South Sudan conflict ‘struggle for power’: Info Minister

Makuei spoke about the possible U.S. role in resolving the dispute and Juba’s relations with former foe Sudan.

By Mohammed Taha Tewekel and Abdu Abdulkerim, Anadolu Agency

Information minister, Michael Makuei Lueth
Information minister, Michael Makuei Lueth

May 03, 2014(ADDIS ABABA) — South Sudanese Information Minister Michael Makuei believes that the ongoing conflict in his country is merely “a struggle for power” unrelated to the ethnic backgrounds of its chief protagonists: President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar.

In an exclusive interview – conducted only hours before U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Juba for talks with Kiir – Makuei, who also serves as spokesman for Juba’s delegation at peace talks in Addis Ababa, spoke to Anadolu Agency about the ongoing crisis in the world’s youngest country.

Makuei spoke about the possible U.S. role in resolving the dispute; Juba’s relations with former foe Sudan; the prospects for peace with Machar’s rebels; and the 11 senior officials and ruling party leaders who were detained by the South Sudanese government and charged with conspiracy before being released.

The following is the full text of the interview:

Anadolu Agency: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said earlier that he had communicated with Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda regarding South Sudan. What is your take on Kerry’s statements?

Michael Makuei: We welcome the U.S. initiative, but it would be much better if he [Kerry] went to Juba to discuss the matter with President Salva Kiir as well as [rebel leader] Riek Machar. They are the essential parties to the issue at hand. We haven’t received any information about Kerry’s meeting with officials from the three countries you mentioned.

Anadolu Agency: It was rumored that Kerry was scheduled to meet with a South Sudanese government delegation as well as representatives of Machar. Can you confirm this?

Michael Makuei: The mediation team will not meet with Kerry. That would be outside of our mandate, which is to only address the talks mediated by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) with the rebels.

Anadolu Agency: Since South Sudan’s independence, Juba has received considerable help from both IGAD and the U.S. Now, statements by South Sudanese government officials sound less grateful than previously.

Michael Makuei: Such a perspective is mistaken. Our independence did not come about through outside help. It was not a gift. It was a result of struggle and sacrifices. We fought half a century for independence [from Sudan].

It is true we have the support of IGAD countries. They had provided unreserved support for us in hammering out the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) with the government of Sudan.

If any party should take credit, it should be the government of Sudan and its leader, Omar al-Bashir, for taking the brave decision to agree to the CPA and for being the first to recognize South Sudan upon the referendum [on independence]. He attended our Independence Day celebration.

The Americans had reservations about the CPA. They were not very enthusiastic about the agreement due to perceived leftist tendencies of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). Prior to the agreement, they had only been in contact with the leadership of Sudan.

It was only after we reached agreement with Sudan that they established contact with us as well. But these are only historical circumstances.

Anadolu Agency: You speak well of Sudan. Describe your current relationship with Sudan, the country from which you seceded in 2011.

Michael Makuei: We have an amicable relationship with Sudan. Our desire is to build a strategic bilateral partnership with Sudan. We were one nation, and we seek economic integration between the two neighboring nations. We appreciate the historic decision President al-Bashir has taken.

Anadolu Agency: You speak of your amicable relationship with Sudan, but government officials have repeatedly accused Khartoum of involvement in recent sectarian violence in Bentiu. They also say Khartoum was responsible for arming the Janjaweed militia.

Michael Makuei: There have been accusations from various parties concerning this [Janjaweed] militia group. But we do not have evidence. We have been investigating the matter together with the government of Sudan.

We will declare the findings of this ongoing investigation. The two countries have agreed not to support rebels in each other’s territories. Both Khartoum and Juba remain committed to this agreement.

Anadolu Agency: The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has said that Sudan is siding with Juba and that government forces are responsible – in one way or another – for the murder of civilians. How do you respond to this accusation?

Michael Makuei: This is a hasty, unwarranted allegation. They should have waited for the [results of the] investigation being made by the U.N. and the African Union on the ground. Their allegation would have been more objective and credible if it had followed the report of the fact-finding missions.

Anadolu Agency: The army is also accused of fielding 9000 child soldiers, as reported by U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay.

Michael Makuei: This isn’t true. We demobilized them [child soldiers] before independence.

Anadolu Agency: To what do you attribute the current deadlock in ongoing peace talks in Addis Ababa?

Michael Makuei: It’s true that the peace talks have encountered challenges and snags. The talks came after military encounters in Juba and elsewhere in South Sudan.

What is important now is that both parties have entered negotiations in search of peace. We have drafted a proposal for which we are waiting for a response from IGAD.

Anadolu Agency: Both camps appear to have reached an unspoken agreement to sideline the eleven former officials recently freed from detention in Juba from the talks. Are you afraid of their influence as former high-level SPLM leaders?

Michael Makuei: The eleven former officials have no influence whatsoever. The government in Juba released them in good faith. They are citizens of South Sudan, of course. If they have any meaningful input, they should refer it to the rebel negotiators.

There can be no “third front” in the ongoing talks. We would not allow it.

Anadolu Agency: But they are SPLM politburo members who until recently held leading government posts and who appear to enjoy a degree of popular legitimacy.

Michael Makuei: (Laughing) They’re the darlings of the U.S. and the West. They have ambition for power and the media people have played a role in promoting them.

They claim to stand for democracy and good governance, but all these are for political power. But power emanates from the people. It’s not something that can be parachuted down from above.

Anadolu Agency: We recently interviewed one of these former officials, Deng Alore, who said that both Kiir and Machar should give way before an interim government. What would you say to that?

Michael Makuei: How can anyone ask a legitimate government to be dismantled or a constitutionally elected leader to step down? Deng Alore is from the [disputed] Abyei region, whose fate, as you know, has yet to be decided.

Alore is suffering from an identity crisis. He would do better if he spoke only about Abyei, not about South Sudan.

Anadolu Agency: It seems you’re forced to hold talks with Machar because he has a gun. Must others take up arms against your government in order to be taken seriously?

Michael Makuei: The problem is between us and the Machar camp. The others are there simply to fill space.

Anadolu Agency: You represent the Dinka tribe. Those in Machar’s camp hail from the Nuer tribe. How would you respond to charges that your government is marginalizing minority groups?

Michael Makuei: Salva Kiir represents the majority – that is, the Dinka people. There are 64 ethnic groups in South Sudan. The Riek Machar camp includes many ethnic groups.

What’s happening now isn’t an ethnic conflict – it’s simply a struggle for power.

By Mohammed Taha Tewekel and Abdu Abdulkerim, englishnews@aa.com.tr

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