The two Indian battalions currently in South Sudan as part of the UN peacekeeping mission have been deployed in areas where they are needed the most, says South Sudanese President Salva Kiir Mayardit. Speaking exclusively to SNI Associate Editor Amitabh P Revi and Video Journalist Prateek Suri in the capital Juba, the first president of the world’s newest country spoke about how India can help in implementing a strained peace deal and assist with agriculture that he describes as the mainstay of the country’s economy. The 68-year-old who became the country’s first president in 2011 also spoke about the internal opposition and his vision for the road ahead. And he believes the current peace deal will not fail like in the past.
Q: President Salva Kiir, thank you so much for hosting us in your office in Juba. (You’re most welcome) We have travelled a lot through your country in the last eight days. And there’s so much of an Indian connection. We went to Bor, Akobo, Malakal, Kodok and UNMISS (United Nations Mission in South Sudan), two Indian battalions, security presence, doctors, veterinarians, education, solar lamps, the Indian connection with South Sudan, Mr President is extremely big.
A: Of course, the Indians are not new to our country. They have been here for many years doing business and if there is anything that can bring them to our country now, it’s okay. They have been very supportive, UN forces and so we have seen how they have discharged their duties. Now, we have the privilege of having met a very, senior, high-level delegation from India. And, the Indian government has pledged to build a mental (psychiatric) hospital (in Juba) in Juba (40 bed hospital) Yeah.
Q: On the security angle, Sir, on the two Indian battalions present in Juba, of course, but mainly in Bor and Akobo, Malakal and Kodok. How important is the role of the Indian battalions in UNMISS?
A: Well, so far I have not had any report of misconduct of Indian soldiers. What we know is the Indian Army is a very disciplined Army, well trained, highly trained and when they come to the country, we don’t expect any problems from their side. So their involvement in peace operations is significant to us and we like it.
Q: President, It’s significant in the areas they are present. They can make the people either secure enough to return and continue to build their lives. The areas where the Indian battalions are crucial to moving forward in the peace process, isn’t that correct?
A: Yes. The areas they are there now are the areas that need most the presence of peace among the people. And especially Akobo, because Akobo is a very isolated town and especially during this war nobody is there. But, it’s become a displaced camp because when the relief food was being taken to Akobo that managed to gather the people. But now it’s time for people to go back to their original homes so that they settle.
Q: Akobo we visited for a little while and what we’re told, like you’re saying it was pretty much empty even a few months back. We’re told now there are possibly up to 13,000 people who have come back—the NGOs, the aid workers are back, which indicate the security situation is getting better even in the area which is the only area where the Indian battalion is present, UNMISS is present in IO (In Opposition) territory
A: There was no fighting in that area, actually. Since the rebellion started in 2013, our forces have never gone to Akobo. They have never reached Akobo. And the whole population rebelled so there was no need to bother to go there.
Q: President, apart from the security angle of the peacekeepers, we have seen on the ground is the connect they are making with the local people through doctors, veterinarians, through maybe giving solar lamps to people of the villages. So much so that one of the doctors who treats the cattle has been told you cannot go back home to India, you must stay here. We will give you a plot (of land) as well. The connect between the peacekeepers, the Indian peacekeepers, and the outreach to people on the ground that also is very important.
A: It is important because Indians even when they were just businesspeople in South Sudan they were integrating with the people. They just befriend you and then you stay together. So, for now the people are in need. The people of South Sudan are in need of so many services. Those who keep cattle, they need medicines for their animals. Human beings are also in need of human drugs and so on and so on. So, the connection is not a simple thing. It will need us to make more efforts bilaterally to bring our relationship to the highest level. I always look towards India—that they will help us in the implementation of this peace agreement because if there is no support from India, we will not make it alone. The support we need is not simple. Say for example, we need medicines. When we talk about the cantonment areas where the rebel forces will have to be assembled, where they will be screened (yup) and trained we need many things for them (tents) tents which will be the main shelters and then offices. Then, we need food. We need medicines. These are the three main things that we would need. For water, you know, boreholes can be dug in the same areas, there is no problem.
Q: When you’re talking about the peace process, President, where do you think South Sudan currently stands? We’ve seen peace processes in the past fail. This one seems to have brought some optimism on the ground and among all groups?
A: Well, on my side as head of the government, it was me who signed the agreement and I told the members of my government that this is our agreement. We have to implement it ourselves. So, that thing gave the opposition—some of them—high hopes that there is going to be peace. This is why they are now in Juba. They are with us in Juba. Everybody came on the 31st of October. They came to Juba, we celebrated the peace agreement. And it was attended by President Omar al-Bashir (Sudan’s President) and his members of the government. So, we believe that this peace will not fail again like those which failed. Yes.
Q: And in terms of a timeframe, what you were saying, in terms of cantonments will they be set up by February/March?
A: It is late in a way. It is behind time (schedule) behind schedule. But, still we will make it.
Q: Are you worried about any other groups who are holding out against peace?
A: Well, there are groups that are holding out against peace. That is human mentality. There is nothing you can do to them. But they will come. If they find that there are no people joining them so that they can fight they will then say well everybody doesn’t want war. Let us join them. They will come.
Q: In terms of the international community, the UN, there is a mandate that will be renewed in March. What is your need or want from the international community at large and the UN mission itself?
A: Well, I don’t really need to pre-empt the timetable of the UN but what they should always understand is that South Sudan is a sovereign state. And there are things that they always do in our absence. And they impose them in the UN mandate, which is not true. This time, if there is a new UN mandate for the forces that are operating in South Sudan, South Sudan should be part of that agreement.
Q: Is there any change that you want in the mandate itself? Because if you look at other regions, other countries in the past, it’s moved from peacekeeping to a stabilization role and it doesn’t seem to have reached that stage as yet?
A: Well, these people have stopped everything from us. They don’t want to do anything. It is a peace mission. A peace mission should have minimum things to do. Like when the Japanese contingent was in Bor, they worked. Now, your contingent is giving some services. And, so if it is at that stage, they should do things at their limited resources given to them. But once peace is attained, there will be nothing called peacekeeping forces. They should be for development so that they give services to the people.
Q: Things have changed so much, President, say in terms of relations with other countries in the region. Sudan and South Sudan. Now there seems to be a realisation that there is a need for both to be together. (Yes) Develop, for the oil to benefit both countries (both countries) there has been some kind of a change.
A: There is that change, of course. Sudan today with us is better than it was yesterday. So we are happy that we maintain that relation and oil is actually for the benefit of everybody.
Q: When you’re talking about how you have your vision of the country, how it should proceed, the peace process and how all institutions should proceed, you have reportedly criticized your own military commanders saying the troops are not benefiting because they’re not getting food, all the money is not getting to them. What exactly is your view of the institutions under you?
A: In any country, in every country, there is maladministration in the institutions and so the institution of the armed forces is what I was talking about (yes) and I told the generals who are responsible for the army that they’re not taking care of the army. Yeah. And we will revisit it again. I have a standing appointment with the Generals and the headquarters there.
Q: Again, we have talked about India and how India has been contributing with people to people contact in terms of medical help, veterinary help, education. Agriculture is another area where you could possibly benefit from Indian expertise, scholarships of various sorts. What else will you possibly need or request from your good friend India?
A: Well, for the scholarships it’s something obvious that friendly countries always offer us scholarships. So, India will not be an exception to offer us scholarships. India is already in the field of health helping us in that field. Agriculture is the most important part—more than oil—in our country. Because oil was just supposed to be used to fuel agriculture. So agriculture takes the lead in the economy. Indians have expertise in agriculture. I will not mind if agriculturalists are sent to South Sudan. When guns are all silent, they will come and develop our land. We have the land (such a rich land, soil is so rich, water, of course, apart from natural resources) Yes.
Q: India can help you exceptionally in certain areas once the guns fall silent?
A: Yes. They will.
Q: In terms of the peace process, when we talk about your vision again. How are you looking at it overall? Because, currently it seems the focus is on implementing the first three chapters of the agreement. What about when it comes to building a national identity? What is your vision that all the tribes—no matter their differences, no matter the past—there will be national pride among all for South Sudan? How are you moving towards that?
A: South Sudan is formed by about 64 ethnic groups, different ethnic groups. These groups know themselves that they belong to this land (hmm) What brought them against each other is the conflict. The conflict was directed by some opportunists to be a tribal conflict. Instead, it was a power struggle. Some who want to take power. When he failed there, he shifted to tribal backing. And that tribal backing has destroyed relations between the tribes in South Sudan. I’m confident if the guns go silent, people will come back to normal. Previously, when we were fighting, we were fighting for one aim only. Getting a free state of South Sudan. So, we were one. The minority tribes, the majority were all together. I believe they will come back to that stage.
Q: Talking about coming back, you do visualise now, if the guns fall silent again, both the people who are internally displaced and people who are refugees in neighbouring countries, you do visualize them coming back?
A: We will bring them back. Some people are coming back from being refugees. They are coming back alone. But, if the government comes in with the help of the international community all the refugees will be repatriated to South Sudan. And we need them back in South Sudan.
Q: Your vision, how does it take you towards what’s happened in the conflict in terms of accountability. How do you visualise that? Do you think there should be something like the South African model? Or a South Sudanese model? How do you progress towards peace in terms of accountability during the conflict?
A: When you put accountability together with peace, they may all fail. But if you let peace lead then you will see peace and later on you come back to those who committed crimes during the war. That will be the best. If you want to do the South African way, you can get it automatically, because if peace is there and then it’s an individual who comes out to confess publically that I was the one who did this. If that is the way, nobody will be prosecuted in absence. They will all come back. But, the first thing to be done is peace. Keep peace.
Q: President Kiir, do you have any free time, considering how much work you have. If you do have free time, what is it you do? How important is your family to you?
A: Well, for now I don’t have free time. (I presume so) But when I do, when there is free time, one will have the luxury of reading some books, in your free time you read, you write and all that.
Q: What is the message you would like us to take to the people and the Government of India?
A: Well, to the people of India I must thank them that they have been in the forefront with us in South Sudan. And I would want them to keep that friendship—it should not break. For the government, I will want them to increase whatever they have been contributing to our country. They can increase and stand with us. And they have now identified themselves as allies of South Sudan because Prime Minister Modi was very friendly to me. I have visited New Delhi( the solar alliance) several times and he has been good to us. I would want him to continue in that direction.
Q: Tell us the story about the Stetson (cowboy) hat?
Q: The hat (cowboy). Why is that a symbol of President Kiir?
A: Well, everybody has a symbol to be known with, so
Q: Is there a story behind it?
A: There is no story. It’s just something I love to wear.
Q: Right. President. Thank you (You’re most welcome) for giving us time. Thank you for being such good hosts. (You’re most welcome) We hope to be as good hosts to you when you come to India next. (Thank you, thank you very much)
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