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South Sudan FM: More dialogue with rebels needed | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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South Sudan’s Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin. (Reuters/Thomas Mukoya)

South Sudan's Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin. (Reuters/Thomas Mukoya)

South Sudan’s Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin. (Reuters/Thomas Mukoya)

Khartoum, Asharq Al-Awsat—South Sudan Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin said that dialogue between Sudan’s central government and rebels loyal to former vice-president Riek Machar have made significant progress, but stressed that more dialogue is still needed over the assignment of ministerial portfolios.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat from Khartoum, Benjamin hailed the peace talks which resumed in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa in mid-December, revealing that only a few issues now divide the two sides.

South Sudan has been embroiled in an intermittent civil war between the central government, led by President Salva Kiir, and his former vice-president Riek Machar.

Asharq Al-Awsat: The year 2014 saw several rounds of talks between you and Riek Machar. You signed a ceasefire deal but it did not hold. The last round of negotiations was suspended to be resumed in January. What stage are the negotiations at now?

Barnaba Marial Benjamin: I can say with confidence that significant progress has been made in the negotiations. President Salva Kiir has met with Riek Machar at length, for eight hours, and agreed to form a transitional government, with a prime minister without executive powers. South Sudan is a presidential republic whose president is elected by the people. Therefore, they agreed to form a government consisting of the president, the vice-president, prime minister and three deputy prime ministers.

We also agreed to unify the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) within three months and include those who rebelled against it into its ranks as well as help elements from the white army—an irregular force loyal to Machar—to return to their villages.

Q: What are the remaining divisive issues?

President Kiir and Machar differ on two issues. The first issue is related to the form of the government. Our vision is that we are a republican system, with the president and his vice-president being at the apex of power. Nevertheless, we can, through the parliament, create the post of a non-executive prime minister with limited powers, making use of the experiences of some regional countries, such as Uganda, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Angola. But Machar argues in favor of abolishing the post of the vice-president and the devolution of his powers to the prime minister, making him the country’s number two. This demand contradicts the constitution.

The second point of contention relates to the prime minister’s powers. Machar is of the view that the PM should chair the council of ministers, which is improbable in a presidential system.

Q: In the last round of talks you agreed to form 27 ministries but failed to agree on their distribution. Has any progress been made on this issue?

We agreed on the number of ministries and the formation of a government that involves all sides. There are 18 parties in South Sudan and the distribution of ministries should not be limited to the government and rebels. We want to involve the other parties too. But the rebels do not want to involve any of the 10 former detainees [a group consisting of leaders from the ruling party led by former secretary-general Pagan Amum]. That’s why we suggested appointing three deputy prime ministers, one from the parties, the second from Amum’s group and the third from the government. We also proposed that the prime minister be from the rebels, perhaps Machar himself, or a nominee of his choice.

Q: Leaks from the recent talks suggest that five ministries remain the subject of dispute and that a deputy minister will be appointed at several ministries. Is this true?

There are no disputes about the sovereignty or powers of the ministers but minor disagreement remains over the posts of deputy defense and interior ministers. A consensus can be reached through more dialogue.

Q: Tensions and mistrust have ensured that no ceasefire deal lasts as long as it should, prompting African Union mediators to propose the creation of an international buffer zone to separate the two sides during the transitional period. What is your view?

This will not happen and we completely reject this proposal. Insurgents did not observe the ceasefire, but government forces have not moved from the locations set by the president since January 25, 2014, with the exception of when they had to defend themselves. Some rebel officers do not obey their leader’s [Machar] orders and they violated the ceasefire, prompting us to call for observers to determine who fired the first shot.

Q: The presence of Ugandan forces in South Sudan has been one of the major problems during the talks. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni recently said his country’s forces will not leave South Sudan until after things become stable. Who decides when these forces will leave?

Countries have the right to hold bilateral agreements. We have an African Union-mediated bilateral agreement with Uganda which allows forces from the armies of Uganda, Democratic Congo and SPLM to pursue Lord’s Resistance Army forces. Our agreement with Uganda has nothing to do with the war with the rebels.

Q: Oil prices are plummeting. The war has prompted South Sudan to borrow in order to make up for the dwindling output. Is this sustainable?

Any government has the right to borrow to repair the deficit it faces. It has become clear that the decline in oil prices has caused a deficit for the South Sudanese government and oil companies. This has forced us to borrow from other sides, but this has not affected us. Creditors still receive their share of South Sudan’s oil.

Q: Relations between Juba and Khartoum have strained and both sides have been exchanging accusations to the extent that Omar Al-Bashir’s government said it would pursue insurgents fleeing to South Sudan. Would Juba consider this breach of South Sudanese sovereignty a declaration of war?

We do not have any presence in Sudan. And we are astonished by people who say we support the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-North) and the movements of Darfur. The history of the struggle in South Sudan does not see an agreement with the Justice and Equality Movement [a rebel group operating in the Darfur region].