“They say a week in politics is a long time. Here in South Sudan, recent weeks have felt like a very long time. We have been weighed with the heaviest of matters any state can contemplate,” information minister Benjamin Marial remarked last week. David Majur asked him to clarify on recent events that threatened to drag Sudan and South Sudan back into war.
Sudanese President Omar el-Bashir Bashir has vowed to liberate the South Sudanese people from their leaders, whom he called insects. What is your reaction to that statement?
It is unfortunate that President Omar el Bashir has called fellow human beings insects. This is a racist remark and a recipe for genocide. When the Hutu leaders called the Tutsis cockroaches, it resulted into the Rwandan genocide. It is a call that is being made by a few extremist elements within the National Congress Party. The statement that they will liberate the people in South Sudan from their leaders is ironic. They must know that we liberated ourselves after a war in which 2.5 million people were killed. How would they liberate the people they have been killing? The people of South Sudan have now got their own country - nearly 99% voted for independence. They are already free people. And this is a democratically elected government. If Bashir is contemplating the invasion of South Sudan, we will definitely resist this and protect our territorial integrity.
Bashir also said they will take the war to Juba. What are you doing in the face of such threats?
The threat the regime in Khartoum poses to South Sudan remains a real one and we are looking for determined leadership and action from the international community. We retain the right to self-defence and can retaliate when provoked by Sudan, which continues its indiscriminate bombing of civilians. I am happy the UN denounced and condemned the aerial bombardments.
The African Union has demanded Sudan and South Sudan resume talks within two weeks. What is your reaction?
There was no need to put pressure on us to rejoin the negotiating table because we never left. We have always expressed our determination to resolve the outstanding issues by dialogue. But you will recall that Khartoum pulled out its delegation, refusing to sign any agreements tabled by the African Union. These agreements dealt with basic issues like citizenship, demarcation of the borders and cessation of hostilities. After they walked away on April 9, their forces attacked us in Tashween and Panakuac. Nevertheless, President Salva Kiir said he is still prepared to meet Bashir in Juba or anywhere. Let Bashir and his people go back to Addis Ababa and start talking. We appeal to the international community to exert pressure on Khartoum to renounce violence and join us for talks in Addis Ababa so that we settle our differences once and for all.
Khartoum claims they defeated the SPLA in Heglig. What do you say to that?
We withdrew our troops from Panthou (Heglig) in response to pressure from the international community. It was not due to weakness. Rather, it was a gesture of goodwill and to contribute to regional peace. We now look to the UN and the AU to put the same pressure on Khartoum to withdraw its troops from Abyei, which they have occupied since May 2011. And if Panthou is going to be used as a spring board for staging new attacks, we assure Bashir that we have the capacity and capability to go back.
Bashir has accused foreign powers of being behind the Heglig capture. Is SPLA getting any foreign assistance in the current fighting?
Absolutely not. Bashir is the one who is backed by foreign powers. Recently he was visited by the Minister of Defense of Iraq who promised a lot of support. The planes that are bombing our territories are brought in by foreign powers - Iran, Pakistan and other countries. Bashir is using the argument that we are being supported by Israel and America to seek more support from Arab countries.
Are there any behind-the-scene diplomatic efforts to resolve the current crisis peacefully?
There have been a lot of diplomatic moves. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called President Salva Kiir to withdraw our troops from Heglig so that a political solution can be found. The President also received calls from world leaders like US president Barack Obama, Japan and the Commonwealth, and from regional leaders like President Museveni (Uganda), President Kibaki (Kenya) and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi (Ethiopia).
Where does South Sudan base its claim of Heglig on?
The oil was found in Upper Nile in 1978, during the time of President Jaffer Nimeiri. In the early 1980s he created Unity state out of western Upper Nile. He said this would create unity between the South and the North. Panthou, which was the name for Heglig, was within the border of Upper Nile before Unity state was created. There are maps showing that it has never been part of Southern Kordofan. When the former governor of Upper Nile state, Joseph Monytuil, was there, he was told by Ali Nafie, the Presidential Assistant to Bashir: ‘We are sending you a new map which will show that Panthou is no longer part of the South.’ There is a lot of evidence. That is why we are asking for international arbitration.
The UN Secretary General called the capture of Heglig an infringement on the sovereignty of Sudan and an illegal act. What is your reaction?
The UN Secretary General is not aware of the details and the historical facts. We have evidence and maps to prove that Panthou is part of South Sudan. When he is exposed to this information, he will definitely realise that his statement was not appropriate.
Q. Bishop Paride Taban suggests that it is better to share some of the oil with the North than return to war. Would you be interested in some oil sharing agreement?
Ours is a vision of two independent, viable states, living side by side in harmony. We are aware that because South Sudan took 75% of the oil when it became independent. Sudan now has a deficit of $7.7 billion. We have said that we do not want the economy of Sudan to collapse. We suggested that we would give them $2.6 billion. We also suggested that we would open our borders for trade. We would be buying most of the goods from Sudan, meaning that a lot of the income from oil would go back to them. Sudan has a shortage of oil to run its refineries. A deal can be struck on that. These are commercial issues. We told them: If the problem in Abyei is oil, we are ready to discuss that and find a win-win solution. They had 120,000 barrels per day. Of that, 60,000 barrels go to the oil companies. So they are left with 60,000 barrels. That is why they want to build a tie-in pipeline to Unity state, since their refineries need 120,000 barrels. Why not openly talk about these issues and find a mutually beneficial solution? Why do we have to go back to war?
Khartoum alleges that the Governor of Unity state ordered the SPLA to destroy the oil wells in Heglig. What do you say to that?
Investigations will show that the bombardments were carried out by an aircraft. The Governor of Unity state has no planes. Likewise, South Sudan has no ability to bomb. Most of the oil infrastructure in Heglig is intact. We spent 10 days there. If we wanted to destroy it, we would have done so. The SPLA even put out a fire which was burning after SAF bombed the infrastructure. Moreover the governor of Unity state cannot give orders to the SPLA. He is not the Commander-in-Chief.
What do you say about the UN threat of sanctions against South Sudan and Sudan?
I don’t think South Sudan deserves sanctions. They have asked us to withdraw from Heglig and we have withdrawn.
Civil society organisations have estimated that a return to war could cost the region more than $100 billion. How can war be avoided?
We have never declared war. We have acted out of self-defence. Our President has repeatedly said that he will not take the people of South Sudan back to war. Instead it is Sudan which has declared war on us, calling us insects, an enemy state, and mobilising Jihadists and militias to attack us.
There have been reports of mistreatment of Southerners in the North. What are you doing to ensure their safety?
We have expressed our concern to the government of Sudan through our embassy in Khartoum. They are obliged to protect the citizens of South Sudan according to international norms. We are appealing to the international community to put pressure on Khartoum to make sure that our citizens are treated well until the time they are brought back to South Sudan.
What is being done to help the over 500,000 South Sudanese in Sudan return home in light of the stoppage of flights between the two countries and the fighting along the border?
We are working with IOM and other UN agencies to arrange their return. The number is big and it will take time for all of them to come back. On the other hand, we have over two million Misseriya and Baggara Arabs who are crossing into South Sudan at this very moment. They will stay with us for six months. Their cows are drinking water and grazing freely in South Sudan. We have not asked for these people to have passports.
Since Southerners were declared foreigners in Sudan, they now need international passports to travel home. What arrangements have been put in place to help them?
We are making arrangements for them to acquire passports and identity cards. We have instructed our embassy in Khartoum to issue these documents.
There are also concerns about the safety of South Sudan’s ambassador in Khartoum. Are you going to call him back?
We expect Sudan to protect our embassy and our ambassador in Khartoum. The Sudanese government allowed the public to go and attack our embassy and burn our flag. The police arrived late. Maybe they did it intentionally. But we will continue to be there.
The economic crisis is already biting hard following the shutdown of oil production, which used to contribute 98 percent of the national budget. How is the country going to survive until the pipeline is built?
The government has drawn up an austerity budget. Some ministries have seen their budgets reduced. We have made cuts in all areas except health, education, security and food security. The government has also put in place mechanisms that will ensure better tax collection. And we will continue to look for development loans from the international community.
How does the Government plan to finance the building of the Lamu pipeline? Will oil be used as collateral for a loan?
The government of Japan is already doing the feasibility study for Lamu port. Many countries are going to put in money. We will begin to pay back the loan little by little once our oil starts flowing.
What did you hope to achieve from President Kiir’s visit to China?
This was an official invitation from the President of China. The visit was aimed at strengthening our bilateral relations with China, which takes 40% of our oil. China accepted to finance major development projects in South Sudan. It is interested to see that the Lamu port and pipeline project is implemented.
China came up openly to support sanctions on South Sudan. How will that impact on the visit?
China has maintained a fair stand at the United Nations Security Council. The member states suggested sanctions as a possible step in case the two parties fail to agree. China has maintained that a peaceful resolution must be reached, including on all contested areas. They want Heglig and other disputed areas to be discussed through diplomatic channels and the African Union panel.
There is a report suggesting that China should play a bigger role in the negotiations. Would you accept that?
China is already playing a bigger role in the UN Security Council. China has good relations with both Sudans. It can play the role of a referee in resolving the conflict.
President Kiir said in Parliament that those who have guns should keep them and those who don’t have, will be armed by the Government to protect the country. Is this not going to undermine the civilian disarmament efforts?
This was not mobilisation for war. It was mobilisation to protect ourselves, our territory and our resources against a country that had declared us an enemy state.
What is the link now between SPLA-North and SPLA?
We don’t have any links now. That is why it is called SPLM-North. When we became independent, the SPLM-N remained a political and military wing in their country, Sudan. Of course we have sympathy for them because they were our former comrades in the war. But we do not give them any material or military support to wage war against the Khartoum government. We have been urging President Bashir and the National Congress Party to resolve the problem of South Kordofan and Blue Nile politically. It is not a military or security issue. But Sudan has failed to implement the protocol in those areas. That is why they took up arms, to fight for their political rights.
You said recently that Thabo Mbeki should have the ‘guts of a strong mediator’. Can you elaborate on this?
We could not move forward with the mediation process of the African Union panel. They need more support from the international community and the IGAD member states so that they are more robust.
You also preferred IGAD to the African Union. Have you lost confidence in the AU?
We have not lost confidence. Bu the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was a baby of IGAD. That is why we need IGAD to be involved in this mediation as well.
Editor: This and other articles on the South-North conflict can be found in 'The New Nation' newspaper available in Juba, other South Sudan towns and various supermarkets in Kampala.