The world’s youngest country is at war with itself. According to the International Crisis Group, up to 10,000 people are feared dead in a month-long wave of violence in the country that was slowly emerging from decades of conflict. As at yesterday, several towns, including Bor, the capital of Jonglei, one of the most volatile states in the country continued to go up in flames. The genesis of this new wave? An ‘alleged’ coup.
Speaking from her Nairobi home, Rebecca Nyangem Garang believes that African presidents have no clear definition of what leadership entails.
“When time comes for one to pass on the power, he clings on to it. My husband led the army during the struggle and we were the servants of the people. We have left the bush and forgot to serve our people,” she says.
On the ongoing peace talks, she says the hope of her whole nation is anchored on the Addis Ababa talks, but the priority on the government side should be to release the detainees.
As leaders dither over the talks, the death toll rises, more than 400,000 people have been displaced inside South Sudan, including about 60,000 taking shelter at United Nations compounds. More than 30,000 refugees have fled to neighboring countries like Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan.
In an exclusive interview with The Standard on Sunday Senior Writer, DANIEL WESANGULA, Rebecca Nyandeng Garang, widow to the country’s founding father puts the record straight and blames divisive party politics by Kiir, and the president’s disregard to the country’s and the ruling party’s constitution on what is slowly becoming yet another crisis in the region. Here are the excerpts:
QUESTION: Was there a coup attempt in Juba?
ANSWER: No. The Sudan’s People Liberation Movement (SPLM) was to have a consultative meeting on the 15 of December. There had been one the previous day that a number of us reformists, including Dr Riek Machar and I attended. But we were not given an opportunity to air our grievances. And to make things worse, in his speech, all that President Kiir did was to insult us. So Dr Machar opted not to attend. I missed out due to illness. But somehow our absence was linked to a more sinister move… a coup attempt. So in the night of the 15th, a decision was made by the presidency to disarm members, in his own headquarters, of the Nuer tribe who it was thought would be loyal to Machar. But the disarmament went awry, those out to disarm the Nuer were overpowered and ran over. After this some of the Nuer left with Dr Machar because they wanted to kill him. The Tiger brigade (an army battalion) later came from the barracks and started killing Nuers… Then it became ethnically inclined. We are civilians and politicians. We do not have an army. If they say we were planning a coup, where are the generals and soldiers who were to overthrow the government?
In hindsight, was Salva Kiir the right man to be president of South Sudan?
Yes, because he was in the hierarchy of the movement. My husband appointed him as his deputy. He was in the first war as well as the second war…. But fighting the war is not like managing the people. There is a difference between managing and leading. Since Dr John died we have been in crisis management. If we led our people we would not be in this situation. He deserved it in the beginning. Now, even those he has arrested fought with him in the war, they don’t deserve what we are doing to them. They are part of our history, we shouldn’t try to bury them.
Having been side by side with President Kirr for all these years would you have imagined he would be intolerant to opposing views?
Yes. I always saw this in him and I always talked to him about it. I always advised him because the expectations of our people were very high. We had never had a government before but that was no excuse for not doing anything we promised a lot during our struggle but we have done none of them. Symptoms of a closed state became obvious. We fought a liberation war in which our enemies sat on our neck…but after dealing with our enemies new elite are seating on our people shoulders. We have created another group of oppressing elite.
How has this creation affected the psyche of the South Sudanese?
It has formed bitterness. For instant, during the struggle we all used to call each other ‘comrade.’ We were all equal. We were fighting to abolish the issues of having second-class citizens. But now we call each other “Your Excellency” creating the same gaps and class structures we fought against. You can’t talk of excellence straight from the bush. You need to respect freedoms and do away with jungle laws first then earn the title.
Are the differences between you and Dr Machar on one side and President Kiir personal?
Not at all. It is all about ideology and moving our country forward. When leaders feel threatened they do everything to stay in power. The president suspected he would not win the chairmanship of the party, which by default would make him the flag bearer in the presidential elections. He started manipulating the system…. Removing governors in disrespect to the constitution (a vote of no confidence in state parliament is required to get rid of a governor and elections for a new occupant held after 60 days). He sacked governors from Lake state, Unity state and coopted the governor of Jonglei into the army. Then he dismissed the vice president, the secretary general of the party and then sacked two ministers. He then sacked 80 army generals and dismissed the whole Cabinet. This was the genesis of the whole problem. The president did not like the dissenting voices within the SPLM. The voice of those of us ho saw this was not the right way to do things.
Were Dr Garang alive, would things have been different?
Much different and for the better. We would be feeding our own people. Our army would be in a better shape and the political movement would have been mature. Now, 8 years later, we have no electricity, no roads and instead of accepting that we have failed and let others lead we shamelessly fight and kill our people. When Dr John died we were the darling of the West. He fought the war for 21 years with all the ammunition needed and left us with no debt. Our borders were well manned. Now we have become a liability to the region indebted to the world.
Did you take his death as an accident?
Absolutely not. It was not an accident.
Who or what was responsible?
I will not talk about these things now because I cannot do anything about it. I have put it behind me. I want to move on and fight for my people.
Do you think independence came too soon too fast for your country?
No. It is the management of our country that is bad. As a leader you should have the humility of accepting when you do wrong and let others take the mantle.
As a widow, a freedom fighter and a mother, what message would you have for the mothers who with each passing day are burying their loved ones?
I feel sad. Jonglei has never witnessed peace…even as we celebrate self-rule we continue to kill ourselves. No words can describe this wanton massacre… it leaves me with regret that after our struggle, blood continues to be spilled. But what for? I can only hope that their loss will eventually be vindicated and justified by a deliverance of the people.
Do you think the world is doing enough to help end the conflict?
There are a couple of positives. First the world acknowledged there was no coup. Then the world moved to establish a dialogue mechanism. But the involvement of (Yoweri) Museveni has complicated things. He has clearly taken sides because he thinks Riek betrayed the region in 1991. But the previous sins of one man, who has asked and been granted forgiveness, cannot be used to turn the whole country upside down. His troops and planes only complicate further a complex situation.
Is your life in danger?
Yes. Even my house was surrounded by national security agents and shot their way through. They alleged a gunfight within my premise. But I can take care of myself.
Do you believe President Kiir is detached from the current realities in South Sudan?
That is obvious. Everyone is telling him to release the detainees and continue talks… our people are in camps…people are dying all around us. As president he should be merciful and humble enough to come down and make concessions for the good of the country.