Exclusive interview with South Sudan’s General Thomas Cirilo Swaka

A South Sudanese top army general who resigned in February and formed his own rebel group says he wants to close ranks with other opposition and reverse a controversial restructuring of the country’s states and governance structure.

General Thomas Cirilo Swaka, who served as SPLA deputy chief of staff for logistics, is the second deputy army chief to resign within the last year. His new movement, the National Salvation Front, is seeking the removal of General Salva Kiir and the Dinka Council of Elders, the racial lobby group that advises him.

Cirilo’s defection has weakened not only the ruling SPLM/A-Juba faction but also the SPLA-IO of Riek Machar, after a sector commander hitherto loyal to Machar announced his allegiance to Cirilo’s NSF shortly after its formation.

Next to former Governor Joseph Bakosoro, leader of the National Movement for Change, Cirilo is the most prominent Equatorian to declare himself in opposition. His defection comes after months of violence in Yei and other parts of the Equatoria region.

In an exclusive interview, Cirilo told The Messenger about his ties with other opposition groups, his views on the Establishment Order of 2015, which created 28 new states, and his vision for his newly established group.

Messenger: What you would say about the creation of more states? Is this something you think was an answer to the demand of the people? If it is, how many states would preferably have been created in Equatoria?

Gen. Cirilo: First all, the creation of more states was a political decision. It has nothing to do with demand of the people. If it was about the demand of the people, they would have been consulted. But there was not a nationwide debate regarding increasing the number of states. People never heard of any proposals or deliberations whether at the level of the National Legislative Assembly or at the level of Council of States.

So people wonder where the proposal was made and these are the public institutions from which the proposal would have originated. The public institutions like universities, civil societies, never proposed it. There was no mention of the involvement of a technical committee in conducting feasibility studies before the presidential order. Everybody was taken by surprise when the president appeared on television to announce the creation of more states.

If consultations had been done, the people would have decided what to do, increase the number of states or allow the 10 states to remain and give them more constitutional powers, which was what the majority of the people were advocating for. It was to have not more states which would not sustain themselves.

Because it requires public consultation, the issue of federalism and creation of more states was taken off the negotiation table when members of the SPLM-IO first brought up the issue of increasing the number of states (during the 2014-2015 IGAD peace talks).

When the SPLM/A-IO proposed establishment of 21 new states based on the British colonial districts during the peace negotiations, the regime strongly opposed the proposal and even refused to discuss it in the negotiations. Now the same regime which has refused creation of more states decided to come up with even a larger number of states based on nothing but ethnic interests.

You know that it is not a secret that the 28 new states proposal originated from the Jieng (Dinka) Council of Elders. It was never a public debate, it was not the result of consultation, not by the parliament and so to say this was the fulfillment of a popular demand by the government is just a political gimmick.

Messenger: You were part of the government and the SPLA for years and never decided to switch allegiance, even when people were calling for you to join various armed struggle — why now?

Gen. Cirilo: Everything has a time and you know the quest for independence of South Sudan can be traced back to the 1947 Juba conference when the South Sudanese demanded federalism as a governing system or an independent South Sudan from the British colonialist and the Sudanese “Arabs” elites. When the Arabs reneged, the result of the denial and undermining of these demands of the people of South Sudan was the formation of armed resistance that led to a prolonged civil war against successive regimes in the Sudan.

The South Sudan armed resistance covered a period of over 50 years. The people of South Sudan fought a protracted 17-year Any-nya liberation war led by Gen. Joseph Lagu which was concluded with the signing of the Addis Ababa peace agreement in 1972. A second phase of the liberation war was waged by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLM/A) under the leadership of the late Dr. John Garang, which lasted for 22 years and culminated in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.

All this was for freedom but since attaining independence from the Sudan, the country has lost sense of direction, its vision, and the social contract with its people due to multiple failures by the SPLM-led government and the proxy governing tribal group, the so-called Jieng Council of Elders that squandered the short-lived ululations and jubilations of our citizens in celebration of the independence of the newest nation on earth.

Messenger: What will your movement do differently from other armed groups?  

Gen. Cirilo: Inspired by the spirit and need to create a new political dispensation in the country that is based on the principles of democracy, unity and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms anchored in a federal structure as the basis for uniting and rebuilding the country, the National Salvation Front is the movement determined to fight for a New South Sudan in which all its citizens will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.

The NSF vows to build a New Republic of South Sudan that buries policies of tribalism and resolutely seeks to impart the true spirit of South Sudan nationalism. We will strive to build a bridge and work in collaboration with like-minded opposition groups with shared objectives of bringing peace, change, liberty, and prosperity to South Sudan.

Messenger: How is the performance of the movement? Is it being joined?

This is a people’s movement with the objective to champion their cause and so people are joining earnestly. They are declaring their decision publicly; others are doing it their way because of security reasons.

But as you know, the leaders of other armed groups have dissolved their movement and joined the National Salvation Front. One of these comrades is Gen. Faiz Ismail Fatur, who was a sector commander in SPLM/A-IO in Western Bahr el-Ghazal. Another is Gen. Khalid Butrous Bora, he was the former chairman of SSDM/A. He dissolved his movement and joined the National Salvation Front.

Other comrades are Brigadier Gen Henry Oyay Nyago, he was the director of military justice at the general headquarters of the SPLA, Col. Khalifa Oao Loki, the former military court commander in the SPLA and Brig-Gen. Kamilo Otwari Alenrdo Paul, he was the director for logistics support in the SPLA.

At political level, there is Dr. Lako Juda Kwajok, he was the chairman of South Sudan Democratic Front and many more have joined and others are talking to us.