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President Kiir downplays S. Sudan's refugee crisis

Adrian Kriesch
August 24, 2017

The flood of refugees fleeing South Sudan aren't "a big deal," says President Salva Kiir in an exclusive interview with DW, adding that many were "chased away by social media" in a conspiracy against his government.

Hundreds of people standing and sitting holding water containers, buckets and tubs
South Sudanese refugees in Uganda queue for food and waterImage: Getty Images/D. Kitwood

South Sudan has been embroiled in a violent conflict since 2013, when a split between President Salva Kiir and his former vice president, Riek Machar, escalated into outright war. The brutal conflict has forced parts of the country to the brink of famine. More than a quarter of South Sudanese have since fled their homes, 2 million of them seeking safety in neighboring countries. 

The past four years have seen many broken ceasefire agreements and failed peace deals. In May 2017, Kiir officially launched a National Dialogue in a renewed attempt to bring peace to South Sudan, which only became a nation in 2011. 

DW: Why are you optimistic that the National Dialogue will work out this time?

President Salva Kiir: I believe that the final attempt calling for national dialogue is a hope that those who have grievances which were not addressed by the [2015] peace agreement will come out and air out their grievances that will be taken into consideration. In the end, when the resolutions are passed by members of the National Dialogue team, these things could be taken into consideration in the next formations of the government. 

But it seems that not all sides are willing to participate. Your former vice president, Riek Machar, [who is currently living in exile in South Africa] doesn't seem to be very willing to join this dialogue.

We didn't really exclude anyone. But for Riek, he knows why. It is not he who is not interested in joining but the whole region does not want him to [join]. That was the agreement because whenever he comes here, he would create a situation that takes people back to war. His presence here would create instability in the whole region, not just in South Sudan.

Does he still pose a threat to your government?

He is not a threat to the government. He is only making confusion calling his supporters on the phone. He knows where they are hiding and these are the people who are still making problems, continuing to fight and do not want to make peace. He has no spirit of leadership, no spirit of togetherness. He wants people to die every day.

There are a number of other [rebel] groups active right now in various parts of the country. Your critics say you are the mayor of the capital, Juba, rather than the president of the Republic because you can hardly move out of this place. Is that true?

If I had any reason to move away from here I can go for a visit. Last Friday, I went to Kigali in Rwanda to attend the inauguration of the president of Rwanda and I came back. So I am not the mayor of Juba. Juba has its own governors and mayor. That is not my assignment.

But are you free to move around the country?

Photo showing Kiir sitting in a chair talking to Kriesch, who holds a microphone.
In a rare interview, President Salva Kiir (R) talks to DW's Adrian KrieschImage: DW/A. Kriesch

I am free. Which part of the country do you mean?

Well, can you go up to Bentui or Malakal [in the far north of the country, near the border of Sudan]? When was the last time you visited these places?

I can go everywhere. If I say today I want to go to Bentui, I will go there.

There are reports of human rights abuses on all sides of the conflict, including the opposition and government forces. How difficult is it to control some of your fighters in rural areas, where some of them don't receive rations and are forced to loot for food?

It is not true that government forces are involved in such activities. In South Sudan, many people are armed. These armed people have acquired the uniform of the army in their own way and they can pose as an army of South Sudan in any name, whether it is in the form of police, in the form of prison wardens or in the form of the army itself. They can pretend to be any unit from the security organs and then commit such atrocities. If government soldiers are found doing that, they would be taken before the books of law.

A lot of civil servants, including soldiers and policemen, have not been paid for four months now. Doesn't this fuel the conflict, and when should they expect to be paid again?

It doesn't fuel the conflict. It's unfortunate that the economy has really gone down. In any war situation, you cannot have a strong economy while fighting a war. War can drain whatever resources that you have.

Do you not believe this will make it difficult for soldiers fighting on the front lines?

These soldiers are volunteers, who volunteered their lives to fight for the liberation and independence of their own country. They fought for 21 years without any salary. There is no difference today.

There are some tensions right now between the UN mission [in South Sudan], UNMISS, and the government. Some people in the country think the government is not really keen on having these troops here. [Earlier in the year, the South Sudan government rejected the deployment of an additional 4,000 UN troops as part of a regional protection force.]

Ask the regional leaders who suggested that there must be a regional protection force. The regional protection force that has come is not from the region and the name is wrong to be put on them. Nepalese are brought here; they have no function here but we have accepted them. Whatever argument that is there will be sorted out.

The humanitarian situation in the country is quite severe. Nearly 2 million people are at the brink of malnutrition; 1 million people have fled to neighboring Uganda alone. How are you trying to improve the humanitarian crisis?

The humanitarian crisis can be improved once there is silence of the guns. The humanitarian organizations will come back and will serve the people, and everybody will go back to his or her place. So it is not a big deal.

Does that mean this is not a priority for your government?

It is a priority. This is why we are working with NGOs to serve the people. This is not a reason for us not to pay attention to the people. These are the people we fought for and we are the ones who liberated them to become free. We cannot leave them to die of hunger.

The people who ran to Uganda were chased away by social media. There was no fighting in that area. They were told to leave because they know a UN official came in to assess the humanitarian situation to decide if there was need for assistance. Instead, he went and reported that there was a looming genocide in South Sudan, which has not happened up to now. People were called from their houses and told to run away, that if you don't go after one hour you would be a dead person.

Are you suggesting that the report mislead people?

It did mislead people and it is a conspiracy against the government of the Republic of South Sudan.

Is it a conspiracy by the United Nations?

It is not the United Nations but a conspiracy by some people against the government in Juba.

Can you mention any individual?

I will not mention any name, but you know there is international interference in individual countries' affairs.

Interview was conducted by Adrian Kriesch in Juba, South Sudan