February 12, 2014 (LONDON) - South Sudan’s Foreign Minister did not endear himself to the international media in London on Wednesday when he only took four questions at a press conference organised on his behalf by the African Press Organization.
- South Sudan Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin speaking at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London on 11 Feb 2014 (Photo: IISS)
Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin gave no further details on the current conflict in South Sudan other than repeating statements given at previous events. He did, however, speak to young South Sudanese and others at the London School of Economics on Wednesday evening.
At the press conference Marial reiterated South Sudan’s position that Ugandan forces will only leave his country once they have completed the process of eliminating the Lord’s Resistance Army rebel group from Central Africa.
The foreign minister has repeatedly said that the Ugandan soldiers who are fighting alongside the South Sudanese army (SPLA) against factions who have defected from the military were redeployed from positions in Western Equatoria, where the LRA had previously been active.
No mention was made of the new forces deployed by Kampala since the conflict began in mid-December.
Marial said that 100 Dinka army officers had been arrested for targeting Nuer civilians in Juba during the first days of the conflict. However, he maintained that any ethnic violence was confined to the SPLA and the rebels - who are mainly soldiers who have defected - rather than between South Sudanese civilians.
As he had in his previous public appearances he accused the rebels led by Riek Machar of playing the ethnic card and emphasised the government’s willingness to bring all those accused of killings to justice.
The two-month old conflict has killed an estimated 10,000 people and displaced nearly one million but the foreign minister was keen, as he has been throughout his trip, to highlight investment opportunities.
The United Nations has just graded South Sudan’s humanitarian situation in its highest category of alert, putting it on the same level as Syria.
On Wednesday Marial appeared on a panel to discuss the current situation in South Sudan at the International Institute for Strategic Studies with the BBC’s former Sudan and South Sudan correspondent James Copnall and political commentator Thomas Mawan Muortat.
With South Sudan coming under increased international scrutiny since independence in 2011, even before the current conflict began, Marial maintained that his government needed support and good will.
Muortat said that the way oil has been managed in South Sudan has been "a disaster", adding that there is an element of the government that is not well intentioned.
The foreign minister admitted that when former rebels like the SPLM take power, as they did in 2005 after a peace agreement with Khartoum, there can be mismanagement of oil revenue. Over $4 billion has gone missing in South Sudan but the government has learnt its lessons and now accounts for every dollar, he said.
Throughout his trip, Marial has maintained that the fighting among the presidential guards that triggered the current conflict was a failed coup attempt and complained that many western government’s and international media have failed to use the same language.
The BBC’s James Copnall responded to this by pointing out that the African Union had also not condemned the fighting as a coup attempt and suggested that the international media, analysts and diplomats would need further evidence to convince them of the government’s narrative.
What happened on December 15 has been interpreted very differently by the people of South Sudan, Copnall said, meaning that what exactly occurred is extremely significant in terms of resolving the conflict.
Thomas Mawan Muortat told the meeting at IISS that a deal between President Salva Kiir, the rebels led by Riek Machar and other members of the political elite in South Sudan would not be enough to resolve the country’s underlying problems.
He called for the scope of those who can be involved in the peace process to be widened, adding that most South Sudanese were disenfranchised due to a justice system that does not function, high unemployed and illiteracy.
Copnall added that a peace deal based on the military balance of the moment would probably not address the wider issues in South Sudan and asked the minister whether President Kiir’s policy of amnesties and reintegrating rebel forces and other armed forces back into the army would continue.
THE BIG TENT IS STILL OPEN
Marial responded by saying that President Salva Kiir "has a big heart" and that "forgiveness" was not only in the Christian religion but was part of South Sudan’s traditions.
"The big tent is still there", he said, adding that Machar is welcome to contest for the South Sudanese presidency at the 2015 elections so long as his actions are based on democratic principles.
President Kiir is determined to address human rights issues and investigate all allegations of violence against civilians during the conflict, Marial said.
The South Sudanese government, he said, is committed to the peace process which is underway in Addis Ababa.
Seven senior SPLM politicians, who had been arrested in connection with the alleged coup attempt are due to arrive in Ethiopia on Thursday to participate at the talks. Juba released to Kenya at the end of January.
Marial, a former South Sudanese information minister, suggested that instead of describing the seven who have been released and the four who remain in custody as "political detainees" the media should refer to them as "suspected coup makers".
"There is a light at the end of the tunnel", Marial said, comparing situation to other African conflicts which have taken longer to resolve, pointing to the ceasefire deal sign on 23 January. The deal has failed to stop the fighting and has been violated by both sides.
At the London School of Economic Marial spent over two hours talking to students answering eight questions, which covered Dinka-Nuer relations after the ethnic violence of the last few weeks, as well as corruption.
The meeting, which was attended by representatives from South Sudan’s main opposition party the SPLM-DC, was chaired by Tim Allen the Head of LSE’s Department of International Development and a Professor of Anthropology who has worked in Sudan and South Sudan.
Allen only let South Sudanese people ask questions of the minister.