By Tom Law
February 10, 2014 (LONDON) - South Sudan’s foreign minister, Barnaba Marial Benjamin, said on Monday that there was no government order for the violence against civilians in the capital Juba in mid-December at the genesis of the seven-week-old conflict in the world’s youngest country.
- South Sudan’s foreign minister, Barnaba Marial Benjamin, pictured at Chatham House in London, where he was giving a speech on the current crisis on 10 February 2014 (Photo courtesy of Chatham House)
The minister said that peace talks would resume on Monday in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, adding that he was “optimistic” that the warring parties would be able to “resolve our differences through dialogue”.
However, later in the day it emerged that the rebels had boycotted the talks over non-implementation of the ceasefire deal signed on 23 January. The main issues at stake are the release of four senior political prisoners in Juba and the withdrawal of Ugandan forces from South Sudan.
Speaking at a meeting in London, a member of the UK-based opposition United South Sudan Party urged Marial to “tell the truth” about what happened in the early days of the conflict and admit that president Salva Kiir was “personally responsible”.
Marial responded by saying that while there had been violence against civilians from the Nuer ethnic group in Juba, there were no government orders calling for the attacks, which included the targeting of people in their homes.
The perpetrators of the violence will be brought to justice through investigation teams in the South Sudanese army (SPLA) and the police, Marial said, adding that over 100 soldiers had already been arrested.
“Yes it [violence based on ethnicity] has happened but not like in Rwanda”, the foreign minister said, denying that any of the mass killings that occurred constituted genocide. Both sides have been accused of atrocities. The UN is currently being accused of delaying the publication of human rights report into the violence.
Marial accused former vice-president Riek Machar, who has assumed leadership of the rebel factions, of "playing the ethnic card" to mislead people that this is a war between Kiir’s Dinka tribe and Machar’s Nuer group.
Estimates vary greatly, but between 1,000 and 10,000 people are believed to have died and over 700,000 people displaced within the country, as well as over 120,000 who fled to neighbouring countries.
CHANGING THE NARRATIVE
South Sudan’s foreign minister was speaking at Chatham House, an independent think tank on international affairs, at the beginning of a week-long trip to London during which he hopes to convince international media and the UK government to accept Juba’s version of events over what triggered the conflict.
Marial said that although the events of 15 December have been given various names, the fighting between members of the presidential guard was a “coup attempt” and was not a spontaneous reaction to one group of soldiers being re-armed while others were deliberately excluded, as has been widely reported.
However, Douglas H. Johnson, a researcher and historian specialising in South Sudan affairs, told Sudan Tribune that too many details surrounding the events in Juba remain unclear or unaddressed.
“The narrative that we were given today about the somewhat accidental killing of people in Juba as a result of the fighting that broke out between the presidential guards, I think it is going to be very difficult for the international community to accept that as the full explanation of what happened”, he said.
Johnson said that he believed Kiir may have been acting “pre-emptively” as “the way in which the armed rebellion began does suggest that there was some network in existence between those commanders that got activated as a result of the incidence in Juba”.
Marial, who was promoted from his previous post as information minister last year after Kiir sacked his entire cabinet, criticised the international media for not reporting on the conflict as an attempt to seize power from a democratically elected government.
“There must be systems [in place so that] governments can no longer change hands in Africa through coup attempts”, he said, calling on Machar and his followers form their own party rather than continue to use the name of the ruling SPLM - the political wing of the former rebel movement that secured South Sudan’s independence in 2011.
However, Marial conceded that South Sudan army (SPLA), police and civil service needs urgent reforms to address ongoing human rights violations.
The current conflict has created “a need for reconciliation [...] based on the institutions we have built” since South Sudan was granted autonomy in a 2005 peace deal with the Sudanese government, he added.
Although rebels claim that talks could be undermined by the continued presence of the Ugandan military in South Sudan, Marial maintained that their presence would not be a hindrance to the peace process.
The foreign minister reiterated the government’s position that the Ugandan People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) has been deployed in South Sudan since 2008 to fight the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) - a Ugandan rebel group.
At South Sudan’s request, UPDF forces were redeployed from Western Equatoria state to Juba airport, allowing for the mass evacuation of foreign nationals to occur in the days after the conflict started, Marial said.
Marial made no mention of the additional Ugandan forces that have been deployed. The United States has led international calls for the UPDF to withdraw in order to aid the peace process.
Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni has admitted that the UPDF has fought alongside the SPLA, which has been battling for control of strategic towns in Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile that were held by rebels throughout much of the conflict.
THE JUBA FOUR
As well as its demand for the withdrawal of Ugandan troops, the rebel delegation is also seeking the release of the four senior members of the ruling party - most notably the former SPLM secretary-general, Pagan Amum, who remains in detention in Juba.
Another seven detainees were released to Kenya last month, but have so far been prevented from travelling to Addis Ababa to take part in the talks.
President Kiir sacked Amum at the same time as Machar in July last year amid allegations of corruption and working against the interests of the party. Amum has since been banned from travelling or talking to the media, but was among the politicians who held a press conference at the beginning of December in Juba during which Kiir’s running of the country was described as “increasingly dictatorial”.
Marial said that those at the meeting at were welcome to return to the capital, where they could witness for themselves that “there are no bullets flying in Juba unlike Central Africa”, referring to the current crisis in the neighbouring African country.
In the days preceding the outbreak of fighting in Juba a meeting of the SPLM’s National Liberation Council failed to resolve the growing gulf between Kiir’s supporters and those aligned with Machar and Amum, who were both vying to replace Kiir as SPLM chairperson.
“NO BAD BLOOD”
Marial played down recent tension between his government and the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), which had at one point been accused of wanting to establish a “parallel government” by President Kiir.
The dispute arose when a senior politician was refused entry to the UN’s base in Bor, the scene of some of the worst fighting, because he was accompanied by armed bodyguards. UNMISS defended the decision, saying it had a policy of not allowing weapons inside its camps.
However, Marial stressed there was “no bad blood” only “only administrative differences” over how to manage the logistics of its mandate to protect civilians. Some 70,000 people have taken from the violence in UN bases across the country.
The foreign minister noted that South Sudan had agreed to increase the number of peacekeepers in the country to 12,500 troops and to boost police numbers to 1,323.
ROOTS OF THE CONFLICT
Marial defended the SPLM’s record in government, describing the ruling party as “pioneers”, considering the lack of infrastructure and functioning institutions in the country at the time of the signing of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA).
In response to a question over whether the government’s nation-building efforts since independence had been sufficient to create a sense of national identity and unity, Marial said the SPLM had done “pretty well” considering the enormous challenges it faced.
“South Sudan will never be a failed state, we shall resolve our differences”, Marial said.
“We have a crisis. We will resolve it [...] What we have done since independence is amazing”, he said, emphasising South Sudan’s viability as a country and its rich natural resources.
Marial was also keen to share the historic background of South Sudan’s independence with his audience. Joseph Lagu, a veteran of the Anyanya movement, which fought for South Sudan separation from 1955 until 1972, was among Marial’s entourage.
Rosalind Marden, a former British ambassador to Sudan and until last year, the European Union’s special representative to Sudan and South Sudan, said that the EU and the so-called Troika group - UK, US and Norway – had worked hard on security reforms, but said that a lot more still needs to be done.
Grass roots reconciliation was needed to resolve the current crisis, she said, as well as a reinvigorated and inclusive constitutional review process.
Marial is also expected to hold talks with the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office about South Sudan joining the Commonwealth during his London visit.
- Division and Conflict in South Sudan: Prospects for Peace and Regional Security - 10 February 2014 - Chatham House, London - HE Dr Barnaba Marial Benjamin, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Republic of South Sudan