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Pagan Amum: “Kiir turned into a tribal dictator”

Maha Eltelb
Pagan Amum called on South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir to step down, accusing him of letting his country down and giving up on peace.
31.08.2016  |  Khartoum, Sudan
Pagan Amum during an interview with Maha Eltilb on October 19, 2013, in Addis Ababa. (photo: The Niles | Maha Eltilb)
Pagan Amum during an interview with Maha Eltilb on October 19, 2013, in Addis Ababa. (photo: The Niles | Maha Eltilb)

Mr. Amum, you were the SPLM Secretary General during the transitional period and after the separation of South Sudan. Why, in your opinion, has South Sudan drifted towards the current crisis?

Our failure is attributed to Kiir’s diversion from SPLM’s vision and the project of building the state and the nation.

As an SPLM official, you were also responsible for the SPLM’s failure to run South Sudan back then and then the newly independent South Sudan?

As Secretary General, I was engaged in constant internal struggle to preserve the SPLM vision and implement its political project. I faced obstacles and animosity by Kiir in particular, who is solely responsible for SPLM’s failure and the deteriorating situation we are experiencing at present.

When I was Secretary General, all my long discussions, internal dialogues and many attempts to persuade Kiir to abide by the organisational line, were of no avail.

Was what you did enough, and what did you do thereafter?

Kiir drifted away from SPLM’s fundamental principles and the vision held by its late leader John Garang.

I outlined the risks facing the SPLM and South Sudan – causing them to be at risk of disintegration because Kiir and SPLM’s leadership as organisational institutions deviated from SPLM’s vision. That was the opinion held by the majority of SPLM members. Supported by his small entourage, Kiir however thwarted the effort and obstructed the SPLM’s restructuring.

Eventually, Kiir put me under house arrest and prevented me from saying that the SPLM failed to implement its political project and Kiir drifted away from SPLM’s fundamental principles and the vision held by its late leader John Garang. All that led to a series of arrests, attempts to assassinate some leading figures, and departure of a number of leaders from South Sudan.

In a previous interview with the Aljareeda newspaper, you described Kiir as a dictator. Don’t you believe that you, as part of the SPLM leadership, have contributed to creating that dictator?

Kiir has not landed from heaven. He is the product of South Sudan and the SPLM where he was promoted until he became deputy head of its founder John Garang. We chose him as SPLM’s head after Garang’s sudden death.

True, the SPLM has created him, but he is responsible for the growth of authoritarian and tribal tendencies. He is also responsible for thwarting, hijacking and completely destroying SPLM’s ideologies and policies.

This often happens in the history of political parties and movements. In Sudan, for example, the Islamic movement that staged a coup d’état against the democratic government in 1989 brought Omar al-Bashir to power. Eventually, the famous dispute and power rivalry of December 1999 ended in the destruction of the Islamic movement itself.

That also happened in the former Soviet Union when Stalin rose to power and destroyed the Communist Party. Many similar examples in recent history can also be cited. But Kiir is responsible for the present situation and the disintegration of the nascent state of South Sudan, as well as the sectarianism, tribalism, and tribal violence currently witnessed.

Under the Arusha Accords to reunify SPLM splinter groups, you were reinstated in your previous post. But you left to the U.S. without resigning. Are not you partly responsible for what is happening now?

It was not a surprising position. My return to Juba in July 2015 aimed to implement the Arusha Accords under which we agreed to reunify the SPLM factions, rectify the perpetrated errors, apologise to people, rebuild the SPLM, and work for promoting peace and stability. Upon my return and meeting with Kiir, I however found that he had turned into a tribal dictator. He was willing neither to redress the grave mistakes he had committed and involved us in, nor to reach a peace accord or to achieve national reconciliation, to mend the social fabric and restore South Sudanese’ unity.

For all these reasons, I engaged in deep discussions with him until we persuaded him of the importance of signing a peace agreement. He allowed me to travel to Addis Ababa to sign the agreement, but he later changed his mind or there were certain parties that made him change his mind and refuse to go to the Ethiopian capital to sign the agreement.

After he had been obliged to attend, Kiir also refused to sign. He only signed it ten days later in Juba. Following the signature, he said he had some reservations against it and that it was neither a Koran nor a Bible. He also made statements reflecting his unwillingness to unify the SPLM pursuant to the Arusha Accords and return to SPLM’s vision.

Is this why you have not returned to Juba?

Based on the aforementioned statements, Kiir clearly adopted strategic positions against peace, SPLM’s unity, and returning to SPLM’s vision. This is why I preferred to live abroad as a political refugee and continue struggling from there.

Why did you decide to leave?

War was imminent, and that the nascent state faced disintegration so long as Kiir remained in power.

During the year that followed the signing of the peace agreement, I gave those who believed in Kiir’s desire to implement the agreement a chance to achieve their vision vis-à-vis the unity of the SPLM and people of South Sudan. Nonetheless, it was clear to me that Kiir was unserious about implementation, war was imminent, and that the nascent state faced disintegration so long as Kiir remained in power. Time has proved what I predicted when he, in August 2016, destroyed both the Arusha Accords to unify the SPLM and the Addis Ababa agreement to restore peace in South Sudan.

Is it high time Amum returned to South Sudan?

Kiir’s intransigence has pushed South Sudan to the brink of catastrophe, and South Sudan now is in a state of continued collapse. The situation is likely to be further aggravated, leading to the disintegration of the state.

Now is the time to mobilise the people of South Sudan, the region, the African Union (AU) and international community to save the nascent state and prevent its fall into chaos and disintegration. This effort and mobilisation process aim at calling the UN and the region to intervene to save South Sudan and restore satiability through cessation of violence, provisional administration, and support for a technocratic government comprised of professionals to save the people of South Sudan from death, displacement and starvation through securing food and protecting the vulnerable.

What is in your opinion the way out of South Sudan’s crisis?

The government should protect people’s lives, re-build the state apparatuses and good governance institutions, develop a permanent constitution to regulate the political process, disarm all combatant groups, and prepare to handover power to people through free and fair elections at the end of the transitional period. Only then will South Sudan be on the track of peaceful development and progress and the political process will be free from violence and weapons.

This project is not a fad, but the result of many international community and regional experiences to run failing states or states that have fallen victim to tribal and violent civil wars where war crimes and crimes against humanity are committed as it happened in Liberia.

What makes you confident of the success of a regional and international intervention in South Sudan, while experience shows it has failed at regional and global levels?

Liberia suffered from continued civil wars following Charles Taylor’s coup and assumption of power then when others rebelled against him. Many atrocities were committed, causing the AU to intervene and compel Taylor to step down. Supported by the AU, the UN formed a government of technocrats, until elections were held at the end of the transitional period. The same thing happened in Sierra Leone where the AU and the UN put it on a peaceful track. Now, the two countries enjoy peace and security after a UN interim administration.

In the case of Somalia, for example, rebels could defeat the government of Siad Barre and later split into tribal groups. This time, the Americans, rather than the international community, intervened under President Clinton. After their defeat, however, the country plunged into enormous disarray, helping Islamist movement came to power. This forced Africa and the region, supported by international community and the UN, to back intervention in Somalia. A government was set up and was protected by African forces. Now, the country has begun recovering from violence and collapse and the situation there is better than in South Sudan, according to international reports and statistics. Thanks to that intervention, Somalia now is arguably well on the road of recovery from disintegration and failure. Similar interventions succeeded in East Timor and Kosovo in the aftermath of the collapse of former Yugoslavia.

You have elaborately spoken about putting South Sudan under and international mandate and also about regional and international intervention. Does this mean a UN administration of South Sudan, or an intervention of regional forces to bring about peace and stability and seek a way out of the crisis?

The intervention I mean aims to restore stability in South Sudan. To that end, it is necessary to demand that all political forces relinquish power and allow for a technocratic government. This means that Kiir and his party, Riek Machar and his SPLM-IO, Amum and his group, Lam Akol and his group, and all the other political forces should stand aloof from the government during the transitional period. They should begin to organise themselves and get ready to run for the elections and present their political programmes to people.

These political forces should consult the region and the UN about how to deliver the future government and its missions. After it implements its emergency programmes, the technocrat government should prepare people to lay down the foundation for a permanent political system through formulating a permanent constitution where political forces and civil society participate in constitutional conferences and referendums, if necessary.

Is your call for intervention now a result of your failure to implement peaceful programmes as you planned following the outbreak of the December 2013 crisis?

It is in fact the result of the failure of all political forces, primarily the SPLM within the government, to run the state and manage the conflict. That failure has led South Sudan to collapse.

Is it your personal attitude or an official position of the group of ten?

This is the position of the group I am the spokesperson for. A civilian non-political non-profitable organisation, ‘South Sudan Reborn’ aims at saving South Sudan and realising a number of goals, including security and stability, a transitional authority in cooperation with the UN and the AU, free and fair elections, keeping with the peace agreement, and a permanent constitution drafted by the elected technocrats. This position is not linked to any political attitude and has to do neither with the political detainees nor with others.

You are speaking about a civil organisation different from your political organisation. Are you still the head of the former political detainee group?

Yes, I am still its head, but I do not exercise my duties at present. Deng Alor is the alternate head now. I am also still SPLM Secretary General, but I am not working as Secretary General due to the disputes mentioned earlier.

The South Sudanese government has expressed strong resentment against the meeting of the international partners of the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC) recently held in Khartoum. Why in your opinion?

The government’s resentment comes in the context of the ongoing violations of the peace agreement. The latest statement by Makuei and his government against the JMEC is tantamount to a death announcement of the agreement. Adopting this position, the government has stated that the peace agreement will not be implemented and consequently there is no peace; South Sudan wishes to cooperate neither with the region, nor with IGAD or the international community; and that the government has decided to take South Sudan to a more violent war than the civil war that the peace agreement seeks to end.

What is your opinion of Sudan’s role in solving the crisis?

The disintegration of South Sudan is also likely to threaten international and regional peace and security, hence our call for UN and AU intervention.

Khartoum plays an essential and effective role in ending the crisis, similar to the role played by Uganda, Ethiopia, and Kenya. These four states are negatively affected by the deteriorating conditions in South Sudan in view of the increasing numbers of refugees from South Sudan in them, which puts big pressure on them considering their already scarce economic resources.

The disintegration of South Sudan is also likely to threaten international and regional peace and security, hence our call for UN and AU intervention. The seriousness of the situation may urge millions of people to flee to the desert to attempt to reach Europe via the Mediterranean, as happened with other Africans and Syrians fleeing their failing states.

Accordingly, the role played by IGAD and Sudan is highly important for achieving peace and stability in South Sudan, which will ultimately promote peace and stability in all these states, and enable the people of the region to focus on development and reconstruction.

The political developments in South Sudan may produce more armed movements and militias. How do you view this statement?

I concur. Most of such movements are based on tribal affiliations from various parts of South Sudan. With the collapse of the Government of National Unity in Juba, which is guided by the peace agreement, the government and its army will be based on tribal affiliations. This situation portends violent tribal fighting that fuels grudge and tribal fanaticism and it may lead to a situation worse than that of Somalia.

Under your campaign to mobilise necessary support for intervention, do you plan to visit Khartoum given its central role you have referred to before?

Yes, we intend to visit many countries all over the world, especially the countries and capitals concerned with South Sudan’s affairs, like the US, UK, Norway, France, IGAD member states, including South Africa. The visits will also include Asian states that have economic ties with South Sudan, such as India, Malaysia, Australia, and Japan. We will go to all these regions to ensure their support and call them to save South Sudan.


The Niles Maha Eltelb spoke with Pagan Amum over the phone on August 13, 2016. The interview was originally carried out in Arabic and translated to English.

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