The leader of the National Salvation Front (NAS), a group fighting government forces in Central and Western Equatoria in South Sudan, Gen Thomas Cirillo Swaka spoke to Fred Oluoch about his faction’s refusal to honour the peace deal.
Why did you refuse to sign the Revitalised Peace Agreement despite having participated in the negotiations?
We went to the negotiations in good faith to find lasting solutions to the problems in our country. Unfortunately, the negotiations took an unprecedented turn, where the issues we brought up were either ignored or dismissed.
The mediators embarked on coercion to force the parties to sign an agreement that did not address the issues of the conflict and would not therefore bring just and sustainable peace in South Sudan.
The agreement became a document for rewarding political elites with positions in the government. The issues affecting the people of South Sudan were not addressed.
What aspects of the agreement don’t you agree with?
There are several issues that we believe are the root causes of the conflict in South Sudan, which the R-ARCSS has failed to address.
It was not tailored to address governance such as federalism, number of states, composition of parliament in the interim period and accountability.
Don’t you think the people of South Sudan are tired of peace talks and agreements that are never honoured?
We in NAS believe that the peace agreement, as it stands today, has not addressed the root causes of the problems in South Sudan, and hence will not lead to sustainable peace.
We are committed to the struggle for the rights of our people, which we believe can best be achieved through a negotiated settlement rather than following the path of aggression and war that is being pursued by the Juba regime.
The people of South Sudan cannot be tired of peace negotiations, since it is the only way to achieve a sustainable peace.
Second, NAS has not opened any offensive. Instead, our military positions have been attacked by forces of the regime, who are also indiscriminately shelling villages and committing war crimes, causing thousands of people to flee to the bushes and to Congo. We are fighting in self-defence.
The regime in Juba should be held accountable for not only the breach of the cessation of hostilities agreement, but also for the atrocities being committed against civilians in the country.
Why did you take up arms?
We took up arms to resist the oppressive system installed by the Juba regime. We are dealing with a regime that leaves no space for any exercise of democratic rights, a regime that kills, plunders and rapes the very people whom it is supposed to protect and deliver services to.
The Juba regime believes in violence and so taking up arms for self-defence was a last resort for the people to ensure their survival against this brutal regime.
The grievances in South Sudan are issues of governance, security, land-grabbing and ethnic hegemony, which NAS and the South Sudan National Democratic Alliance believe should be resolved in negotiations and not swept under the carpet if there is going to be any just and sustainable peace in the country.
Why did it take you five years since the war began in 2013 to realise that you could not work with President Salva Kiir?
South Sudan became an independent country in July 2011, after two decades of war, but just two years into its independence it imploded.
The mismanagement of the country started from the outset, when the former freedom fighters turned into the oppressors of the people of South Sudan.
While I was hoping that the 2015 agreement would bring peace, stability and development, the Juba regime in July 2016 orchestrated fighting to destroy the agreement and the president embarked on issuing decrees that were in complete breach of the peace agreement.
Unfortunately, despite all the advice and warnings, the Juba regime did not change and so resistance became the last option for the people.
Since you had been an ally of President Kiir for a long time, why do you think the people of South Sudan should trust you to do things differently?
President Salva Kiir and I were comrades in the war of liberation and not allies. He was our senior commander and we all contributed, to the best of our individual capacities, to liberate our people.
As liberators we were bound by the task to free our people from the bondage of subjugation and injustice.
President Kiir has now departed from the path of being a freedom fighter to becoming an overseer of the very type of injustice that we fought against.
What is ailing South Sudan is the departure from vision for a country where there is justice, equality and a government that functions on state institutions that are devoid of tribalism, corruption and kleptocracy.
SPLA remains a conglomeration of militias. Did you try to initiate reforms when you were second in command?
I have always been keen on reforms and professionalism in the SPLA (now renamed SSPDF).
When I was the deputy chief of staff for training and research in the SPLA, we developed a strategic transformation programme to transform the guerrilla revolutionary army into a national professional army that should adhere to the civilian democratic governance by the people.