Two years after South Sudan gained its independence from Sudan in 2011, civil war broke out in the world’s youngest country. The ongoing conflict began following an attempted coup d’état by former Vice President Riek Machar against President Salva Kiir and has seen widespread human rights violations, including sexual violence, the use of child soldiers, and reports of ethnic cleansing. World Policy Journal spoke with the Permanent Representative of South Sudan to the United Nations, Akuei Bona Malwal, about the conflict, the upcoming general elections scheduled for July, and the prospects for peace.
WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: The civil war in South Sudan is often described as conflict between the two largest ethnic groups, the Nuer and the Dinka, and in 2016 the chair of the Commission of Human Rights in South Sudan compared the conflict with the Rwandan genocide. As a representative of South Sudan, do you feel that’s an accurate assessment of what’s going on?
AKUEI BONA MALWAL: No, it’s definitely not an accurate assessment. To understand the crisis, you really have to look at why it started in the first place. The crisis started as a power struggle within the ruling party, the SPLM [Sudan People’s Liberation Movement]. Riek Machar, the former vice president, decided to challenge the president, Salva Kiir. People were saying that if you want to challenge the president, then you have to go through the democratic channel—elections. They did not agree on how to really contest power, and tensions rose, and the next thing you know guns were fired and the war started. Because of the nature of our society, in order to get support, you have to go back to your own people: Riek Machar went back to his Nuer people, while the people who are with Salva Kiir are supporters of the government, but they’re not just the Dinkas. The army may be predominately controlled by the Dinka ethnic group—they are a majority—but they are not the only ones defending the government or defending Salva Kiir. There are other ethnic groups in the army because it’s the national army. So, the description of the conflict as a Nuer-Dinka thing makes it a simple case of tribalism, which it’s not really.
WPJ: It’s more complicated than that.
ABM: More complicated than that, exactly.
WPJ: There have been numerous cease-fire agreements dating back to 2014, but each time there has been some violation or the agreement hasn’t stuck. Since the latest agreement back in December, though, the U.N. has noted significant progress with the peace talks. Do you think this momentum is going to continue?
ABM: That’s everyone’s ultimate demand; you have to have peace talks. There are people who have signed a cessation of hostilities, but from time to time there are those who attack one another. But that doesn’t mean people actually want to go back to war. Still, up to now, the mediators have not sent in a peace-keeping force that would separate fighters in vulnerable areas. When they start attacking one another, this is cited as a violation, but it should be considered a minor issue compared to the big picture, which should be about how to restore progress toward a peace agreement. There is no alternative to peace. The South Sudanese want peace among themselves; they cannot be in perpetual war. The effects of the war are being felt now on our economy. It’s not in good shape: Our oil production has dropped by half, and oil prices are not as high as they were when we signed the CPA [Comprehensive Peace Agreement, signed in 2005 between the SPLM and the Sudanese government]. Now there is a real need for genuine peace, and for people to negotiate or revitalize the agreement in good faith.
WPJ: Moving beyond the civil war, South Sudan has also been facing drought, famine, and food insecurity. What is the United Nation’s responsibility when there are millions in a region facing drought and famine?
ABM: The international community and the United Nations have been providing assistance, food items, and medicine to the needy in South Sudan, and the international community is still supporting refugees. So they have been doing their part. Whether it’s enough or not, well, of course the conflict in South Sudan is not the only conflict that is demanding the world’s attention—there are a lot of others around the world. What we get, we are thankful for—for taking care of our refugees, for taking care of our people who need food because of the drought and the insecurity that prevents some people from growing crops the way they used to. Our role is to keep appealing to and encouraging the international community, the U.N. in particular, to assist those who are in need while we intensify our quest for a lasting peace in South Sudan.
WPJ: Does more need to be done by the U.N. to address food insecurity and the conflict?
ABM: Right now, it’s mainly the IGAD [Intergovernmental Authority on Development] and the EU that are dealing with the issue of peace in South Sudan, but they do report to the U.N., to the Security Council. In that sense, perhaps what the U.N. needs to do is encourage these groups to deal with this with a greater sense of urgency. What needs to be done is trust building between the warring parties, the mediators, and the international community. You cannot impose a solution or a resolution from outside; it has to come out of a negotiated settlement among the warring South Sudanese parties. Sometimes you find that when the international community is pressuring the warring parties, you end up with a deal that is not really implementable. The international community tells us that people are dying, people are suffering. The people will keep dying and suffering if we don’t take the time to bring a lasting peace that is acceptable to the South Sudanese, so it cannot be imposed from outside.
WPJ: South Sudan has elections scheduled for this summer. Initially they were set for 2015 but they were postponed because of the conflict, so this is going to be the first general election that South Sudan has had since its independence. Now, some have expressed concern that a vote could worsen the conflict. How do you think the elections will affect the political and the social stability in South Sudan?
ABM: The call for the election has to be put into context. If there is an agreement between the warring parties in South Sudan, including the government, about when to hold elections, then the government is open to that. The government says that in order to renew its mandate, there must be elections. But if the opposition is not willing to sign a peace agreement and says there should not be an election, and then later on calls the election illegitimate after the deadline, that is not acceptable. If there is an agreement now, then we will agree on a date to have an election.
WPJ: Do you think the public has trust in the electoral system after so many years of conflict?
ABM: It would be if the atmosphere were conducive to everybody campaigning and voting. Everybody would prefer that situation, and that’s why we’re looking forward to having an acceptable peace agreement that has been negotiated by all the parties. The next time there’s an election, we want everybody to accept that the winner is the legitimate winner. We are requesting that the next election be monitored by the international community so that nobody can say “I was harassed” or “My people were not free to vote.” But, of course, if the opposition tries to stop the election by not participating or not agreeing to a peace agreement, then the government is going to have to continue anyway. Remember, the government is not going to be the only party running; several parties will be contesting, and only those parties that are contesting can complain about whether the elections are fair and free. Those who are willing to participate now are those to whom people should listen.
WPJ: The election has the possibility of bringing some stability and forward momentum, but perhaps only in the right context.
ABM: At least the elections will bring leaders chosen by the communities to come and speak on their behalf, not people appointed by, say, the president or by the opposition without going to the grass roots.
WPJ: I do want to end on a positive note. As someone who has served as a representative of South Sudan to the world, what gives you hope? What do you see as positive movement going forward?
ABM: I think it’s unfortunate that we had a civil war before we had the foundation for development. South Sudan is still a traditional society. Our hope was that after independence we would start to put down the foundations for development, infrastructure, and education—the things South Sudan lacks now. We are still hopeful that after the peace, the international community will come to help the South Sudanese with education, food security, and basic infrastructure so that cities are connected and people can go back to their normal way of life. Right now those things are not there. South Sudan has potential in minerals, not just oil—people mostly talk about oil now because it’s the main revenue for the country—and there are a lot of other areas that have not been developed. We would like the international community to pay attention to that. Let’s not just judge the South Sudanese through the prism of civil war and human rights-violations. Those things happen because of the war, but once the war stops and people are working on peace, we want the international community to come in and help the nation building of South Sudan based on health, education, housing, food security, and infrastructure.
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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.[Interview conducted by John Kiehl] [Photo courtesy of Akuei Bona Malwal]