High-level roundtable with South Sudan’s First Vice President Taban Deng Gai

On October 2, the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center hosted a roundtable with Taban Deng Gai, currently first vice president of the Republic of South Sudan, on the situation in his country following the signing of the most recent peace agreement between President Salva Kiir and former First Vice President Riek Machar last month.

Dr. J. Peter Pham, Atlantic Council vice president and Africa Center director, welcomed participants and introduced the discussion.

In his remarks, Pham outlined the grim situation in South Sudan, noting that “382,000 South Sudanese have paid with their lives for the ambitions of their supposed leaders…a high[er] mortality rate vis-à-vis the country’s population than even the civil war in Syria has exacted.” Pham further drew attention to the country’s nearly 2.5 million refugees and 1.85 million internally displaced persons—figures which he underscored meant that “more than 36 percent of South Sudanese are dead or homeless because of the protracted conflict”—as well as the 57 percent of the population “living in conditions of food security crisis or worse.” Compounding the tragedy, Pham noted, “2.4 million children, the future of South Sudan—if there is to be one—are not receiving an education” because of the civil war that has raged since late 2013. Addressing Taban Deng on his role in prolonging the conflict as he has shifted sides, Pham observed that “the deaths…peaked in 2016 and 2017, coinciding with your tenure as First Vice President.” Pham summarized by quoting a White House statement that said “[T]he leaders of this country have squandered this partnership, pilfered the wealth of South Sudan, killed their own people, and repeatedly demonstrated their inability and unwillingness…to end the country’s civil war.”

Taban Deng Gai, in his remarks, expressed faith in the latest peace deal signed by President Salva Kiir and former First Vice President Riek Machar (who is slated to supersede Taban Deng Gai as first vice president once more, while the later will remain one of four other vice presidents) in the face of significant skepticism. Taban Deng Gai argued that this peace agreement would address the failings of the previous deal, blaming the 2013 and 2015 outbreak of hostilities on power struggles inside the ruling party and the presence of competing armies in Juba, respectively. According to Taban Deng Gai, the new peace deal has settled “all disputes” among leaders in South Sudan, despite the contention by many experts that the agreement lacks any substantive difference from previous treaties. As, by many reports, the conflict continues amid a dire humanitarian crisis, Taban Deng Gai insisted that South Sudan’s leadership has learned from its mistakes and that the fighting had ceased. He also called for renewed financial support from the United States.

After his remarks, Taban Deng Gai was asked by Atlantic Council Executive Vice President Damon Wilson about Peter Biar Ajak, an alumnus of the Atlantic Council’s Millennium Fellowship and South Sudanese activist, who was detained arbitrarily in Juba in July of this year. Wilson presented the South Sudanese leader with a letter signed by him and Atlantic Council President and CEO Frederick Kempe asking for Ajak’s immediate release—a call that was echoed by other US participants in the roundtable.

An animated discussion about political prisoners then ensued, fueled by Taban Deng Gai’s insistence that the thousands of arbitrary detentions of government opponents was really evidence of the “rule of law” in the country.

The participants, many of whom played substantial roles in the 2011 birth of South Sudan and the years subsequent, unanimously expressed their skepticism over the latest peace deal as well as their frustration and disappointment with a lack of progress towards ending the civil war. Several questioned the stipulations of the most recent agreement, highlighting shortcomings in the implementation of security sector reform, violations of human rights and the need to release political prisoners, enhanced financial transparency, and improved accountability for war crimes. Some participants also drew attention to the irony of the role that the government of the Republic of Sudan—against which the South Sudanese fought for years to become independent—has recently played in trying to broker peace among the various factions in South Sudan. Other participants noted that while all sides have committed atrocities, virtually every independent investigation has attributed the majority of the abuses to government forces.

Participants also highlighted the squandering of much of more $14 billion in aid provided by the United States to South Sudan, while Taban Deng argued that if money had been “better spent,” perhaps there might not have been a conflict. When Taban Deng was questioned on financial transparency and resource governance, one of those accompanying the first vice president, H.E. Awut Deng Acuil, minister of gender, child, and social welfare, first claimed that the government had published the results of two audits as it is required by the constitution to do, before retreating to blame the lack of publication on the auditor general’s lack of authority to conduct audits due to undefined “presidential and parliamentary” concerns.

Taban Deng closed by asking for greater US political and financial support for South Sudan’s leaders and pledged that the elections which were supposed to have been held in 2014 will take place three years from now.

Among those in attendance and participating in the discussion were Ambassador Jendayi Frazer, former assistant secretary of state for African affairs and an Atlantic Council board director; Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, former assistant secretary of state for African affairs; Ambassador Donald Booth, former US Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan; Kate Almquist Knopf, director of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University and former assistant administrator for Africa at the US Agency for International Development; and Ambassador Makila James, deputy assistant secretary responsible for East Africa and the Sudans in the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs. Also present were representatives from major human rights and humanitarian organizations as well as a number of current and former US government officials.

Image: L-R: H.E. Awut Deng Acuil, Minister of Gender, Child, and Social Welfare of the Republic of South Sudan and H.E. Taban Deng Gai, First Vice President of the Republic of South Sudan