South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir has said that seven years ago opposition leaders in Juba deceived the Kenyan government when it offered them political refuge after the country plunged into war.
In an interview with Citizen TV on Wednesday, President Kiir says Kenya’s Head of State Uhuru Kenyatta worked against him to rescue a group of politicians detained for trying to oust him in December 2013.
Now referred to us Former Political Detainees, and having a share in the unity government created after the 2018 revitalized peace deal, the group had initially been charged with treason and detained by Kiir’s government following the eruption of violence on December 15, 2013 after Kiir’s security forces clashed with forces loyal to then Vice President Riek Machar. This led to the spate of violence in Africa’s youngest nation, just two years after it got independence.
Kiir at the time claimed there had been a plot to remove him from power and started a series of arrests of politicians in the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) accused of wanting him out.
“President Uhuru is leading his country but he thinks [that] by appeasing the rebels in my country, that may pay him back good.
“These people projected themselves as leaders of Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and that they were the people who fought the war. It was not true,” said Kiir, referring to the country’s independence war with Sudan, which had lasted 21 years before the country attained self-rule in 2005, and independence in July 2011.
In 2013, Kiir detained senior officials including Deng Alor Kuol, Gier Chuang, Kosti Manibe, Chol Tong Mayay, Cirino Hiteng, Madut Biar Yel and John Luk Jok. They were later handed over to Kenyan authorities in January 2014 and presented at State House. The Kenyan government would later grant them travel papers and host them at the Windsor for several weeks.
Others detained included Pag’an Amum, then secretary general of the ruling SPLM, Majak D'Agoot; Oyai Deng Ajak, Ezekiel Gatkuoth, former vice president Riek Machar, Taban Deng Gai, and Alfred Lado Gore. They all held senior positions in government.
The argument in Kenya at the time was to help remove the politicians from a possible clash point and enable the parties negotiate a political settlement. A few weeks later, they would sign two deals to cease fire and release the detainees.
On Wednesday, Kiir said the opposition group, which has since splintered into smaller groups but still earned positions back into the government of national unity, had tried to deceive every leader in the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad), except Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni.
“Museveni knew us when we were fighting,” he said, referring to Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, then a rebel group in Sudan led by John Garang. Kiir’s future nemesis Riek Machar would defect to Khartoum, before returning to the SPLM.
Museveni would later deploy the Uganda People’s Defence Forces to guard transportation networks and key government installations in Juba. But a proposal to deploy the standby forces to Juba under Igad were furiously opposed by Kiir.
The parties would sign up to a dozen ceasefire agreements which broke down almost immediately. In August 2015, Kiir and Machar had signed a deal in Addis but it went south just a few months after the formation of a coalition government, forcing Machar to flee Juba.
After living in restriction in South Africa, Machar finally returned to Juba last year, nearly 15 months after a ‘revitalised’ agreement was signed in Addis Ababa in September 2018. Machar is now First Vice President while Rebecca Nyandeng, one of the initially detained politicians, is among the four other Vice-Presidents in the country.
Although Kenya has argued it was guaranteeing peace in South Sudan, Kiir’s comments were the first public lamentation from Juba about Kenya’s policy on the country it helped create when it hosted the talks for the Comprehensive Peace Agreement Signed in Naivasha in 2005.
But Kiir himself would later aid the splintering of opposition groups when he hired Taban Deng Gai, a former detainee, to be Vice-President after Machar fled the country. Gai is now among the five VPs.
In spite of the government of national unity, some of the rebel groups that refused to sign the unity deal have enjoyed freedom living in Kenya. They include the National Salvation Front under Gen Thomas Cirilo as well as former military chief Paul Malong who differed with Kiir in 2017 and created his own rebel group known as the South Sudan United Front.
There was no immediate comment from the government in Nairobi, but an official at the Foreign Ministry indicated the leaders had been given political refuge as is allowed under international law and that Kenya was trying to provide a political solution.
South Sudan marks 10 years of independence from Sudan on July 9, 2021, but Kiir said there will be a low-key celebration as a precaution to prevent spread of Covid-19 and also because the country is running on a shoe-string budget.
Meanwhile, President Kiir has urged the international community to review its sanctions on South Sudan.
“The international community should give us a room to do our thing,” he said, referring to an arms embargo imposed on South Sudan and US sanctions on a number of politicians said to have fuelled the violence between 2013 and 2018.
“The arms embargo has tied our hands, because we are supposed to implement the [Peace] agreement which we have signed.”
The South Sudanese leader suggested the embargo had failed as many of the fighting groups were still able to purchase weapons from abroad.