By LILLIAN ONYANGO
May 28, 2014(Nairobi, Kenya) — They were flown from cold cells and solitary confinement in Juba, South Sudan, to State House, Nairobi, and later moved to the Sh1 million-a-month Windsor Park Villas on Kigwa Road.
Each of the double-storey villas sits on 0.25 acres next to the ritzy Windsor Golf and Country Club, in a gated community, whose residents have full access to the golf club and the ritzy hotel. Owning one of the villas will set you back by Sh62 million, according to an on-line advert.
Such is the five-star treatment the Government of Kenya accords Mr Pagan Okiech, General Oyay Ajak and Dr Majak Atem. The four are a part of the 11 former officials in President Salva Kiir’s government now residing in Kenya.
The men ensconced in Windsor Villas had been accused of planning to overthrow the government after Africa’s youngest state exploded into a civil war but were released in a deal brokered by President Uhuru Kenyatta, underlining their strategic role in what will become of war-torn South Sudan.
“We are getting the best services here. While in prison, we were only allowed to leave our cells when going to court,” says Mr Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth, a former South Sudan Ambassador to the United States, and the only member of the group who spoke to us.
In custody, he preferred food from his wife; not prison grime. Now he only needs to pick up the phone to order the choicest of morsels and describes his lot as “guests of the President.”
The goriest face of the South Sudan conflict was the Bentui massacre that happened when Dr Machar’s forces captured the capital of the oil-rich Unity State on April 22. More than 200 civilians were butchered in bloodletting reminiscent of the Rwandan massacre.
While maintaining that Dr Machar couldn’t have targeted civilians, Mr Gatkuoth says: “Human rights violations have been committed by both sides. The killings should be investigated and those responsible should be held to account.”
In an exclusive interview with the Nation, Mr Gatkuoth wore the look of a man removed from his motherland obviously in deep thought about the bloodshed back home.
He says he and 11 other former political detainees from South Sudan are trying to unite South Sudanese after the bloody fallout between President Kiir and his then Vice-President, Dr Machar. The 11, he adds, had no hand in the fighting that broke out in December, but reiterates their call for a transition government.
Under the watchful eyes and protection of Kenyan security men in the quiet surroundings, the group spends day after day thinking about how to stop the war in a country Mr Gatkuoth describes as “being enveloped in desperation”.
“Juba is not the place it used to be. It was booming. People were making money. Businesses are collapsing and investors are not coming back for fear that fighting could break out any time,” he says.
We ask him what went wrong and why the country could not learn a lesson after 25 years of civil war with the north, now a separate state.
“Lack of tolerance and visionary leadership from Salva Kiir’s government,” he explains.
Mr Kiir has led South Sudan under the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement since 2011 with Dr Machar as his Vice-President. He sacked him in 2013 and dissolved the Cabinet, precipitating the current crisis.
“This one (the fighting) had been coming since 2011 when we had our independence,” says Mr Gatkuoth.
“The army is split into two factions — one supporting Machar and the other, Kiir. The whole leadership is in a shambles,” he says.
The oil-rich nation has not known peace since it seceded from Sudan. In 2012, it was caught up in a dispute with Khartoum over the oil-rich regions such as Heglig and Abyei. Then its own people turned against one another in a battle of ethnic supremacy.
“Machar is a Nuer and Kiir a Dinka. Since 2005 they have navigated through difficulties and contradictions while working together until July 9, 2011, when we broke away from Sudan and the two formed the government,” says Mr Gatkuoth, who is allied to the Machar faction.
“Even the Judges of the special court were about to dismiss the case on April 30. They were going to acquit us. But they were advised by the legal team from the Ministry of Justice not to allow the government to be embarrassed. And on April 24 we were released quoting ‘for the sake of peace and reconciliation’ but that was not the case,” he said.
Since then, Machar and Kiir were engaged in peace talks in Addis Ababa this month they signed a ceasefire deal in Addis Ababa which they violated before the ink could dry up. Kiir alleged that he signed he put pen on paper because Ethiopian authorities threatened to detain both him and Machar but Machar said no such thing happened.
“There are many options such as a transition government which will pave the way for elections and the country can even get a good constitution in the meantime. This transition can be led by both sides or by a neutral team which will allow for negotiations and reconciliation for the people of South Sudan,” says Mr Gatkuoth.
“The killings have taken us back to square one and we have to go back to the drawing board.”
Mr Gatkuoth says Machar does not want war.
“Peace is the only option we have and that is why they signed the May 9 agreement in Addis. If Kiir is not committed to it, he has to be made to honour to the agreement,” adds Mr Gatkuoth, who repeated the phrase “It is not business as usual in South Sudan” over 10 times during the interview.
“I am sure Kiir, like the rest of us should be for peace, as nobody is interested in the destructive fighting which nobody will win anyway and further disintegrate the country.”
It is not clear how long the group will be in Kenya but it is not in a hurry to go back to Juba because their lives are in danger.