Rebeca Nyandeng, widow of the late John Garang de Mabior, founding leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), says that the motive behind the newly announced ‘National Dialogue’ in South Sudan is to consolidate Salva Kiir’s grip over the country rather than to cultivate peaceful, inclusive dialogue.
Nyandeng says she headed a delegation of prominent former political detainees, referred to as the SPLM “G10”, on a visit to Uganda’s president Yoweri Kaguta Museveni last week to solicit support to end conflict in the country.
“Some SPLM leaders and I went to Uganda in response to the request by President Yoweri Museveni. He wanted to hear from me and the SPLM leaders our views about how the conflict should be stopped. Our meeting was fruitful. We discussed how the conflict should be stopped and stopping war is the first priority and we all agreed to work together to find a way to bring peace to the country so that the suffering of our people stops,” said Nyandeng.
Speaking with The Messenger, the former minister and presidential advisor said the only way to bring peace to the country is to explore ways aimed at persuading president Salva Kiir to relinquish power and steps down. “The country is tearing apart. People are dying daily and millions have crossed into neighbouring countries, as others you know are in the displaced camps living in a very bad condition and the war is continuing,” said Nyandeng.
The widow of the famous SPLM leader went on to label President Salva Kiir’s new national dialogue a “political project,” adding that what South Sudan needs instead is an inclusive dialogue rather than a stage-managed political initiative.
“That national dialogue should inclusive, open to all so that it becomes participatory and becomes a forum at which real dialogue would take place to address multifaceted issues causing the crisis. But the way it has been designed shows that the motive is to consolidate the power and legitimacy of the government through a political process in preparation for future elections. So it is not a true national dialogue, it is a political project. If it is a national dialogue, it should be inclusive and participatory,” she said.
Nyandeng welcomed the idea of national dialogue in principle, while questioning the exclusionary nature of the current initiative.
“When you don’t want to include other people, people with different views, then who do you want to dialogue with, your friend, right? If it is your friend then that is not a national dialogue. It is a monologue because your friends will not give a different view, and I don’t think that dialogue will succeed because no one makes a peace with a friend,” she stressed.
She urged regional leaders and the international community to speak with one voice to pressure the South Sudanese government to stop the war and implement the 2015 peace agreement as it was signed. Rebecca also supported a focus on an immediate ceasefire, restoring the peace process and ensuring unrestricted humanitarian access.
“As the mother, I have a responsibility to speak out and to call for support to end this conflict. The women are suffering, dying, they are being raped. They have no food, no shelter. Their children have stopped going to school because of war. The situation in the country is going from bad to worse. The region has to come together and stand with one voice to do everything in our power to change this situation.”
Rebecca Nyandeng refers to herself as the ‘mother of the country.’ Her husband was the first leader of SPLM, the rebel group founded in 1983 that became the governing party in South Sudan in 2005 after a peace deal with (north) Sudan’s government in Khartoum. SPLM split into two warring factions starting in December 2013. Nyandeng opted not to support either armed group and instead associated herself with a third group, the non-armed exile faction referred to variously as the SPLM-G10, ‘Former Detainees,’ or ‘SPLM Leaders’. Her son, by contrast, Mabior Garang, joined the armed SPLM-IO rebels as their spokesman.
Government officials resist the characterization that the proposed National Dialogue locks out opponents and aims only at consolidating government power. They want the international community to help fund the national dialogue.
In an interview, presidential advisor on security affairs Tut Kew Gatluak claimed practical steps have been taken to reach a lasting peace by including stakeholders in the political process. Tut cited cooperation with the United Nations, the region and wider international community. The government, he said, expects its effort to be acknowledged “rather than the negative campaign.”
The presidential aide also rejected claims of genocide as baseless. He stressed that South Sudan was a diverse nation with many different people living in peace. The official described the conflict as political without ethnic dimension.
Tut rejected the notion that government forces had targeted civilians or used sexual violence as a war tactic, stressing that the government was protecting itself like other nations do when their security is threatened. He said armed groups were being formed with the sole purpose of undermining the government by political opportunists and criminals. He further rejected claims that the government was responsible for the famine, emphasizing that sanctions and an arms embargo would only exacerbate tensions.
In the meantime, South Sudan’s government dispatched First Vice President Taban Deng to Uganda this week to meet with Museveni in what seems to be an effort to counter the visit by Nyandeng and the other exiled SPLM leaders. “I call upon all people of South Sudan to refrain from violence. The only politically viable way is peace and dialogue to achieve development,” Museveni said on social media after the meeting. He also earlier confirmed the meeting with Rebecca Nyandeng and her delegation saying the focus of the discussion was “on how to unite the different political groups in South Sudan.”
Although Museveni supported Kiir’s counter-insurgency efforts in 2014-2015 by providing troops to help secure the Jonglei front, he has since withdrawn his forces from the country. Uganda is experiencing a massive inflow of refugees due to the continuing spread of violence.
- President Salva Kiir has described his proposed National Dialogue as an attempt to reconcile the deeply divided country. His initiative is welcomed by some observers as a sign that the president may have realized the need to put the country on a new path of peaceful dialogue, steering away from the military solution that he has been pursuing over the past few years.
- Others are skeptical, viewing the initiative as a new trick to distract attention from implementing the 2015 peace agreement. The larger international community and region are unsure and divided on whether or not to support the process.
- The Dialogue announced in in December has also stalled due to lack of funding and procedural and structural issues that are yet to be addressed. For example, a group of church leaders have objected to Salva Kiir being the ‘patron’ of the process. Other critics don’t want him to pick the steering committee and set the location and duration of the process.
- Key figures within South Sudan’s security establishment are jockeying for influence, with differences arising between Defense Minister Kuol Manyang Juuk, Chief of Staff Paul Malong Awan and internal security boss Akol Koor Kuc. With competing political ambitions near the top, and Kiir himself reliant on all of these figures to some extent, the ruling party is perhaps too riven itself to enter into a broader, more inclusive dialogue.
- Other significant constituencies within Kiir’s ruling coalition are at odds with each other, including First Vice President Taban Deng Gai and the former Governor of Unity state, Joseph Nguen Monytuil, whose brother – a prominent militia commander who became SPLA deputy chief of staff – defected last year in part over reluctance to accept the appointment of Taban as vice president. Ruweng Dinka in northern Unity State are also particularly suspicious of Taban for the role he played in the insurgency in the state from 2014-2015, and they have refused to accept a governor from Taban’s SPLM-IO (IG) faction over their area.
- Seen in this context, Kiir’s ‘National Dialogue’ appears as much an effort to reconcile differences within his own wartime coalition as it does one to reach out to rebels, exiled opposition or other constituencies in an effort to end the war.
- Rebecca Nyandeng’s husband John Garang was a long-time associate of Museveni. His decision to call on her for advice and insight at a time of massive refugee flows from South Sudan into his country suggests he may be looking for new solutions to the conflict, turning to people whom he knows and trusts.
The Messenger is dedicated to investigative and expository reporting throughout East Africa. To support us and our journalistic mission sign up for our newsletter (free) or boost us financially through Patreon.