Indian peacekeepers deployed in South Sudan are in high demand not only because they are neutral in the security they provide but also due to the helping hand they extend to the local population, says India’s Ambassador to South Sudan SD Moorthy. In an exclusive interview to SNI Associate Editor Amitabh P Revi and Video Journalist Prateek Suri in Juba, the Indian envoy also talked about the peace process, the business opportunities and the huge reserves of oil in the country in which India has a stake.
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Q: Ambassador, we have travelled a bit in South Sudan. Now we’re in the embassy in Juba. Thanks for hosting us. India, as we have seen on the ground, has a lot of goodwill.
A: Correct. The reason being Indian community has a long-standing relationship with Juba. Everybody knew about Sudan. But, very long back our business community was doing business with Juba. We opened our first consulate in 2007, before Independence. At that time, no one knew there would be a country called South Sudan. Our people were doing business. That’s why opened our first consulate in 2007. At that time a lot of Gujarati businessmen and a lot of people from South India, especially Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, had a huge presence here. I was told about 4000-5000 people were here at the time. Then after Independence, we upgraded our presence to a full-fledged embassy. People were so happy. We were one of the first to open an embassy in the new, young country. Then for the Independence Day celebrations in 2011, Vice President Hamid Ali Ansari came all the way to attend that one. People still remember it. Then they cherish it—India was one of the first countries to recognize South Sudan. Since then we have very good, cordial relations with South Sudan. Even people to people contact also. They are very close with us. Everybody is having one or the other experience with India. Even people are saying very long back, when I meet them on the street or at a function, they used to talk to me in Hindi. They speak a few words in Hindi and Tamil also. I feel very good about that. That much closeness we are having.
Q: Like you’re saying it’s history. Even when it was Sudan—unified country—the President was also here (Yes, yes) As you said we were probably one of the first countries (of course) to recognise South Sudan. We’ve also been helping post-Independence, UNMISS with the two battalions(correct) of Indian peacekeepers (2500 people almost) That is providing not only a huge security blanket for the people in the areas (correct) where they’re operating but they’re also having an outreach (of course) to the local people.
A: It’s a very proud moment for us. The UN force makes us very proud. See, apart from their regular peacekeeping operations, they are doing a lot of social welfare activities in the entire country, especially wherever they are located—in Bor state, in Malakal and other places. They’re running a base hospital also for the civilians. They’re running veterinary clinics. That has more attraction than anything else. The very big level ministers and dignitaries are always very proud to say that the Indian contingents are not only helping human beings but their cattle resources also. They revere their cattle resources very much. Apart from that, the capacity building—they are empowering local women—teaching them agricultural activities, how to grow vegetables, how to extract milk from the cattle, here the cows give very little milk. Now, they’re developing some technology. Now, they’re thinking of hi-breeding also. Our battalions are helping them. Not only that, recently they started a scheme called community lighting. In every village, they’re going to put up a very tall pole. Then they will install a few solar panel lights. That will be highly helpful to the students to study at night. It will give a security, safety aspect also. Now, after seeing one or two lights like that, ministers of those areas are calling me and saying, Ambassador, please ask your battalion to install more lights. It costs a little money also. The Indian community agreed to help. We’re going to give around 10 lights—the Indian community in Juba agreed to donate around $10,000 to the UN-our battalion people to set up 10 lights. That’s a very useful thing. It will give us some image also. Then apart from that, capacity building for university students also—John Gurang University. The students are taught how to repair computers, how to repair cellphones, (vehicles) vehicles, all these things they are doing it. See, it will give some financial support to the students also. A few students join together and set up a company. They will repair your genset. It will be a huge help to this suffering community. The Indian government, the Indian battalions are really doing a wonderful job. I am very proud of it.
Q: We saw this on the ground-you were mentioning solar lamps. In a particular village a community asked why they were not getting lamps (Yes. So much. Yes. Yes) In terms of the security blanket-again when you just look at the situation in South Sudan, we’re probably the second largest (of course) after Rwanda (Yes. Next to Rwanda. Correct) But, the places we are positioned are very strategically important in terms of the past (Correct, correct) and where there has been conflict.
A: Yes. That’s the thing. These two areas—Malakal and Bor—had seen a lot of fighting also. In that area there are a lot of cattle resources. Most of the ministers in the government are from those areas. Whenever I meet them, they have high regard for India. They used to request me to do something for their agricultural activities, saying they had plenty of empty land and a lot of water resources, please ask your Indian business people to come and invest. Now, we’re watching the situation. Once we get the green signal—yes, everything is okay—definitely we will recommend our business people and agriculturalists, especially dynamic agriculturists from Punjab, to come and transform the entire country. We are highly hopeful peace and stability will return to this country. We are doing our level best to help.
Q: Talking about the positioning of the Indian battalions. In the Bor area—in Akobo—first UNMISS presence in IO (In opposition) area. Looking at the other contingent in Malakal—they already have one but they’re moving their post for the first time to the west of the Nile. The Indian contingents are taking up much of the responsibility (correct).
A: The reason why we are taking that much risk and being very active in that field is that Indian battalions have already gained a very good name in this country. They’re neutral, are never involved in any local politics. They were some allegations against some battalions but our people are respected everywhere. That’s why I suggest to them also, do your best for the local population, they need your support now. This is not to blame what happened in the past—you did this thing, that thing, everything is over now. At least think and look forward to taking this country along with India. They’ve progressed a lot. In the same way, we should also help as a good friend. We are concentrating on three main fields now. One is education. We’re giving them capacity building training. Around 200 scholarships we’re giving every year. Apart from that, 7 scholarships for under-graduate, post-graduate and research level we’re also giving. This year on my recommendation, the government has agreed to increase the slots for scholarships to 15, we’re doubling it. That is sponsored by ICCR. The people are so enthusiastic about it. Everybody in this country wants their children to be educated in India—even a poor man thinks about letting his son or daughter go to India. Apart from students on our scholarships, there are so many privately financed students in India. They are studying in Bangalore, Pune, Chennai, Hyderabad, everywhere they are there—on their own financing. Parents give a lot of importance to education. The Indian system, they love it. Most of the top bureaucrats, I met so many ministers, they’ve studied in India for years. I met one Finance minister in Jubak state, he stayed in Pune for 9 years. He speaks fluent Hindi, better than me. That much goodwill we have in this country. Now I’m thinking of forming a Sudan-India friendship association. The students and people in high position in India, I’m going to assemble all important people. Then, I will form a group. They will be a bridge between us and the government. Even, some people are happy about that thing. They’re coming forward. Very soon we’re going to start it.
Q: Very soon, hopefully, they will be a medical facility—a hospital in Juba (of course)
A: Already India pledged around $5 million to construct one hospital here. Earlier, it was considered as a general hospital. GoSS (Government of South Sudan) requested they wanted a hospital to exclusively treat their mentally affected patients, psychiatric patients. (Considering the conflict) Considering the conflict, so many affected by war trauma. Even human rights organisations accuse the government of keeping their people in jail because they don’t have the infrastructure to maintain them. Then when the President visited India for the Africa Summit, he put up a request to Prime Minister Modi. Then it was agreed to give a hospital—an exclusive hospital to treat psychiatric patients. On January 2 our team came from India—five doctors from AIIMS, two engineers. They inspected the land, had a dialogue with the local medical fraternity. They met the health minister, they were also fortunate to have an audience with President Salva Kiir. He was so happy. Then he made everybody very comfortable. He recalled his good, old days and connections with India. He fondly recalled his meeting with Prime Minister Modi. He called him his mentor. He used very, very good words. That much respect we have.
Q: The political, security situation is still in flux. You’re saying you’re waiting to see whether Indian businesses should be recommended to come. (yes) But, there is already a presence of Indians (yes, of course) Even the countries surrounding South Sudan with an Indian diaspora
A: Yes. Of course now a lot of Indians are coming. Almost every week, I’m getting one or two business inquiries from neighbouring countries. They’re visiting us also especially from Uganda. Kenya, Khartoum, people are coming here. I’m recommending come and do the exploration. How the situation is improving? If you feel comfortable, you come and start the business. The Indian Embassy is always with them. I assure, on my first arrival here, my first meeting was with the Indian community. First day I called everybody and told them this is not like a 9 to 5 office, Monday to Friday. This is 24×7 office. This is my number. At any time, you can call me. Then they understood the new person is for the people. Since then, things are moving very smoothly. Then, they are participating in all our events. I take all my colleagues from the embassy whenever they organise some events. That much closeness we’re having with the Indian community.
Q: You have been mentioned on the ground as being a very proactive envoy for India. Moving forward things and the reach that India is trying to achieve. You talked about agriculture, medicines (yes medicines also) livestock, vets are very important tin this country.
A: The livestock is more than the human population in this country. For everything, we need some assurance from the government or authorities about safeguarding their investment. Second, the security situation is improving. But, still people have some skepticism, whether it will sustain or not. I’m hopeful, definitely the situation will improve. Now, the transition period will end only in the month of May. Then all political parties, the opposition groups will come and join the government. Once they join, they will be a lot of changes in the government. There may be some policy changes also. Till then, we have to wait. After that definitely, I’m going to recommend our business people, our chambers of commerce to send their delegations. Very recently, we extended an invitation to the trade minister to visit India, to take part in a CII conclave. He may be visiting New Delhi in the month of March. At that time, he will go and meet our business houses and business people. He will explain to them what are the developments taking place in this country. (Huge opportunity) Yes, huge opportunity. Even the secretary general of the local chamber of commerce, he is also very keen on going there. We’re extending an initiation to him also to attend both the places. He will also go with his delegation. We’re trying our level best. A lot of natural resources is there. But the policy is not very clear. They’re not openly saying anything. Even for starting a business, they don’t have any guidelines. How to start business in this country? For that, I requested the trade minister to give me a booklet. We will circulate it to our chambers of commerce. Then those people will come. He assured me that very soon he will provide that copy. Very recently, they enacted a labour law. Only in 2017 it started, only last week I got a copy from the government. Now, they’re bringing out new guidelines also—how the local population should be employed by foreign employers. That means slowly they’re making new guidelines. Now, they’ve enacted a new revenue authority also (I see) to accumulate more and more revenue for the country. Now, they’re very vigorous. In one or two months they collected more than SSD (South Sudan Dollars) 1billion as a non-oil revenue for the country. Things are moving properly. They’re streamlining the tax collection system also. That’s a very good thing. This type of development is going to help the entire international community and give some hope about commitment of the leadership of this country. That is a good development for this country.
Q: It’s almost like wait and watch because of the pre-transitional period and other groups coming in so one has to see how that develops. But, overall how do you assess the peace process having moved? There have been attempts before. And they’ve all failed. Is this any different?
A: Still some people, my colleagues in the diplomatic community are having some skepticism. But I hope this time the peace will definitely sustain. The reason when I met the President after presenting my credentials, he explained to me one thing—he himself volunteered and told me—earlier pacts failed, the reason being we were not ready to sign those agreements. It was imposed on us. But this time myself and my friend Dr Riek Machar we discussed, we agreed to sign the peace agreement. Both parties willingly signed the agreement. Whatever they showed, I signed it, because it’s about development, people are fed up, people need peace also. That’s why we signed. Definitely it will sustain. He wanted the international community’s support. As a good friend, definitely India will extend all the support to South Sudan Government.
Q: People want peace. How times have changed in terms of Sudan and South Sudan—they used to practically be enemies, but now because of their common interests, statements from both sides are changing.
A: Yes, of course changing. You see now economies of both countries are in very precarious situation. Both need funds for their developmental activities. Now, they’re reviving their petroleum extraction also. They started with about 8,000 barrels per day. Now it’s more than 30,000 barrels. By the end of this year, it will definitely reach the old figure of 130,000 barrels. We are hopeful. We have a huge stake in this country. ONGC has invested more than $ 2 million in two blocks. Our people are very active now with our partners—Petronas and Chinese petroleum company. They’re doing very well. We hope the production will pick up. We are thinking of developing those fields. We will think in the future if there is more investment (needed) or something in the oil sector. That’s also possible.
Q: Again there been a change of late. In one of those blocks it’s almost doubled, though it was a much lower base, I believe the other block has even more potential (Yes) ONGC has a big stake. India has a big stake.
A: We need a lot of fuel, this energy to run our economy also. South Sudan has a huge, unexplored reserve of oil. Earlier they were telling only 2 billion barrels. Now, they’re going more than 15 billion barrels of reserve. Last month they conducted one conference here—fuel and energy conference. All important, top people of the industry, they came and attended. At that time the Petroleum Minister conveyed to the delegates that they have this much reserve. They want to explore and extract, they need a lot of investment from foreign firms. Our ONGC people also sent the report to the government. Let’s see in the future, definitely we will take part in this. They have very good quality petrol also. The only problem is transportation. But it will be resolved very soon. But, a lot of money is going in the transit transport charge. It’s part of the game. But we are slowly going to get back the return on our investment in this country.
Q: Overall India when it looks at itself in comparison to other countries, and how strategically important it can be for India and how other countries are also looking for their strategic interests (Yes. Yes) How far is our policy focused on that?
A: South Sudan thinks India is a very highly reliable ally in the world. They are asking to train their police force. Even, they want their joint military force to be trained by us, because of our neutrality. We will slowly enter into that. The matter has been taken up with the government. We are expecting some special proposal from the Government of South Sudan. When it comes, it could be considered by the Government of India.
Q: The UN mandate expires in a couple of months. There will be a new mandate. We’re not sure how that will pan out. But, then whatever it is India will be playing a key role here.
A: Yes, Wherever there is conflict, Indian peacekeeping forces are doing very well. Being a neutral force and concern about the local population development and improvement, everyone likes Indian forces. They feel close with our forces. We never indulge in any kind of wrong things. That’s why our forces are heavily relied on by the local government and the whole population, they like our forces. But, they’re doing their best for the country’s peace. Once the transition period is over, the forces of the government as well as the opposition they will be assembled together to form a national army. At that time if they require any help, GoI may consider to help them also.
Q: How does India’s foreign policy overall look at peacekeeping in South Sudan or other areas where you are involved? There is a larger foreign policy implication in terms of the security council reforms of the UN itself. How does all that come together?
A: Wherever the conflict regions are there, we send our force at the request of the UN Security Council. The reason being, we never take sides anywhere. We feel: let peace and stability return to the country. Our forces are there. We try to help the local population. In that way India is getting a good image, a very, very neutral force that is interested in resolving the issue, difficulties or conflict and at the same time creating an atmosphere for the local population’s development and improvement also. That way India is doing its best.
Q: Indian peacekeepers have formed the largest numbers in history, had the largest number of casualties, the most missions. (Right. Right) The larger implication of Security Council and UN also plays a part.
A: Our forces are in high demand in Africa. They say, send Indian forces. Not only do we do peacekeeping operations, we also help the local population. That is the most important (thing). They must be given comfort. They should feel secure when Indian forces are around. All UN peacekeeping forces are doing their best. Indians are very, very close, very kind. The culture and system is like that.
Q: It should also have an impact on how there is a re-order to look at how the global order has changed on the ground. (Yes) It’s not just the P-5(Permanent 5 nuclear members) anymore (correct) That will also have an impact on the larger picture.
A: India is always neutral, never take sides in the conflict. That’s why the leadership of this country trusts Indian troops. They never make any allegations. They have some difficulties with (other) peacekeeping forces. Indians are always in the middle path. Not only that they are talking part in the local infrastructure development. Our forces in Malakal repaired the runway of the local airport. What more do we want? (we saw that)
Q: Ambassador, you mentioned how many people speak to you in Hindi. We saw that, a young girl in Bor who sang Bollywood songs for us and little boys who say Ram Ram.
A: Even whenever I go in the market, people used to greet me—in Tamil also they say Vannakam, even in Hindi they say Namaste. Our Indian movies have a huge outreach in this place. They were regularly shown, they even dubbed our Hindi serials in Arabic language. It’s become highly popular. Even government officials used to regularly watch Indian cinema. Shah Rukh Khan is a dream hero here. Even some old people here, they remember Sanjeev Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan, even they say some dialogues from old movies. Especially, Raj Kapoor’s movies very popular. I met the ambassador from Turkey, he also sings songs from Raj Kapoor’s movies. That much impact Hindi movies have made here. Social media is also creating a lot of awareness. Even students who are studying in India they’re also bringing back very good image of their experience from India. It’s giving good publicity for India, telling more and more people can go and study in India. The fees are also reasonable, not very costly in comparison to western countries. Daily I’m giving 5-10 visas for medical treatment. So many people are going to Chennai, Bangalore, Delhi. Even people from high level in the government. Last month the Chief Justice of South Sudan visited Chennai for a surgery. After his return he came and personally thanked me, saying they took care of me and now I’m fine. The Interior Minister is taking treatment in Bengaluru. The Juba Governor went to Delhi’s Apollo hospital a few months back for heart treatment. All the big people are going. Whenever they go they come and meet me also. Then I guide them on the climatic conditions, I used to write to the hospitals also requesting them to take care of VIPs. They’re getting all the treatment. They’re very, very happy in that way.
Q: So the physical distance between Juba and Delhi may be many 1000s of kilometers but the ties are much much closer. (Yea. Yes) Ambassador Thank You so much for…
A: Thank you Mr Revi, thank you.