London, Asharq Al-Awsat—In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Foreign Minister of South Sudan Dr. Barnaba Marial Benjamin confirmed that Juba is determined to achieve peace and stability by negotiating with rebels led by former Vice-President Riek Machar.
Benjamin spoke with Asharq Al-Awsat during an official visit to London, the first time that a senior South Sudanese official has visited the British capital since the country’s independence from Sudan two years ago. He denied that an ethnic conflict is taking place in the country, affirming that African nations have always been beset by wars. He was insistent that Juba would emerge stronger and more unified from the current unrest plaguing South Sudan.
The South Sudanese foreign minister spoke about the ongoing conflict in the country, Juba’s desire to join the Commonwealth, and the latest developments in the country’s fractious political arena.
Asharq Al-Awsat: What was the goal of your recent visit to London, the first visit of its kind by an official from South Sudan since its independence two years ago?
Barnaba Marial Benjamin: This visit was important given the circumstances our country is facing, and it was the first visit of its kind by an official from South Sudan since we secured independence. I believe that it was a fruitful visit. I met with the British Foreign Office Minister for Africa and the Secretary of State for International Development. I also addressed the Commonwealth Council.
Q: What issues did British officials raise or discuss with you?
They focused, of course, on the violence our country has witnessed recently and the peace process that is taking place in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. We touched on the humanitarian aid provided by Britain in order to mitigate the effects of the destruction caused by the rebels. Some of the projects look at the urgent humanitarian needs following the failed coup attempt led by former Vice-President Riek Machar. Officials in London confirmed their ongoing cooperation with South Sudan to help us solve the crisis and move towards development and stability. We also repeated our request to join the Commonwealth of Nations, and we were promised that this issue would be reviewed at the end of the year during a meeting of the heads of member states.
On the whole, the visit was a success. We were able to successfully explain the situation in our country, especially as there have been many distortions of what is happening during this war.
Q: Negotiations between your delegation and the rebels have faltered. How are the peace talks proceeding in Addis Ababa?
We entered negotiations with the rebels without preconditions, and the government agreed to the participation of the seven released [political detainees] and they subsequently arrived in Addis Ababa. We will continue the dialogue with the rebels until we reach an agreement that will end the crisis and the suffering of our people and achieve complete reconciliation.
Q: There are concerns that former Secretary-General of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), Pagan Amum, and some his comrades could be subject to a military tribunal in order to isolate or even eliminate them. Are such concerns valid?
They will not be brought before a military tribunal and there is no attempt to eliminate them. These are rumors. Investigations are still underway, and when the results of the investigation reach the Minister of Justice he will present the findings to President Salva Kiir, who will then consider the recommendation and work with it in accordance with the law and the constitution. Amum is also facing allegations of corruption and his party’s funds, but that has no link to the events that are taking place.
Q: Elections are set to take place next year, while some people believe that there is a systematic campaign to isolate the more well-known leading SPLM figures. What does the future hold for South Sudan?
Yes, elections will take place next year, and the SPLM will hold its general conference and the leaders that left or broke away from the party had the choice to form their own parties. There was reconciliation with these leaders and they returned to the SPLM. We will achieve peace and comprehensive national reconciliation and we will turn over a new leaf for our people.
Q: The international community appears frustrated with your government, especially given the ongoing devastating war that is gripping the world’s newest country. Did Britain express any frustration during your meeting with officials?
There were wars and conflicts in Africa long before and after the independence of South Sudan. There are conflicts in Somalia, Angola, Mozambique, Sudan and other countries, and we are part of Africa. But I believe that the situation in South Sudan is better by virtue of the fact that we are a young country and what happened will force everybody to face their responsibilities and challenges in order to achieve a better situation for our people. There is great hope for achieving peace, stability and development.
It is well known that our people struggled for 50 years for our freedom and dignity, and in the 2011 referendum more than 98 percent of the vote was in favor of secession. The international community helped us to get to this stage; therefore it is only natural that those who helped would be concerned. For that reason I repeat that our country will emerge from this crisis stronger and more cohesive.
Q: The international community is not convinced that Machar attempted to carry out a coup, as your government has repeatedly claimed. What was your response to the officials in London in this regard?
Of course, there have been several interpretations of what happened, but as far as we are concerned we can confirm that a group did attempt to overthrow the ruling regime by military force. It is not the case that the entire international community agrees on one interpretation of what happened. In fact, there are some countries that have promised to try to change the ruling regime by force.
There was a rebellion within the army and elements that support Machar carried out indiscriminate killing, especially on December 15 and 16. How can what happened not be called a coup, after Machar appointed governors in areas that he sought to take control of in the Unity, Upper Nile and Jonglei states? Moreover, his statements are further evidence that he attempted to overthrow an elected president.
Q: The international community has expressed its concern about an “ethnic conflict” between the largest tribes of South Sudan, the Dinka, to which President Silva Kiir belongs, and Machar’s Nuer tribe. Is fighting taking place on this basis?
It is not true that this is an ethnic conflict—this is an incorrect interpretation, and we have heard this from the media and others in the international community. Our armed forces foiled an attempt to be dragged into a tribal conflict and this further strengthened the cohesion and unity of the people of South Sudan.
It is true that there were some examples of “lack of discipline” as some soldiers killed a number of citizens from the Nuer tribe in the first two days in Juba and the rebels sought revenge in Bor, the capital of Jonglei, and a number of Dinkas were killed. But that does not reflect on the people as a whole; there hasn’t been any friction between the Dinka and Nuer tribes. Moreover, the Chief of General Staff is from the Nuer tribe, and there are four or five others in government who shoulder large responsibilities who are also from the Nuer tribe. Therefore, one cannot compare what happened [here] to what happened in Rwanda in the early 1990s and the genocide . . . This comparison does not apply to South Sudan. South Sudan is a multi-ethnic country and is home to 64 tribes.
Q: These events have led to talk of imposing an international guardianship for a ten-year period until the country is able to stand up on its own. What is your response to this?
This is completely out of the question. Why didn’t the international community intervene in the war taking place in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has been going on for 30 years? Why didn’t it intervene in South Africa or in Mozambique or in Somalia? The government of South Sudan is able to exercise its national sovereignty, and it has the political will to end the internal crises. As I mentioned before, such incidents take place in many other countries, so why do people think South Sudan is “paralyzed” and does not have the leadership or political will [to deal with its crises]? We do not need any international intervention like this.
Q: How do you explain the deployment of 12,000 UN troops and the Security Council’s decision to send another 5,000 troops to South Sudan?
The United Nations deployed troops when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in 2005 and the Security Council has continued to renew these forces due to the existence of a number of threats and to help us achieve peace and stability. But we have a national army that has demonstrated its ability to protect the country effectively, and we have an evolving civil service and police force as well.
Q: What about the crimes against humanity that have been recorded in South Sudan? What is the government doing about that?
The government has formed a committee headed by the former Chief Justice, and there are ongoing investigations in collaboration with the United Nations and the African Union. Officers and soldiers have been arrested and will be brought to trial if the charges against them are proven. I don’t believe that any official or minister has been charged.
Q: Political circles in Juba are saying that Sudan is behind the events that took place in your country, via ministers and officials in your government who have had close ties [with Sudan] for a long time. Is there any truth to this speculation?
These interpretations are, of course, not true. In his first statement [following the creation of South Sudan], Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir said that he supports the elected government headed by Salva Kiir. Moreover, Khartoum commissioned its ambassador, Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa Al-Dabi, to work with the mediation team in Addis Ababa, and we in South Sudan have confidence in President Bashir.
Q: Why did Juba request the intervention of Ugandan troops? When will they leave your country?
Ugandan forces have been present in the country since 2008, in accordance with a joint agreement between South Sudan, Uganda and Congo in order to expel the Lord’s Resistance Army in the region, and the US military is assisting us in this task. During the events that took place in December in Juba, we asked the Ugandan forces to transfer their troops from Western Equatoria to Juba International Airport to assist in the evacuation of Americans. There were also American forces, as well as troops from Kenya, Sudan and Uganda itself.
Q: The rebels say they have evidence of Ugandan forces intervening in Bor, and over the past week, Washington has reiterated its position that foreign troops must leave. What do you say to this?
The Ugandan troops were protecting the small airport in Bor through which American citizens were being evacuated. The rebels tried to bomb the airport to disrupt the evacuation process, and there was an exchange of gunfire. But the Ugandan forces did not intervene in any military operations in the Upper Nile and Unity states. We have clarified to the international community the reasons for the presence of the Ugandan forces in accordance with the agreement, and after the cessation of hostilities agreement these forces will go back to Western Equatoria state in order to continue their mission. What’s strange is that Machar, who calls for expelling the Ugandan army, is the one who approved the agreement when he was vice-president, which we signed with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.