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South Sudan on the precipice

South Sudan on the precipice

Cirino Hiteng Ofuho (PhD) is a South Sudanese national born in old Torit district of Eastern Equatoria State and a cadre of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), whose arms wing is the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), which is responsible for the freedom of South Sudan. Ofuho worked closely with Chairman John Garang de Mabior, founding father of the Republic of South Sudan in various capacities: apart from being a prominent member of the delegation that negotiated the CPA, he was Director of the SPLM Chairman's Office in Nairobi Kenya and Office Manager until the Chairman's fateful demise in a helicopter crash end of July 2005; DG SPLM Commission for External Relations which was headed by Nhial Deng Nhial, a member of the SPLM Leadership (to date). Ofuho was also in charge of the SPLM Chapters worldwide until after the singing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005. During the interim period of 2005-2011, he served in various duties including: Undersecretary Ministry of Regional Cooperation (January 2006-2008); Undersecretary Office of the President Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS) between 2008-2010; Minister Office of the President, GOSS (2010-2011); Minister of Culture, Youth and Sports, GOSS (2011-2013). During the current crisis that started in December 2013, he was detained together with the group of eleven (11) later known as G10. After the signing of the Agreement to Resolve the Conflict in South Sudan (ARCISS), Ofuho was appointed State Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation in Transitional Government of National Unity (TGONU), which collapsed with the fighting of the 7-8th, July 2016 in State House (J1), Juba. Ofuho holds a PhD in International Relations from the University of Kent at Canterbury, UK and has taught several years in Kenya, Eritrea and gave lectures at PSIR in Addis Ababa University in the years 1990s and 2000s. Ofuho was back in Addis this week where sat down with Asrat Seyoum of The Reporter to discuss the current situation in South Sudan and the role of the so-called G 10 in that country. Excerpts: 

The ReporterBefitting your history during the protracted struggle for the independence of South Sudan, the so-called Group10 is one of the major actors in South Sudanese politics today. However, as a group or individually, none of you in G 10 command a visible military force and are involved in the armed conflict which is taking place in recent times. So, one would wonder what the role of this group would be in the political life of such a militarized country. Do you care to reflect on that?

Cirino Hiteng Ofuho: As you have said it, all of us in the G10 group were key players in the liberation struggle that was led by the late John Garang. And, we moved on to negotiate the first agreement the Naivasha agreement which was signed in Nairobi, Kenya. After that, all of us participated in the most senior government positions in Sudan during the interim period. So, all G10 members are very senior leaders who worked very tirelessly to make the independence of South Sudan a reality. When Garang died, we all agreed to move together with Salva Kiir to realize the independence of South Sudan. Then we become members of this new nation. So, we worked with Kiir very tirelessly. Unfortunately, our relationship with Salva Kiir began to deteriorate because of some elements in the SPLM movement, those who have joined the movement from the National Congress Party (NCP) in the north. They are South Sudanese yes; but these people had a different ideology which was not liberation movement but one that aligns with NCP and president Bashir. So, these NCP guys together with president Bashir took over Salva until he began to be suspicious of us. He started to look at the G10 as the John Garang boys. He then started to be afraid of the G10. And most of the G10 are very senior generals; only few of us are civilians from this group. The NCP guys then tried to take over what we have struggled to gain— the independence of South Sudan; obviously we said no. So, we went to the leadership of the party and demanded reforms. We demanded  to democratize the party because we could not behave like Khartoum or NCP. If that is the case, we said, we should not have fought them for so many years. We wanted freedom and democracy that we struggled for. So, we fell apart in 2013. Usually, we had the same perspectives as Riek Machar but when 2013 happened, he went to the bush and we were rounded up and imprisoned. Then on pressure from countries like Ethiopia and Kenya in the region, we were released from prison and we were involved in the process of finding solution to the crisis. Indeed, we spendt more than two years in Addis Ababa without a solution. All through that process, we chose not to raise arms; we insisted on peaceful struggle. Before, we were justified to take up arms because we were fighting for our independence; do you know who we going to fight? Our own brothers? Rather we should be talking and discussing not blazing guns. So, The G10 is known for this approach; we never advocated violence.

You said you have been pushing for reform in the SPLM before the crisis. What were some of these agendas that you put forward for reform?

I can count quite a few fundamental issues. One is the need to have a term limit on the party leadership structure. For instance, if there is a two term limit on party leadership then after 10 years some new faces would step up to lead the party. There is no way that one person could be a party chairman forever; he has to serve limited terms and go. The other reform we talked about is the need to install the secret ballot system in the voting system of the party, not raising hands. All basic decisions have to be decided on a secret ballot, we argued. Apart from that, we said that choice of leaders at the grassroots level must be determined by the people, not by the top political leadership. The leadership should not hand-pick leaders at the grassroots level. This should be the right of a liberated people. Then we also said, let us open up the political space and let other political parties come and contest for power. We also proposed to take a strong stance on corruption in the country. We, of course, did not call ourselves the G10 back then, we were just the reformists but we understood that the party needed a lot of trimming at the time. We also said that the party needs to expand its Politbureau and let young leaders come into the system.

Since the crisis that happened in 2013, you have been both praised and vilified by supporters of both camps. What is not clear to me is your (G10’s) position on the two warring factions in South Sudan?

Our position towards the two factions has been and still is consistent. We appeal to both of them to abandon war and start talking. We were praised for this stance since we decided to appeal to both of them saying that let’s drop the fighting and go home and carry out the reforms that needs to be performed. The Addis Ababa agreement to resolve the conflict in South Sudan is mainly about reforms. We said to go home and start implementing the agreement revamping the security sector, which is also the most important of all the chapters in the agreement. We said free Juba of unknown gunmen and deteriorating security conditions. We added, let’s disarm everybody and create an army that does not belong to one particular ethnic group. We argued we need to create an army that protects the sovereignty of the country; not protect the leader. And, after we have gone through all the reforms, we will then hold a free and fair election. We said, the SPLM has to nominate its one candidate in a convention and accepting contesting power with other political groups in the country. With regard to the two groups our position has been clear. We believe that both Machare and Kiir would do good to the people South Sudan by just stepping aside. You see, these two people when they come together, the tension is provocative enough to cause a full-blown war. This sentiment was reflected by the president of Botswana recently. He indicated that the two people are highly incompatible to-one-another. I was deputy foreign minister before and I had a chance to attend cabinet meetings and I tell you the tension between the two individuals is just too much. And, there are many ways of getting these two people out of office. The AU report, for instance, incriminates both of these individuals. So, they will get out of the way simply if they were made to answer to their crimes as it was reported in AU report. But, this peace agreement had offered them safe heaven. What the agreement proposes is that let’s not take these crimes to the African court or the ICC, but finish things in our own South Sudanese courts. They would be granted safe exit provided that they clear the way for other leaders to take the country forward. We can reconcile silently and new leader could take the nation forward. If it can bring peace, I believe it would be wise to give them safe exit from South Sudan.

However, given the ethnic nature of the conflict, some people say that political solution without the two personalities might not be possible since they are from the two biggest tribes in South Sudan. What do you say to that?

That is incorrect. You know, the majority of G10 for instance are from the Dinka tribe. So, it is not only Salva Kiir that can lead the Dinkas and it is not only Riek Machar who can lead Nuer. There is a lot of others who are capable to lead. I myself come from the Equatorial region and there many other like me. One notion that has to be corrected is that even if you combine the Dinkas and Nuers they are not overall majorities in South Sudan. There are a number of ethnic groups in the country with sizable number. There are 64 tribes and ethnic groups in South Sudan and everybody is focusing on the Dinka and the Nuer. The story of South Sudan is not that of these two tribes. Of course, they had the priority to take arms and take power but there are many groups to reckon with in South Sudan. You see, that is partly why they don’t want democratic elections; because no Dinka or Nuer will win without the support of the other tribes.

Do you think a political solution without Kiir and Machar would not have a cost in the form of endless conflict?

What we have called for in our communiqué is exactly this. We are welcoming the proposed regional intervention forces to South Sudan which will mainly be composed of Ethiopia, Kenya and Rwanda. Once this force takes over the security of Juba and other towns, we plan to call for a round table where every actor in South Sudan will be welcomed to participate. Once we sat down, we can talk about an interim medicine for the problems that are facing South Sudan. What we are suggesting, for example, is to have an interim leader, someone from the church or the civil society while all of us politicians go away and organize our parties to contest in free and fair elections.

Let’s talk about the South Sudan army for…   

There is no army in South Sudan anymore. There are only militia groups.

But, that is one of the challenges in South Sudan now. Do you think the SPLM army will ever be unified under the national army of South Sudan?

But that is what we are supporting now; starting fresh. We are saying that we should gather all able-bodied persons from all tribes in South Sudan, screen them, train them and mobilize a new national army. The army should be a nucleus of all ethnic groups in the country not like the SPLM where it is pooled from one or two tribes. This is the chapter of the agreement about security sector reform. We do have able military office even among us who will be able to reorganize a new army which is broader in terms of representation. One thing you have to know is SPLA, the original army, has been destroyed by Salva Kiir anyway when he went to his home and bring villagers, give them a month’s training and give them a gun. You see, what happened in 7th and 8th of July has killed so money civilians than the incident in 2013. Still, there is fighting going on in South Sudan. This shows you severe lack of discipline in the men who are carrying the arms. In the 35-minute combat in the state house in Juba around 500 have been killed. Can you believe 500 dying in fighting that took place around national palace; it is absurd.

But, starting fresh with national would mean disbanding the original army or militia as you call them. Is it not another headache?

It is indeed. It is very true. But, we are going to have a program to do that. This program will disarm, demobilize, rehabilitate and resettle these people. We need to create a package which no doubt will be very costly package. We have to have strong financing from donors, the regions and also from our own internal resources. It will be a costly project I agree but it has to be done. The original SPLA fighters are no more there; they have gone to their villages and have resumed life. The militia that is mobilized now is also from the villages and they can easily be rehabilitated. We have to enforce these terms and enforce law and order.

But, recent events have also raised questions as to how the militia is loyal to both Kiir and Machare since the calls made by both leaders to cease the fighting in Juba was not heeded at all?

I think that is the right observation. One would even wonder if these people are really in control of their armed forces. The answer sadly is that they are both are not in control. The generals have simply gone beyond what military discipline allows.  Both sides have killed each other; so now who controls the military commanders are not the two leaders. Rather, it is the anger and thrust for revenge. There appears to be no chain of command. The generals are singing revenge and they are not listening to anybody. The other thing that drives the generals is the corruption and monetary gain. In fact, now, the money that comes to South Sudan from oil or donors, goes to the generals. In fact, they even force the national bank to give them money; there go there and take it by force.

As long time member of the SPLM, can you defend the argument that says the source of the problem for South Sudan is lack of clear political and economic programs in SPLM beyond liberation?

That is not true at all. Under John Garang we had a clear and robust political program of liberating South Sudan. And he was very articulate in explaining this to leaders in the region and international community, for example, and was able to get support for the struggle. Apart from that, we had clear economic vision and development program for our people. For instance, Garang had a clear vision of fueling agricultural development using the revenue from oil and built strong infrastructure like roads. We were going to go what we called the food revolutions; we were going to use the resources from oil sector to produce food and strengthen agriculture. Then, we were going to proceed to social sectors like health, schools and so on. These programs were at the top of Garang’s priorities. We have big program. Unfortunately, the person who was leading the whole thing passed away in that plane crash. However, we are not sure if he articulated that vision but all of us were there when Garang discussed these programs; the documents are still there. This is part of the problems we had with current leaders. We were telling them not to diverge from the Garang’s vision. But, a lot of these were not achieved. That was why a number of us in the system started to ask what we as a party were doing. We clearly were not delivering enough to the people. We also had other programs like for the youth. I was minister for youth at some point and I know that we had the programs.  We also had political programs to solidify our national unity.  And we also had a foreign policy and how we should relate to our neighbors.

Experts also say that another complicating factor for the South Sudan conflict is the involvement of foreign entities either directly and indirectly. Do you agree with that assessment?

No. There is only one foreign force involved in the South Sudan conflict which is Uganda. There are no other forces on the ground in the country. Even Sudan does not have forces there in South Sudan. There are indeed some insurgencies along the borderlines but they are not really involved with the nucleus of the conflict in South Sudan. But, there was only one country that got involved when the crisis had started which is Uganda. We have also told the Ugandans this, we were happy with their involvement at the time since it is to avoid bloodshed. The only mistake is that they should have pulled out after that. Now, we have Ugandan forces fighting for Kiir that is a grave mistake on the side of Uganda. But, the interest is there still now. Until 2013, we had Ugandans, Ethiopians, Kenyans, Eritreans and others doing very well in South Sudan. The business was booming from many. Then when, the conflict erupted, a lot of these investors from the region lost a lot of their properties. That is why they have interests. You know, Uganda was generating some 100 million dollars from South Sudan. It was beneficial to all in the region.

While the G10 and Machar is for the proposed regional forces in South Sudan with a bigger mandate to protect peace, Kiir-led government opposes this on the basis of sovereignty. What is the real reason behind Kiir’s refusal?

It is because he knows that once these forces demilitarize Juba, Kiir will have no leverage such as threat of arrest to impose his interest on the other political actors. Nor will any armed forces in South Sudan.  A level ground will be created to openly debate and discuss our issues. Then, Kiir has to convince me why he should remain in power. It is true for Machar and all of us. This is why they are afraid of it. On the other hand, they fear this force because it could be a way that they could be held accountable for crimes they have committed; crimes documented in the AU report. They could then be easily arrested or made to answer for the crimes. But, there is no point in his sovereignty argument since the concept is meaningless if the people are not protected. Sovereignty comes with a responsibility to protect one’s people. What is sovereignty when people are killed on the street? That is why we support this regional stabilizing force proposal. He just does not want that level playing field to be created.