tomorrow for South Sudan?
A: I see a country where citizens can freely express themselves, enjoy their rights, and peacefully coexist. I see a country where citizens control their destinies and have the power, privilege, and opportunities to pave the way for the country.
I want people to know us not because of war or hunger but because of the beautiful people we are and the amazing things our people can do.
Do not forget South Sudan. As we are going toward the election process, we ask that the international community be there to speak for the people of South Sudan.
The Freedom Fellowship is a unique, one-year program that gives human rights advocates, social entrepreneurs, and nonprofit leaders from challenging political environments the opportunity to increase the impact of their work. Through mentorship and hands-on training sessions, fellows develop critical skills and join a growing community of human rights activists.