South Sudan’s new ambassador in Washington, Garang Diing Akuong, rattles off a list of reasons why people should visit the world’s newest nation.
“Clean air,” he starts. “The water, it’s still clean. The food that is grown in South Sudan is very good. We don’t use chemicals to protect what we grow.
“We still have a traditional African society with values like welcoming the guest. You can go to South Sudan and mingle with people, talk to people without any restrictions. There are still a lot of values that are intact, not diluted by modernization,” the 52-year-old from Aweil, in the north of South Sudan, says.
Then there’s the business side of things. “South Sudan is endowed with natural resources. We have five to six billion barrels of oil reserves. The land is very fertile. Forestry can produce millions of tons of wood. Minerals, we have all kinds — gold, uranium, iron ore. We have rivers that can produce hydropower, clean power. We have the sun, another form of clean energy.
“We have two big national parks — one in Jonglei, with all kinds of wild animals, and one in Nimule, also with wildlife. We may have the largest wildlife migration in Africa,” the optimistic ambassador says.
And yet, there’s one big reason why tourists and investors are not exactly flocking to the nation that marked its fourth anniversary of independence on July 9. Because while people know little about the positive face of South Sudan, many know the negative: The country that fought for almost 50 years for independence from Sudan, losing more than 2 million lives in the process, has been mired in a new conflict since 2013 that has by some estimates killed tens of thousands of people, displaced nearly 2 million and marred the jubilance that once marked South Sudan’s birth.
This time, the fighting was triggered by a political rift in the ruling SPLM (Sudan People’s Liberation Movement) party, exacerbating tensions between the country’s two biggest ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer. On Dec. 16, 2013, President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, appeared on television dressed in military fatigues and accused his former vice president, Riek Machar, a Nuer, of trying to oust him in a coup. Machar (who had been fired by Kiir, along with everyone else in the cabinet, five months earlier) has always denied the coup allegations and most of the international community has dismissed the failed-coup premise.
But the damage was done, South Sudanese were divided and tit-for-tat bloodletting spread across the country of 11 million people. It is still raging in places, mainly in the oil-producing north. Peace talks between the government and rebels aligned with Machar have sputtered over issues such as power sharing and security, with each side pointing the finger at the other while millions go hungry and the oil-dependent economy crumbles.
During his recent visit to Ethiopia, President Obama warned that if the warring factions can’t come together by Aug. 17, they would both face international sanctions and other measures. A “regional intervention force” was also mentioned, although Obama wouldn’t commit to it.
South Sudanese leaders have warned that additional sanctions are counterproductive. Akuong says he is hopeful that “the next round of peace talks will stop the war and we’ll come to lasting peace in South Sudan.”
“We need peace,” said the ambassador. “When peace comes, all these things we have in South Sudan will be available to the international community to invest in and to see and enjoy.”
But when that next round of peace talks will happen is anyone’s guess. What would be at least the sixth round of talks to restore peace — it’s hard to keep track any more — was supposed to be well under way by now, but at the time of this writing, the talks had not yet resumed and there was nothing to indicate they would.
A bloc of East African countries known as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), which has been trying to broker an end to the conflict, said last month that when the talks resume, there will be more mediators around the table. The new, improved, expanded talks have been dubbed “IGAD Plus” and will add the so-called troika of the United States, United Kingdom and Norway, along with the United Nations, China (which has huge oil interests in South Sudan), the African Union and the European Union.
“We all believe the troika has leverage, especially the United States, in the issues in South Sudan. The troika facilitated the negotiations in Naivasha, Kenya, that eventually led to the comprehensive peace agreement” in 2005 that ended the second Sudanese civil war and led, six years later, to the birth of South Sudan, said Akuong.
“They have a lot to offer at the talks,” he told us.
Akuong presented his credentials to President Obama in February 2015. Washington is the youthful-looking ambassador’s first diplomatic posting. He succeeded the first-ever South Sudanese ambassador to the United States, Akec Khoc, who had been recalled 11 months earlier, some say because he didn’t promote the government’s failed-coup line. The government has said Khoc’s recall was part of a routine reshuffle.
Prior to coming to Washington, Akuong held two key ministerial positions: energy and mining from 2010 to 2011, and minister of commerce and industry from 2011 until he and everyone else in the cabinet were sacked by Kiir in July 2013. Akuong was also a member of parliament at the time and held onto that post “until the president asked me to come and be his representative in the United States of America.”
“It is a big change because my experience was mostly in the executive and as a legislator. Now I’m an ambassador, a diplomat in a very important country, the U.S.A. It’s a challenge because I’m taking this post at a very critical time in our history,” he said.
The United States was instrumental in that history, playing a key role in South Sudan’s bid for independence over the last 20 years. That included supporting a comprehensive peace agreement in 2005 and the historic 2011 referendum that let the south secede from its largely Arab-Islamic neighbor to the north (many U.S. evangelical groups also backed the split). Even though South Sudan instantly faced enormous challenges as one of the world’s poorest and least developed countries — famously having only 35 miles of paved roads — the international community had high hopes for its first president, Kiir, a longtime independence fighter.
But praise, and patience, for Kiir has since run out. Both Kiir and Machar have a long, bitter history (during South Sudan’s fight for independence, Machar broke off from the SPLA and formed his own splinter group) — and neither seems keen to compromise now. Their personal rivalry has enflamed longstanding ethnic divisions and tested the international community, which accuses both sides of abuses in the current fighting.
Akuong, educated in Egypt and England, wouldn’t criticize his boss but lamented the “very negative impacts” that the conflict has wreaked on his country.
“The economy has shrunk significantly. We still depend on oil revenues and because of this war some oil wells have been shut down and oil prices have gone down along with volume of production,” he said.
On a humanitarian level, “there has been a lot of displacement,” Akuong conceded. More than 2 million people are internally displaced or have fled the country, and at least 4.6 million South Sudanese are food insecure.
But Akuong is hopeful that South Sudan can pull out of its nosedive and maybe even live up to the promise the world placed on it when it became the world’s newest nation on July 9, 2011. Even during the crisis, he said, “With the help of the international community and with the lead of the United States as the biggest humanitarian contributor, we have managed to provide relief to people affected inside the country. We have managed to provide some basic health services and to continue operating schools and security.”
But aid agencies have complained that government forces are among those preventing them from getting life-saving help to people in need. Schools in parts of the country have been shut down for months on end and even occupied by soldiers from both sides of the conflict. Hospitals have been attacked and patients killed in their beds. A statement released in June by UNICEF said government soldiers castrated little boys and let them bleed to death and killed girls as young as 8 after raping them. The army has denied that its forces committed the atrocities but said it would investigate.
The international community was understandably outraged by the UNICEF allegations. Weeks later, the U.N. Security Council imposed targeted sanctions — travel bans and asset freezes — on half a dozen military leaders from both fighting camps. The United States, Canada and the European Union have already sanctioned military leaders, to little avail. The international community began voicing its frustration with South Sudan more than a year ago when an international donor conference was held for the embattled young nation in Norway.
The reaction of South Sudanese Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin at the time was to liken his country to a naughty young child and ask the international community for forgiveness and understanding. “When [your last born] runs around, knocking glasses around, you don’t throw that wonderful last born through the window into the snow or into the sunshine…. The mother says, ‘Next time, you will not break the glasses.’ As far as South Sudan is concerned, this is an incident that has never been expected and I can assure you that with the resilience of our people, we will overcome this process.”
Akuong told us that he understands the frustration of the international community, particularly here in the United States.
“In our contacts with the State Department, they express the same view — a lot of frustration — and Congress says it’s frustrated,” the ambassador said. “And we in South Sudan, we are frustrated that we did not reach peace in the shortest possible time. We continue to lose lives and that is very unfortunate, whether on the rebel or government sides. People continue to suffer from displacement and lack of services. Our economy needs peace so that we can revive it and give full services to the people of South Sudan.”
But he urged the world not to throw up its hands and walk away from South Sudan because of the apparent inability of its leaders to make peace.
“If South Sudan slides back or becomes a failed state, that is very dangerous for all of us,” Akuong said. “This will create a vacuum in the region and negative forces can come and fill the vacuum.”
Akuong is optimistic that the conflict and the frustration will soon be a thing of the past. “When I met President Obama, he pledged to work with the government of South Sudan and work with my president to see to it that the bloodshed stops and peace is restored in South Sudan,” Akuong said.
In turn, Kiir “accepted the assistance of the United States to bring peace to South Sudan, and we know Secretary [of State] John Kerry has been instrumental in bringing the two sides to the table to negotiate peace,” Akuong added.
“We are about to be there. The gap between the government and rebels is narrow and if the parties are pushed, I think we will compromise. The government will compromise and I think the rebels should compromise to reach peace in South Sudan.”
About the Author
Karin Zeitvogel (@Zeitvogel) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.