South Sudan’s First Vice President Taban Deng Gai blames the absence of roads, the presence of criminals, and weak governance structures for the obstruction of UN peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts in his country.
Deng spoke in response to a confidential report from United Nations (UN) Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to the UN Security Council that accuses the government of South Sudan of obstructing relief efforts.
“We believe that by the end of this year it will be a different story, better than it used to be,” Deng said in an interview with the New Atlanticist on September 28. Earlier that day, Deng attended a roundtable discussion hosted by the Council’s Africa Center.
In our interview, Deng criticized an investigation by the Sentry, a Washington-based advocacy group, calling it hastily reported. The investigation documents public corruption in South Sudan, including on the part of President Salva Kiir, and Deng’s predecessor, Riek Machar.
The Obama administration has welcomed the Sentry report and Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, said: “While corruption is harmful in any part of the world, it is especially appalling in a country on the verge of famine and struggling to build a government after only five years of independence.”
“[W]e are deeply disappointed that their leaders, given the opportunity to build a successful country at independence and a second chance to harness peace for progress with the August 2015 peace agreement, have failed to put aside personal power struggles and individual enrichment for the good of their people,” he added.
Status of peacekeepers
In August, the UN Security Council approved a resolution to send an additional 4,000 peacekeepers to South Sudan, adding to the existing 12,000-member security force.
South Sudan’s government has questioned the makeup and mission of the force, which Deng said would infringe on his country’s sovereignty.
Contending that the regional protection force has been “imposed” on South Sudan, Deng said, “If we could veto it, we would have vetoed it because it was pre-empting the good work planned and prepared by the African Union.”
Deng said the arrival of the regional protection force, which has been supported by opposition leaders, including Machar, would polarize South Sudan.
“We want to avoid this by discussing in detail, if this force is coming, they are coming from which country, and what are they going to do in South Sudan?” he said.
Fears that South Sudan, a nation born out of decades of conflict, is sliding back toward civil war have resurfaced as a consequence of a rift between Kiir and Machar. The former first vice president fled South Sudan after clashes between his forces and those loyal to Kiir in the capital Juba left hundreds dead in July. Machar subsequently withdrew with his forces to the bush and is now in Sudan’s capital Khartoum.
Kiir has since appointed Deng, a member of the Nuer community to which Machar also belongs, as his new first vice president. Deng’s appointment has, however, been criticized by members of the Machar’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-In-Opposition (SPLM/IO) and some Nuer chiefs.
From Khartoum, Machar has called for an armed uprising against Kiir’s government.
“One thing the Sudanese government has to do, and we have discussed it with them as well as our other neighbors, is to tell Riek Machar: ‘Shut up. Don’t incite violence,’” said Deng.
“We are not asking him to leave Khartoum, but we are asking Khartoum to make Riek Machar a peace-loving person,” he added.
Taban Deng Gai spoke an interview with the New Atlantict’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Here are excerpts from our interview.
Q: An investigation by the Sentry has documented rampant corruption among South Sudan’s leaders, including President Salva Kiir and your predecessor, Riek Machar. What steps is your government willing to take to hold to account those who are guilty of corruption?
Deng: We treat the Sentry report with special interest because the report came from someone who has a long history of friendship with the people of South Sudan. Our difference with them is that this report was written in a rush; it was not well authored. We believe the result of the report was influenced by a lack of patience [with South Sudan]. Some of them have given up and [believe that] nothing good is coming out of this country.
I am not saying there is no corruption in the country. There is corruption in the country, that’s why there was the establishment of an anti-corruption commission, which has done a lot of work. For example, officials, including the president, were asked to declare their wealth, which they did. I was the governor of a state; I was asked to declare my wealth, which I did.
We are not exceptional in the region. Neighboring countries, Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, [the Democratic Republic of the Congo], we are not safe from this disease called corruption. If [the Sentry’s goal] was to collect information so that the government or the people of South Sudan could use this information they could have done better work.
The government will make use of the report. We term it to be an added value to what the government should be doing in fighting corruption, but we think the timing and the information given is not helping the country.
Q: Does this mean that senior officials, including the president, will not be exempt from prosecution?
Deng: There is nobody who is exempt. The president himself has declared intolerance to corruption. If he cannot tolerate corruption from other people, what about himself? The president is very clear about that whether it is him or his family.
Q: There has been recent bipartisan condemnation of your government in the US Congress. What are you hoping to accomplish on your visit to Washington?
Deng: We are here to tell [members of Congress] that we share with them their concerns. We have more concerns than them because it is our country. Since we are in the country we see better how we can come out of this crisis, more than them.
What we tell them is, “Look, there is peace. Let us not allow that to collapse.” And for this peace not to collapse, number one, let them tell the leaders who are in opposition like Riek Machar, Lam Akol, Pagan Amum, not to again take the country to violence.
President Salva Kiir has been given a task to implement this peace. As we go through this implementation, the issues of human rights, corruption, reorganizing the security sector, and moving the country forward on development are addressed. You will never have 100 percent peace in South Sudan until you have development. Our country cannot develop without the participation of American investment.
We know the American taxpayers are paying a lot of money for relief. It is time they also invest. There is real potential to invest in agriculture, for example. Americans can go into oil investment. We have a proven reserve of not less than five billion barrels. There are huge blocs which are not yet developed. There is huge potential in minerals like gold and uranium.
Q: A UN report has accused South Sudan’s government of obstructing its peacekeeping and humanitarian mission in South Sudan. How do you respond?
Deng: What my president and government is complaining about is that relief activity is being obstructed by a number of factors. Number one is roads. The country has no roads. We are appealing to the UN and international community to help us make roads so services flow to the needy people. The other area is insecurity. There are spoilers and criminals who take the law into their own hands and are obstructing the roads. The other obstruction is from government institutions because we have weak institutions. Those who report to the Secretary General report based on their perceptions [of the situation].
To avoid the delay of paperwork, we have decided to create a one-stop shop to hasten this process. We are addressing the issue of armed gangs by providing more security. We believe that by the end of this year it will be a different story, better than it used to be.
Some difficulties existed when there was war. [For example], how to move from a government-controlled place to a rebel-controlled place? But as we speak all the areas are coming back to the government and you have one government operating throughout the country.
Q: What are your concerns regarding the regional protection force approved by the UN Security Council? Under what conditions would such a force be acceptable to your government?
Deng: The resolution has been passed by the Security Council and it is no longer a leave [it] or take it [option]. We are a small country that is surviving on the support of others. We are not Russia, we are not America, we are not China. We have no veto.
If we could veto it, we would have vetoed it because it was pre-empting the good work planned and prepared by the African Union. They agreed on the principle of a protection force and they asked the government of South Sudan to go and discuss with their chief of staff in the region on the number of troops, the countries that will contribute these troops, and the mission of these troops. At the time we were discussing [this] the [Security Council] resolution was imposed on us. Now we want to avoid the negative effect of the arrival of this [UN] force.
There are people in protection sites whom we are encouraging to come out by providing them security and services in their villages. We don’t want the coming of the [regional protection force] to divide the country more on an ethnic basis. The coming of this force has been championed by the leaders of the opposition like Riek Machar, Lam Akol, Pagan Amum. They are really pressuring the going in of this protection force. If this is allowed, then you are polarizing the country more. Someone may see this as a friendly force and someone may see it as a negative force. We want to avoid this by discussing in detail if this force is coming, they are coming from which country, and what are they going to do in South Sudan?
Q: Is there a willingness in the UN to discuss these concerns?
Deng: There should be a willingness. We want the force to be effective. We don’t want it to be a redundant force like in the DRC. There are 17,000 peacekeepers in the DRC. What are they doing?
Peacekeepers haven’t done any good in Somalia.
Q: South Sudanese officials have talked passionately about sovereignty in the context of the role of the international community. What is your assessment of the role South Sudan’s neighbors are playing in your country?
Deng: I think it has been positive. They want peace for South Sudan because any chaos [in South Sudan] can spill over to those countries. That’s why their approach to the [regional protection force] is different from the American and Security Council’s approach. They want us to discuss it. The [regional protection force] can only go to a country with the consent of the host country.
We are discussing positive things with our neighbors like how they can participate in development in South Sudan. Ethiopia will develop five roads to link South Sudan to Ethiopia. We are discussing with the Kenyan government an economic package that the Kenyans can give to South Sudan. We want to make total peace with Sudan.
Q: Riek Machar is currently in Khartoum for treatment. He has called for an armed uprising against your government. Do you expect the Sudanese government to turn him over?
Deng: We are not asking the government in Khartoum to turn over Riek Machar to us. I don’t think this helps relations between countries any more. One thing the Sudanese government has to do, and we have discussed it with them as well as our other neighbors, is to tell Riek Machar: “Shut up. Don’t incite violence.” This is the least that they can do to [serve] the region and the people of South Sudan. Let Riek Machar stay in Khartoum or wherever he wants to stay in peace. Let him come to the country as a peacemaker so he can compete in elections. We are not asking him to leave Khartoum, but we are asking Khartoum to make Riek Machar a peace-loving person.
Q: Is there a future for Riek Machar in South Sudan?
Deng: Anybody who is a peace lover has a great future ahead of him, but Riek Machar has been a violent man from 1991, 1998, 2013, 2016. I think he should have a new approach now. If he denounces violence and becomes a peaceful person like me, like Salva Kiir, there is a role for him.
Q: Senior members of the SPLM-IO and some Nuer chiefs have been critical of your appointment as first vice president. Some SPLM-IO officials have said that your appointment violates the terms of the peace agreement signed by President Salva Kiir and Riek Machar. How do you respond? Do you have the support of the rank and file in the SPLM-IO?
Deng: Nobody wants violence any more in South Sudan. I am a very popular leader because I call for peace, I call for calm. People also know that I can work in harmony with President Salva Kiir. Harmony in the top leadership can lead the country out of crisis. Yes, there are a few critics. Always agents of change are resisted, especially when it is an approach of peace when people are used to violence. But I have wide support in South Sudan.
Q: What is the status of the investigation into the assault on humanitarian workers at the Terrain Hotel and the attack on a US diplomatic convoy, both in Juba in July?
Taban: As to the attack on US Embassy vehicles, the soldiers claim they were shot at and they only returned fire. The officers have been arrested and are under investigation. They will be taken to court.
As to the Terrain incident, because the nature of the crime was criminal it was supposed to go through the ministry of justice, but because it involved foreigners and friends of South Sudan, the president had to issue an order of investigation. He constituted a committee. They have been doing good job. I believe they will be filing their report to the president.
There was a request from the American government that they want to play a role in the investigation, which we have consented to. The request came when the committee was already finalizing its work, but I believe very soon officers from the FBI will be in Juba supporting the process that we are doing.
We wish the hand of the law will reach these criminals. Some arrests have already been made, not necessarily of people who committed rape but people who did the looting.
Q: What is your government doing to move South Sudan toward peace?
Deng: Peace does not last in the absence of development. I want my government to change the face of the country—make roads, build new cities, make universities, let people be food secure. South Sudan can be the Dubai of Africa. South Sudan is the heart of Africa. It has a lot of resources.
There is potential in tourism. The Sudd region is the second-largest wetland in the world and has species of rare animals and birds. The migration [of animals] in South Sudan is even more interesting than in the Serengeti. We have the potential of minerals—gold and diamonds.
I need $200 billion to make 12,000 kilometers of roads, a new city, public universities with teaching hospitals. If we move on these mega projects who will be the warlord to think of holding a Kalashnikov?
Q: At the same time, South Sudan is on the brink of famine. What is your government doing to address this humanitarian concern?
Deng: The American people are paying a lot of money in the area of relief. We thank the [US] government and [American] taxpayers for this. What has hampered the relief delivery is the lack of roads and criminals. We want more relief to go to the country. I want a package of assistance to people in protection sites so that they can go back to their villages.
Q: Where is this package of assistance going to come from?
Deng: From you; the Americans. The international community.
Ashish Kumar Sen is the deputy director of communications at the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @AshishSen.