South Sudan will likely postpone its 2018 presidential elections because of a recently reignited conflict that threatens to prolong the country’s civil war, according to Garang Diing Akuong, South Sudan’s ambassador to the U.S., in an interview with The Washington Diplomat.
Hundreds are dead from heavy fighting over the summer between the government of President Salva Kiir (a Dinka, the largest tribe in the country) and forces loyal to his former vice president, Riek Machar (a Nuer, the second-largest tribe). Kiir fired Machar back in 2013 for allegedly planning a coup and the newest country on earth, which split from Sudan in 2011, plunged into a two-year war that is estimated to have killed over 50,000 and displaced 2 million (also see “South Sudan’s New Ambassador Vows Young Nation Can Overcome Fighting” in the August 2015 issue).
The tribal bloodletting has compounded the misery of South Sudan’s 11 million people, a largely Christian and animist population who fought for decades to secede from the Islamic-leaning northern government in Khartoum. After the south formally won its independence from Sudan in 2011 — with significant help from the U.S. — hopes were high that Kiir, a former independence fighter, could turn around the destitute but oil-rich nation. The jubilation was quickly cut short, however, when the personal rivalry between Kiir and Machar broke out into violence, exacerbating longstanding ethnic tensions.
Under intense international pressure, Machar was reinstated last April after a peace agreement was reached in Ethiopia in August 2015, but he fled the capital city of Juba after fighting erupted in July.
The United Nations has condemned both sides for human rights abuses and recently blamed government soldiers for carrying out killings and widespread rapes. The brazen rape and beating of American and Western aid workers by uniformed soldiers during a July 11 rampage — in which a local Nuer journalist was also executed — amplified criticism of Kiir’s administration.
Meanwhile, Machar, the former head of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO), was sacked for failing to return to Juba within the 48-hour notice given by Kiir (he has since fled the country). Machar says his firing is illegal and that the SPLM-IO’s choice to replace him, Gen. Taban Deng Gai, violates the peace agreement. He says he will only return to Juba with a regional security force.
Kiir, a once-reliable U.S. ally, has pushed back against attempts to beef up the current U.N. peacekeeping mission, complaining that a regional force would undermine the country’s sovereignty.
In August, the Security Council nevertheless pressed ahead with a robust resolution to strengthen the U.N. presence in South Sudan, adding 4,000 troops to the 12,000 peacekeepers already there and authorizing the use of lethal force to protect civilians. Kiir’s spokesman said the government will not cooperate with the resolution, which threatens to impose an arms embargo if the president blocks the new deployment.
Repeated U.N. Security Council threats to halt the flow of arms to the government have done little to sway Kiir’s intransigence, however, with Washington worrying that it might lose leverage if it withholds weapons from a country already awash in them.
As Kiir and Machar continue to trade accusations against one another, the humanitarian crisis in South Sudan has been described as “catastrophic,” with sexual violence, mass killings of civilians, looting, recruitment of child soldiers and food shortages rampant throughout the country.
The conflict has postponed the presidential elections, which were supposed to be held in 2015, and Kiir’s term was extended two years until 2018.
Meanwhile, Kiir’s man in Washington, Garang Diing Akuong, pins the blame for the country’s suffering on the president’s adversary, Machar, and categorically denies that his boss had a hand in this latest bout of violence or that Juba is unsafe — despite widespread reports to the contrary. In fact, he insists that the president took great pains to protect Machar and his fellow Nuer during recent clashes — a claim certain to raise heckles among Machar’s supporters, who say Kiir has relentlessly attacked the opposition since purging his political rivals in 2013.
*This interview has been edited for clarity and space and updated via email.
The Washington Diplomat: It looks like the peace agreement between President Kiir and Riek Machar has collapsed. Are we back to square one?
Ambassador Garang Diing Akuong: I don’t think that the statement is correct. I think that the peace agreement is still holding, is still in place. Why? Because this peace agreement is between the parties. It’s not between individuals, but between the government and the SPLM-IO…. It’s good to remind that the president pleaded with [Machar] to come back, assured him that his security would be taken care of, gave him 48 hours according to the agreement…. He did not return. He gave him enough time, until more than two weeks had elapsed. So the president met with the SPLM-IO leadership in Juba and nominated Taban Deng Gai to take over as first vice president…. The vacuum that was left by Riek Machar had to be filled, because Riek Machar cannot hold the country as hostage because of his absence. And the leadership of IO stated that this measure was taken temporarily until Riek Machar returns.
TWD: Machar says that the Aug. 15, 2015, peace deal means that he can’t be sacked by the president. And knowing Machar, isn’t the 48-hour ultimatum just an invitation to the reengagement of hostilities?
Akuong: According to the agreement, in the event that one of the [signatories] is taken from the position by death, infirmity or whatever the reason is, that party has to sit down and nominate a replacement within 48 hours… Riek Machar absented himself for more than two weeks and going by the agreement, his party set and nominated a replacement. And the president has to accept that. For us in the government, we want to continue with the implementation of the peace agreement. What is the alternative if we agree with Machar that the agreement has collapsed? Then the alternative is right away to go back to the war — something that we don’t like as a government because we are morally responsible for the protection and safety and the development of the country…. So the alternative for Riek Machar is war, but for us we don’t think that war is an alternative.
TWD: The government is not trying to get Riek Machar to come back to the table now that his position is filled?
Akuong: It is not for the government to do that, but for the party that he belongs to. And if the party brings him back, then we will accept him. We do not have any choice to choose the leaders of the parties.
TWD: So the government is still urging the SPLM-IO to bring Machar back?
Akuong: Yes, amnesty is open. The president has offered amnesty, even to Riek Machar…. Indeed, some of his soldiers have benefited from this presidential amnesty and returned to Juba and joined the ranks of the new first vice president’s ranks. But Riek Machar said he will not return to Juba until the protection force is on the ground.
TWD: How peaceful is Juba right now? The U.S. has evacuated all non-essential personnel. The U.S. State Department has condemned the outbreak of violence last month, which killed over 300 people.
Akuong: Yes, we all agree that during the fight that took place that Juba was not safe. And the U.S. and everybody had the right to [protect] their own citizens. But right now the government is in control of the situation. We saw yesterday the U.S. ambassador meeting with the South Sudanese ministers in Juba. We have seen the United Nations humanitarian coordinator, who went to Juba and to the northern Bahr el Ghazal region. So the country is safe and very much stable. We have seen that Juba airport is open … so Juba is under control and the president is on top of the issues.
TWD: But the U.N. is reporting 120 cases of sexual violence against women by government troops in Juba in the last two weeks, women who have fled to U.N. protection sites. Where is the military leadership here, and how will these atrocities be addressed?
Akuong: I don’t think that is the right allegation, that 200 have been raped in one night, or in one day or two days. We have listened to those allegations and they need to be verified and investigated…. If there are human rights violations, we don’t condone that, because these are our people. And we have a moral obligation to protect the dignity of everybody, whether they are a woman or a man, whether they are a Dinka or Nuer or any other ethnic group. So we have listened to these reports and we don’t agree with those reports because we have not verified them. We deplore that people have been victimized. We don’t abide by that, but we are open to share information with the U.N. and any other human rights group.
TWD: What about the alleged July 11 rape and beatings of Americans?
Akuong: The government of South Sudan has taken already steps to investigate all abuses and sexual assault allegations involving its soldiers and those found responsible will be prosecuted in military or civilian courts. The government is ready to listen to complains [sic] about U.S. citizens who alleged to have been raped or beaten if they come out to lodge complains [sic]. But to date, nobody came out so that particular cases could be heard. All these are still reports that have not been verified or investigated.
TWD: The U.N. is reporting over 4 million South Sudanese need food, that there is a dire humanitarian crisis.
Akuong: If there is a crisis, I don’t think it is all over the country. In many states the humanitarian situation is taken care of by the international community and the government…. The problem now in South Sudan is a logistical problem, because in the rainy season nobody can move food anywhere. It is only maybe in Juba, where there is scarcity of food because the rebels are blocking the roads, the rebels are attacking the commercial convoys.
TWD: There is a peace summit in Ethiopia being attended by many African leaders, including Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. Once again, foreign governments are intervening to save South Sudan from itself. Why is President Kiir against a regional security force?
Akuong: We are not against a regional security force. We are saying there are already enough forces in South Sudan.
TWD: Yet the Kiir government came out against the recent U.N. resolution to bolster the current peacekeeping operation.
Akuong: South Sudan is not against IGAD [the Intergovernmental Authority on Development African trade bloc] or U.N. involvement. President Salva Kiir, in his inaugural address of the new Transitional National Legislature on Aug. 19, said: ‘We welcome assistance, we are attentive to advice, but assistance requires dialogue. It should not turn into an imposition that becomes an intervention, in which our sovereignty is compromised and our ability to govern effectively diminishes rather than increases. More and better could and should be achieved through consultation and dialogue.’
The president also added that, ‘South Sudan has no regional enemies. The U.N. role is no doubt critical and support and friendship of the U.S. is invaluable to us. The U.S. and President Obama stood by us before, during and after independence, and I hope and pray the U.S. remains our ally.’
So we are going to discuss with IGAD and the U.N. to find the best way forward.
TWD: There are so many different reports and a lot of finger-pointing. Explain how this latest conflict reignited.
Akuong: This conflict, actually it is the faction of Riek Machar that should take the blame. [At a July 7] checkpoint, Riek Machar’s forces killed about five people — four soldiers and one medical doctor who was just passing by. That was in the evening, and in the morning the president called the first vice president and other ministers to meet with him to discuss the security situation. In the meeting in the presidential palace, one of Riek Machar’s boys wrote a statement on Facebook saying that Riek Machar was arrested. It was false. So that went out, and they were sitting in this meeting and we said, ‘This thing is going to ignite a war.’ So the guy who led the attack on the checkpoint … mobilized more forces and took them to the palace and wanted to force his way into the office to share to the world if Riek Machar was arrested or not.
TWD: While the president and Machar were speaking?
Akuong: Having a meeting. And so the fighting started outside the palace and inside the palace. The forces of the president managed to contain the situation and the Riek Machar forces went back to their camp. The president also managed to save the life of Riek Machar for seven hours in his office. He sat in his office with Riek Machar. When there were demands from presidential guards that they wanted the head of Riek Machar because our people were killed because of him, the president said he cannot be killed. The president and the chief of staff mobilized enough forces and took [Machar] to his camp … and I think the president should be commended for doing that.
TWD: Machar’s spokesman vehemently denies that his Facebook posting sparked an escalation in violence, claiming that opposition troops were instead initially attacked by Kiir’s soldiers on July 7. Then, on July 11, at Machar’s compound, there are photos of government helicopters and gunships. Over 300 people are estimated to have been killed. What was that about?
Akuong: I don’t know if 300 people were killed or not … nobody has the exact stats, but likely they could be soldiers because this time the government controlled the situation…. It was Riek Machar who killed civilians. Those Dinkas surrounding the camp that night were killed by the forces of Riek Machar. But even Nuers this time, they credit the president with protecting them. So the numbers that are being reported are mainly soldiers who have been killed on both sides. If there were civilians who were killed because of the crossfire, that is something else.
TWD: You’ve told me that Riek Machar is responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people.
Akuong: That is correct.
TWD: There are tens of thousands of people dead, over 2 million displaced because of these two men, the president and Riek Machar, who are constantly at odds and endangering the lives of millions. In the five years that the country has been in existence, South Sudanese are constantly starving, the country is engulfed in turmoil. How is Salva Kiir not a failed leader?
Akuong: It is not something that you put squarely on the door of Salva Kiir and say he has failed. The country is not run by one man. What happened is a war, and in a war situation, you have victims of war. And Salva Kiir is one of the leaders that was elected by his people democratically…. So what we need now is stability in the country so that the life of the people returns to normal. [Kiir] has tried to reconcile with Riek Machar, he tried to reconcile the people of South Sudan and he brought in all the militias into the government…. What we need is the support for this leader so that we can go back to normalcy, and then we go back to elections so the people of South Sudan can have a free hand to choose whoever they want to lead them in the next years.
TWD: Is South Sudan still on track to have elections by 2018?
Akuong: We should have elections in 2018, but now with the implementation of the peace agreement, delays and all this, I expect we will move beyond that.
TWD: But the elections were supposed to be last year and they were put off because of the conflict.
Akuong: I don’t think you can hold elections in a place that is not peaceful…. We need to stabilize the country before we have elections. Even the rebels themselves wouldn’t go for elections in a country that is still having insecurity.
About the Author
James Cullum is a contributing writer and photographer for The Washington Diplomat.