Kiir’s office responds to Biar’s testimony before U.S. Senate on Foreign Relations

Full Text: Response to the testimony of Peter Biar Ajak at the recent U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the State of Democracy.

President Salva Kiir Mayardit presides over the opening of the country’s secondary school leaving exams at Juba Day Secondary School | PPU

Press statement

During the recent US Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the State of Democracy in the World, Dr. Peter Biar Ajak testified making a series of largely unsubstantiated allegations against President Salva Kiir Mayardit and the Government of South Sudan. Some of these baseless claims merit a response.

The charge incessantly repeated by Dr. Ajak that he narrowly escaped death at the hands of South Sudanese Security agents in Nairobi, Kenya is patently false. All along meanwhile under detention in South Sudan for dangerous subversive activities, he was totally at the mercy of the Government. Yet, not only did he suffer no harm both physically and psychologically, but the very same President Salva Kiir Mayardit whom he continues to vilify, showed clemency and ordered his release after hardly serving any significant jail term following his lawful conviction by a competent court of law.

The narrative that Dr. Ajak was set free and allowed to leave the custody of South Sudan’s penal institutions only to be pursued and hunted down in Kenya with the objective of murdering him is a cock and bull story that deserves to be dismissed with the contempt it deserves.

Having said that perhaps Dr. Ajak is entitled to sorme credit after all for this elaborate ruse, probably crafted with the help of his lawyers, to enable him instantaneously gain political asylum in the US as an applicant whose life was allegedly in immediate danger. In that he has succeeded with flying colors. On the mandate of President Kiir, Dr. Ajak asserts that the President assumed power upon the country’s independence as an appointed rather as an elected leader.

By this he insinuates, that as an unelected leader of independent South Sudan, President Kiir lacks legitimacy. Naturally the new political dispensation ushered in at South Sudan’s independence in July 2011, was an interim arrangement that could not conceivably start in a vacuum. The incumbent Government led by President Kiir had by necessity at the time, to be entrusted with the task of steering the country through transition to elections.

“It is fanciful to think that the SPLM should have dispensed with and proceed to organize elections immediately upon the proclamation of independence. need for an interim period The unfortunate and tragic events of 2013 denied South Sudanese the opportunity of exercising their inalienable right to go the polls and elect their leaders in 2015 as originally envisaged.”

Had elections gone ahead as planned, President Kiir and the SPLM would have undoubtedly sought the renewal of their mandate to run the country. It is regrettable that South Sudan missed the chance of holding elections, but that is not a credible basis upon which to brand the current Administration as a regime that is undemocratic and hence bereft of any legitimacy. Legitimacy does not stem from form but rather from substance or essence. When President Kiir was elected in 2010 as the President of the Government of Southern Sudan, those who cast their ballots for him are the very same South Sudanese who would have done so again had elections been held in 2015.

The fact that eligible South Sudanese voters voted in 2010 in the context of a united Sudan and were expected to vote again in 2015 as citizens of an independent South Sudan, does not affect one bit, the mandate they bestow upon whoever they vote into office.

The constitutional and political context in which they vote is immaterial for as long as the voters remain the same people. Therefore President Kiir’s right to lead South Sudan, at least till the next elections determine the post-transition power architecture, is undiminished.

Furthermore, the claim that democracy in South Sudan is being stifled is totally without merit. Responsibility Sharing (Power Sharing) during the Transitional Period among multiple political entities is the bedrock of the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS) of September 2018.

These arrangements that have been embedded in the Agreement, constitute an eloquent manifestation of democracy in action. Therefore the Revitalized Transitional Government of National Unity (R-TGONU), by its very nature, is a recognition and full acceptance of the reality that South Sudan is irreversibly locked into a trajectory towards multi-party democracy.

The call for early elections in 2022, is again without justification. It must be borne in mind that the actual inauguration of the (R-TGONU) following conclusion of the Agreement in September, 2018 took some time. Hence the time lost must be recouped so that there is adequate time to complete all the tasks of the transition before elections are held. Dr. Ajak himself would acknowledge the absolute necessity of first producing a Permanent Constitution and conducting a population census as indispensable pre-requisites to holding any credible elections. And since these two processes, especially adoption of the Permanent Constitution on the basis of which elections shall be held, and others require time, there is no plausible rationale to insist on rushing elections.

All the critical transition tasks on which genuinely free and fair elections would be predicated must be accomplished before the polls, even if that means adjusting the electoral time-table to accommodate these tasks. Premature elections cannot reflect the true will of the electorate and would consequently amount to an act of practical disenfranchisement, a travesty of political justice and a recipe for disaster.

The Government’s commitment to the further consolidation of peace and rendering the current dispensation more broad based and inclusive is underlined by ongoing peace talks with hold-out opposition Groups. The three separate rounds of negotiations held under the auspices of St. Egidio Community with the two factions of the South Sudan Opposition Movements Alliance (SSOMA) thus far, have yielded promising results.

This engagement will relentlessly continue till (SSOMA) joins the peace fold. Conflict-induced political instability continues to seriously aggravate the already daunting economic challenges facing the nascent Republic of South Sudan. The Covid-19 pandemic has only made matters worse. However this grim scenario is not without a silver lining. Thanks to the (R-ARCSS), which is being successfully implemented, albeit at a somewhat slow pace, the factor of conflict and its impact on the economic situation is fast receding.

The Government has been pro-active in the search for solutions to economic difficulties. The Ministry of Finance & Planning has undertaken in collaboration with and the active participation of South Sudan’s Development Partners, a Public Financial Management Reform Process that will enhance accountability and transparency. And in tandem with this process the Ministry of Finance and the Bank of South Sudan (Central Bank) have engaged the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in an economic policy review exercise aimed at liberalizing the exchange rate and improving overall economic performance.

We are optimistic that the cumulative effect of these measures will among other things, assist the Government meet its financial obligations, notably the payment of salaries, fully and on time. The humanitarian situation currently obtaining in South Sudan is difficult and continues to demand robust intervention. Acting in concert with the international community the Government has managed to ameliorate the level of suffering engendered by the humanitarian crisis.

The Government constantly strives to remove bottlenecks constraining the timely delivery of humanitarian assistance to needy communities. Inter-communal conflicts over access to pastures and water among pastoralist and agro-pastoral communities have been largely exacerbated by the proliferation of small arms among the civil population.

Ultimately it becomes imperative that these illegal arms are collected and disposed of in a manner that ensures they never find their way back again into the hands of those from whom they were taken in the first place. The ongoing disarmament process that is regulated by law is essentially a peaceful exercise whereby Chiefs and Traditional leaders solicit the voluntary surrender of weapons from their people.

It is hoped that this endeavor will succeed and the Government will not be compelled to have recourse to coercive measures to strip the civil population of these weapons. However, in the event that the use of force becomes unavoidable the Government will not hesitate to use it to save lives and preserve law and order.

And such action if at all needed, will be carried out meanwhile strictly observing fundamental human rights. The Government of South Sudan cannot reflect on the humanitarian situation without pausing to express its profound gratitude to the international community for all that it has done thus far to mitigate the crisis.

We thank the United Nations, its Agencies and the international NGO community for the action they have taken to date, to ease the plight of the thousands that have been uprooted from their homes in Jonglei State and Pibor Administrative area by a combination of violent conflict and devastating floods. Given the recurrent nature of the phenomenon of flooding in those areas, we urge continued support in helping devise more durable solutions so that flooding and its attendant woes in flood-prone areas of South Sudan becomes a thing of the past.

Full Text: Peter Biar testifies before Senate Committee on Foreign Relations

Testimony of Peter Biar Ajak, (PhD) Before The Committee On Foreign Relations, March 10, 2021

Activist and human rights defender Peter Biar Ajak | Photo: File

Chairman Menendez, Ranking Member Risch, and Members of the Committee:

I am greatly honored to testify today. This topic is close to my heart. For eighteen months, I endured a brutal, illegal detention at the notorious “Blue House” prison, operated by South Sudan’s National Security Service (NSS).

My crime was criticizing President Salva Kiir and his failed leadership of South Sudan, which has turned the promise of our hard-won independence into a decade-long horror.

I survived this imprisonment and Kiir’s later attempt to either kill or abduct me from Nairobi, Kenya because of the support of many defenders of human rights around the world, including several members of the U.S. Senate and the House of Representative (many of whom are seated on this Committee). I am extremely grateful to each and every one of you and the United States’ Government for speaking out for me when my voice was silenced, and for acting quickly to save my life and that of my family.

It is only natural that I begin my testimony with the stalled democratic transition in South Sudan. We gained our independence on July 9, 2011 after our people voted overwhelmingly for separation in a referendum made possible by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005, which the United States brokered. At independence, Kiir assumed the presidency by appointment, charged with building democratic institutions that would allow for national elections to be held in 2015. But in December 2013, he and his former vice president Riek Machar (now the First Vice President) plunged our new nation into a civil war. Kiir used the conflict to defer the scheduled elections from 2015 to 2018, and again to 2021. And although the current peace agreement requires elections be held by March 2022, Kiir is already proposing 2023 and beyond.

In the meantime, he has built a repressive security state in the form of the NSS whose powers are concentrated in the hands of his kinsman, Gen. Akol Koor Kuc, who personally oversees the planning and the commission of gross human rights violations through Special Forces headquartered in his office. A four-person task force housed inside Kuc’s office identifies targets for extrajudicial killing, enforced disappearance, and arbitrary arrest. Once the targets are approved by Kuc, the Special Forces carry out the acts. Kuc has attended many executions and personally pulled the trigger on several occasions. As we speak, there are over 1,000 detained in secret NSS detention facilities across the country. Although less widely reported. Kuc oversees and manages

numerous corrupt schemes illegally extracting millions of dollars from oil, banking, gold, timber, charcoal, gum Arabic, aviation, and other public sector corruption.

Kiir’s failed leadership of South Sudan has been costly to our people. As reported by the World Bank, the national poverty rate, which stood at about half of the population at independence is now at 82 percent; our country ranked dead last in the 2020 Social Progress Index3; it tied for the last place with Somalia in the 2020 Corruption Perception Index; and it scored only 2 out of 100 in the 2021 Freedom House’s Global Freedom Score. Although the oil is flowing, our people cannot tell where the money goes. Our diplomats have gone for nearly two years without salaries. Civil servants have not been paid for months. Even the country’s official army has gone for months without salaries. It’s only the brutal NSS and the Presidential Guard, who personally protect Kiir, that get salaries on a regular basis. Simultaneously, the inflation is high and the currency has loss value as the Government monetizes the deficit.

Indeed, it’s the people of South Sudan who bear the brunt of Kiir’s mismanagement of their country. Three million people remain in refugee camps in Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan, the DRC, and the Central African Republic. More than seven million people are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance as the confluence of conflict, floods, and macroeconomic crises devastate the population.6 Last year, we saw one of the largest discharges of water from Lake Victoria into the Nile, resulting in most of my home state of Jonglei being submerged in water. This led to increased displacement, forcing many families to move to Mangalla where they remain in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.

To revive the stalled democratic transition in South Sudan and restore hope to our people, the United States, which midwifed the birth of South Sudan and invested over 15 billion dollars since our independence, needs to send a clear message to Kiir that his repression of South Sudan’s people will not be tolerated anymore and that any further delay of elections is unacceptable. Kiir and his partner in crime, Riek Machar, have imposed themselves on the people of South Sudan for too long. Despite the severe repression in the country, our people made this unequivocally clear in the recently concluded South Sudan National Dialogue, demanding that Kiir and Machar urgently find an exit route from the political scene. The United States, working together with the African Union, the United Nations, and others must demand that Kiir holds election by March 2022 since our people can no longer endure his awful rule.

Holding elections would require specific tasks to be completed such as the promulgation of a new constitution, the merger of various militias into a national army, the appointment of new Elections
Commissioners, the conducting of the census, and the updating of the voter registry. However, given Kiir’s reluctance to implement the peace deal, it is unlikely that any of these enormous tasks would be accomplished on time. This means that March 2022 will likely come with elections nowhere in sight, which is Kiir’s intention since he is not interested in giving up power. If Kiir does not make progress on these vital areas, his already illegitimate regime will have expired. This would be the appropriate moment to consider Liberian model where that country’s former dictator, Charles Taylor, was forced to step down to allow a genuine transitional government to shepherd the country towards the conduct of democratic elections.

Two urgent actions will need to be taken to make it clear to Kiir that he must organize credible elections on time. First, the U.S., which holds the pen on the Security Council’s establishment and ongoing reauthorization of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), should secure new language in the next reauthorization resolution, which must be adopted by March 15, 2021, emphasizing that South Sudan must hold elections by March 13, 2022, as required by the Agreement, or be prepared to face actions that shall be determined by the Security Council. It should also add to the mandate of UNMISS and tasks it must undertake by all necessary means that it should support implementation of key activities required to enable elections to occur on time.

Second, Kiir has claimed to have amended the 2018 Agreement to postpone elections until 2023 but this change has not been endorsed by the South Sudan’s Parliament, which must by twothirds majority approve any changes. The parliament has not even been established. If the Security Council does not explicitly reject this illegal move and insist that all parties must comply fully with the 2018 Peace Agreement, then it will have acquiesced to Kiir’s bypassing the Agreement to push off elections for a year and set a dangerous precedent. Failing to hold him accountable next week will enable Kiir to extend the tenure of his already illegitimate regime beyond what is specified in the Agreement. This could very well spark large-scale violence with devastating consequences for our people and the Horn of Africa.

Finally, the U.S. should continue to hold individuals responsible for gross human rights violations and those thwarting the peace process accountable through imposition of targeted sanctions under South Sudan sanctions program, established by Executive Order 13664 and under the Global Magnitsky Act. These individuals should include the NSS Director-General, Gen. Kuc and his top cronies. The U.S. should also push the African Union to urgently set up the Hybrid Court on South Sudan to end the culture of impunity. Meanwhile the U.S. should continue to support civil society groups, church groups, community-based organizations, and women and youth coalitions that are working hard to build consensus among our people.

The stalled democratic transition in South Sudan highlights the challenges to democracy not only in our country, but also in the Horn, and the entire continent of Africa. Five key challenges inherent in South Sudan are omnipresent in the Horn of Africa and beyond, including:

  1. Restriction of press freedom: The assault on journalists and press freedoms has become a global problem. The year 2020 set the record for the number of journalists detained, while the number of those murdered in the course of their work doubled from the previous year. The entire Horn of
    Africa with the exception of Kenya has consistently performed poorly in the treatment of

journalists. While South Sudan has habitually been the absolute worst, recently, Uganda and Ethiopia have seen shocking levels of repression of press freedoms. Even before the ongoing conflict in Tigray started, Prime Minister Abiy’s record on the freedom of press was dismal. And the recent elections in Uganda have revealed to the world the extent to which President Museveni is willing to go to suppress his people in order to maintain power. Further down south, press freedoms have suffered since President Magufuli came to power in Tanzania. In Zimbabwe, the situation is worse than when Robert Mugabe was still in power with many journalists being arbitrarily detained, tortured, or killed.

The authoritarian leaders know that information is power and if people are informed, they will not accept the awful conditions to which they are subjected to live. Hence, by restricting press freedoms, the African dictators act to keep our people in the dark – to keep them ignorant of their misery. While social media has allowed activists in some cases to evade surveillance, authoritarian leaders have learned how to create disruptions through propaganda, disinformation and shutdown of the internet among others. Recently, China and Russia, working in concert with many African dictators have made this situation worst.

Yet, access to information is the bedrock of democratic institutions. While the U.S. invests heavily in access to information around the world, including in South Sudan, it is time to bolster these efforts. Those who impede the work of journalist must be held accountable and U.S. must increase its investment in free media. Moreover, the U.S. will also need to apply its superior technology and innovation to counter Chinese and Russian disinformation efforts.

Severe repression of political opposition, human rights defenders, and activists: Because authoritarian leaders are ruled by fear of losing power and control, they feel threatened by any hint of opposition. Lacking the ability to compete in free exchange of ideas, they resort to violence, intimidation, and harassment. My experience in South Sudan highlights this clearly, as do recent farcical elections in Uganda. Through state coercive apparatus, they detain, torture, or kill perceived opposition, forcing many to flee for their lives.

While the U.S. often speaks out when these tragic events occur and imposes punitive actions (including sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act), it can bolster these efforts. Through Department of State, the U.S. should publicly identify and monitor the cases of bellwether human rights defenders and democracy activists and act swiftly and decisively when they face repression. If we are killed or detained with impunity, then who would be left to push for democratic reforms in our countries? Therefore, developing measures to monitor the treatment of such activists around the world will go a long way towards creating political spaces that nurtures local movements and gives them the resilience they need to prosper.

Moreover, the U.S. should incorporate the protection of fundamental freedoms, including the treatment of political opposition, human rights defenders, and democracy activists into its broader foreign policy objectives. Instead of seeing promotion of democracy and stability as competing priorities, it can formulate a comprehensive framework that brings these two together since they are truly entwined. Such a framework can serve as the foundation of any defense, economic, or trade agreement with the United States and its allies. In addition, the U.S. should increase support to civil society and democratic forces by enhancing democratic civic education and the capacity of women and youth to contribute to policy issues in their countries.

Entrenched leaders who abuse Term Limits: Many leaders in Africa, including those who came to power on the promise of expanding democracy in their countries, have increasingly become entrenched. Once they consolidate power, they wish to remain there forever by removing Terms Limit. While Museveni did this long ago (removing both Terms and Age Limits), the practice has now become commonplace as we witnessed last year in Ivory Coast and Guinea. In the Horn of Africa, Kenya is the only country in which Terms Limit still means something. Since Parliament and Judiciary are often weak in many African countries, Terms Limit play a critical role in preventing power becoming concentrated in the hands of one person. The U.S. will need to bring this topic back on the top of agenda in dealing with African countries, deploying necessary inducements and disincentives to obtain the desired outcome.

Chinese promotion of authoritarianism: The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) promotion of authoritarianism is a great concern in the Horn, the continent of Africa, and around the world. The CCP uses anti-democratic tactics, financial coercion, and physical intimidation to secure support for authoritarian leaders who are usually in cahoots with them. These efforts result in increased corruption, environmental degradation, and displacement of people.

The Chinese investments in South Sudan, for instance, have only created misery in the form of severe oil pollution and grand corruption, where South Sudanese oil is stolen by their leaders in coordination with Chinese oil companies. In recent years, China has become emboldened in promoting its Party-State model as a viable (even desirable) alternative to liberal democracy. It has invested extensively in exchange programs, offering scholarships to students, youth-wing of political parties, and African security forces to study and adopt its model. It has built cultural exchange centers all around the world, while deploying its companies to bolster corrupt authoritarian leaders.

The United States needs to take seriously the Chinese ambition for global dominance, aimed at remodeling the world according to its values. Rather than seeking to impose a binary choice on Africans between the United States and China, this requires intensified support to democracy efforts and democracy activists who are fighting to defend values of freedom in their own countries.

Doing so will require augmented support to anti-corruption efforts, exchange programs such as the Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellowship, YALI, the Peace Corps, and many others. Looking long-term, the United States will need to provide scholarships and open up its institutions of knowledge. Moreover, the United States will need to encourage American private sector to expand its investments overseas, particularly in Africa, where Chinese capital is only entrenching authoritarianism and weakening instruments of accountability. Notwithstanding the risk averseness of American companies, the U.S. Government can create mechanisms to make such risks manageable for companies, encouraging them to expand responsible capitalism around the abroad. Relying on humanitarian and developmental aid alone will be too little to counter the increasing Chinese influence.

Sham elections that damper faith in democracy: While we in South Sudan have never had the privilege of choosing our own leaders, many Africa countries hold elections on a regular basis.
However, these important processes of democracy have recently become farcical events.

In the recently concluded elections in Uganda, Museveni managed to prevent independent monitoring of elections. This was also the case for last year’s elections in Tanzania, Guinea, and Ivory Coast. In 2018, Emerson Managwagwa stole elections in Zimbabwe with impunity.

Elections are too important to be abused in such ways. They are the instruments through which the sovereign will of the people is expressed. While the U.S. Government often releases statements condemning misconduct, no meaningful actions usually follow such words. This will need to change. Moreover, the U.S. will need to increased funding for elections monitoring throughout the world. And this funding should not only just be for the voting, but for the entire process. Elections, after all, are not events, but crucial processes through which citizens renews the bonds of contracts that knit them together.

This year, 13 African states will hold elections, some of which have already occurred. It’s important these elections are held with integrity. In addition, ensuring that the upcoming elections in South Sudan, which must be held by March 2022, are held with integrity will be crucial. The stalled democratic transition in South Sudan and Kiir’s horrific violations of human rights with impunity has set an awful tone in the region. These abuses are now being replicated nearly everywhere in the region with the exception of Kenya and Sudan. By acting decisively to ensure that these elections are held on time and that a new political paradigm emerges in South Sudan, the United States will be sending an unequivocal message of hope to our citizens in South Sudan and the Horn that a new era has dawned. This requires important investments be made now to lay the foundation for democratic transition in South Sudan.

Chairman Menendez, Ranking Member Risch, Members of the Committee:

My presence before you today is a testament to the courage and the resilience of many democracy activists around the world. It also speaks to the critical importance of various mechanisms the U.S. Government already has in place to support the work of civil society, human rights defenders, and democracy activists. Indeed, while I am concerned about the growing threat of authoritarianism, I am also cognizant of the power of human desire for freedom and opportunity. And this gives me hope that with right measures and resolve, not only will dictatorship failed, but freedom will thrive.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to this distinguished audience today!

Peter Biar becomes the first S. Sudanese to receive Cambridge PhD

October 24, 2020 (Thessherald)–Trinity alumnus Dr Peter Biar Ajak is the first South Sudanese national to be awarded a PhD from the University of Cambridge.

He receives his PhD officially at tomorrow’s ceremony, nine months after a global campaign saw his release from South Sudan’s Blue House prison, which echoed nightly with the screams of tortured prisoners during his 18-month incarceration.

Dr Ajak at an event at LSE in 2016.

Arrested in July 2018 on a series of charges including treason, insurgency, harbouring terrorists, espionage and insulting the president, Dr Ajak was released in January 2020.

Relatively, he got off lightly. Still, his liver and kidney function was compromised from having to drink salty, dirty water, his back was damaged from sleeping on the floor of a tiny cell, he had lost a quarter of his body weight, and needed psychological counselling. None of his belongings – laptop, phone, money or passport – were returned to him.

‘My oldest son was five when I was arrested,’ Peter says. ‘By the time I was released he was seven. My youngest son was one – he was three years old when I got out. I was a stranger to them and I had to re-establish relations with them.’

Dr Ajak is now living with his family in Washington DC where he is a Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy and at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. He received a humanitarian parole visa from the United States after he learnt of a hit squad he says was sent by the South Sudanese President Salva Kiir to assassinate him in Nairobi in June 2020.

In addition to his PhD in Politics and International Studies from Cambridge, Dr Ajak has a BA from LaSalle University and a Master’s from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where he was also a Public Service Fellow. He has held many senior positions in international organisations, including the World Bank, UNICEF and the International Growth Centre, as well as advising the Minister for National Security in the Office of the President of South Sudan.

But it is his civil society work, and childhood experience of Sudan’s civil strife, that fuels his zeal for democratic change in South Sudan. Peter was one of Sudan’s ‘lost boys’ displaced during the civil war between North and South, from which emerged South Sudan in 2011, the world’s newest nation. But not before 2.5 million people were killed and four million people displaced, with many children like Peter carried by their fathers to neighbouring Ethiopia.

Dr Ajak after attending a youth meeting in Yambio, South Sudan, some 430 km Southwest of Juba.

Only recently has the conflict rekindled in 2013 between the President and his rival former Deputy President Riek Machar subsided, with the formation of a national unity government in February this year.

Dr Ajak has been active in grassroots communities across South Sudan for several decades. He founded the Center for Strategic Analyses and Research in the capital Juba and the South Sudan Wrestling Entertainment, which uses the indigenous sport to promote peace and reconciliation among different ethnic groups.

Dr Ajak’s PhD examines the factors contributing to South Sudan’s current situation.

‘I realized we never really had any consensus on the kind of society that we want to create. We didn’t build a consensus on the ideas of the state. That can’t be done through a militarized approach. It has to be done through people discussing and sharing ideas, disagreeing but finding common ground because that is how you build countries and societies.’

That is what he set out to do with South Sudan Young Leaders Forum under the hashtag #NxGenSouthSudan – where half the population is under 18.

‘Before I was arrested I was on a tour of all states in South Sudan meeting with young people and trying to build consensus among them about how we avoid being used as pawns in this conflict, we stand up and try to mobilize ourselves to bring about a better future for our people,’ Dr Ajak said.

Taking part in a South Sudan Young Leaders Forum’s meeting that included Church leaders and youth from warring factions in Wau, some 645 km northwest of Juba.

‘Short-term arrests’ – around 40 in 2017 – were nothing out of the ordinary for a man who was well-known at both the grassroots and national government levels. Peter’s father and father-in-law are senior figures in government and the military; he acknowledges he had a certain level of protection

But in 2018 things would turn out differently. Before returning to Cambridge for his viva, Dr Ajak took part in a panel discussion on Kenyan television, where he called for ‘a generational exit.’

It was nothing he had not said before. ‘Leaders in South Sudan are typically in their 70s. That is not a time of life to run a country. They have created this disastrous system that has no exit, no retirement, no pensions; as a result they are just there for salaries,’ he said.

Their generation, who liberated South Sudan, are to blame for the crisis in the country, they have lost their vision and they are no longer able to tell each other the truth. The President has amassed so much power that no-one is able to tell him the truth and he is surrounded by sycophants. It is an absolutely disastrous situation for our people.

South Sudan’s first democratic elections were scheduled for 2015. But the renewal of conflict enabled the President to postpone them to 2018, then to 2021 – and then again – to 2022.

Dr Ajak thinks the warm welcome he received from civilian and military leaders alike during his work in 2018 began to threaten the government of President Kiir.

Dr Ajak, centre, and local leaders after organizing a football tournament between internally displaced youths at the UN Protection of Civilians sites and the youths in Bentiu Town, more than 1,000 km north of Juba.

After his arrest in July 2018 he ended up in the Blue House – in a pitch-black cell so small he couldn’t stretch out. For 24 hours he was left alone. Then he was allowed out – for 5 minutes a day. He had to choose whether to wash, use the toilet, brush his teeth, queue for food, or get some fresh air. ‘There is no way you could do all those things in five minutes,’ Dr Ajak said.

Until his wife and father-in-law were allowed to bring him some clothes, a toothbrush and a mattress, he slept on the floor with nothing but the clothes he was detained in. He was one of the lucky ones, in Blue House terms, though.

Almost every day from 10pm to 5am you hear people screaming being tortured. You hear them say “bring a knife, bring a hammer, bring a nail.” There are prisoners in that condition for years.

There is also what they call midnight pick up. Once or twice a week soldiers will come at night. They have an individual they are targeting. They come with tasers and the person is knocked out and covered with blankets. They drive them 40 minutes outside of Juba where they are hacked to death and then sprayed with gas and their bodies burnt to ashes.

No surprise then that some prisoners led a revolt, disarmed the guards and took over the prison in October 2018. Dr Ajak was not involved. But when the rebel leader refused to stand down despite the authorities threatening to storm the prison, Peter’s civil society leadership – and self-preservation instinct – came to the fore. He mediated between the prison rebels and the authorities – outside were massed ranks of soldiers and tanks from the President’s guard – and succeeded in defusing the rebellion.

But the consequences were grim. Prisons were stripped of their clothes, guards took away the few things they had and they were confined to their cells 24/7. ‘From that moment I didn’t see any family member until February. The lights in my cell were constantly on for two weeks and then it was total darkness for two weeks,’ Dr Ajak said..

His only reading material was a pocket bible smuggled in by an empathetic guard. ‘Initially I was extremely bitter at what happened because I felt like I had risked my life to resolve this crisis and I was lucky that God stood with me and the situation ended without anyone being killed,’ he said.

From October 2018 to March 2019 I did not brush my teeth, I didn’t shower. The cell was barely opened. I had diarrhea, malaria – there was no medical attention at all. When I become ill they worsened the conditions, reduced the food ratio; sometimes they would put in sand on purpose so that you couldn’t eat the food.

Dr Ajak was charged with new offences including disturbing the peace – apparently related to an interview with Voice of America from the prison roof during the rebellion about the dire conditions and inhumane treatment of prisoners.

In the end, he was sentenced to two years but backdated to the first day of his detention. He was transferred to a prison in Juba where the conditions were better, he received medical treatment and could stay outside until 8pm. Dr Ajak recalls: ‘It was the first time in 13 months that I had seen the stars and the moon. And I was blown away by how beautiful they were after such a long time. All these things we just take for granted.’

Reflecting on his experience in jail, the government’s intention was clear. It was as if they had read the sorts of academic papers on economic signaling he was familiar with, says Dr Ajak, only half joking.

Given my connections inside and outside the country and the fact that they were arbitrarily detaining me for so long and the way they were treating me inside prison it was basically to send a message, ‘If we can do this to Peter, what about you? If you don’t have the same level of connections we will execute you.

I think they were effective at that because after my detention they have managed to silence any sort of dissenting voices – people became worried and afraid for their lives.

Campaigns in America and the UK for his release probably prevented anything worse happening to Peter in prison than the inhumane conditions he endured (try as they might for these to lead to death by ‘natural causes’). But the combination of domestic and international support made the regime jittery, he says.  ‘They said to me there is all this noise being made by your friends outside, your friends from Cambridge, from the US. If that continues this is going to complicate your situation. You have to find a way of telling them to stop doing what they are doing.’

It was an absurd request to a man in solitary confinement, without a phone or access to a lawyer. Double-edged though such international support could be, overall those voices were beneficial, says Dr Ajak.

It uplifted my spirits and encouraged me to endure what I was going through. I forgot about getting out and it became about the struggle itself and making sure I didn’t let these people down. Together we become part of a bigger struggle.

When I got out of prison I shed tears when I learned about the Cambridge Amnesty student chapter locking themselves up in cages for days so they could highlight what I was going through. That was really something touching.

His zeal is undiminished by his experience in prison and he regrets nothing. ‘Either you accept tyranny or you resist and when you resist there are these kind of consequences,’ he says.

Exile to America is in some ways ‘a blessing in disguise’. The UN is on his doorstep and with 95% of the Sudanese diaspora in the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, Dr Ajak is planning a global campaign to force the President of South Sudan to hold democratic elections in 2022.

He also wishes to enlist the support of the three nations who helped South Sudan gain independence: the US, UK and Norway. ‘These three countries combined have spent massive amounts of money in South Sudan. And in the end for what? To create another African country that is failed, that doesn’t adhere to any democratic norms, that doesn’t respect human rights, that is massively corrupt?’

Dr Ajak addressing a night rally in Aweil, some 780 km northwest of Juba.

In some ways, Dr Ajak is continuing in the footsteps of his forefathers. His grandfather was killed during Sudan’s first civil war and his great grandfather fought the British colonial authorities and was a political prisoner for four years in the 1920s. ‘There is this legacy, something that I could not shy away from,’ he says.

I am a grateful to my ancestors, and for my experience as a child growing up in the war. It has been beneficial because it taught me to persevere and to endure.

Originally published by the Trinity

Opinion | South Sudan deserves better than Salva Kiir

South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir Mayardit wipes his face with a pink handkerchief |Photo: File

Opinion |By Peter Biar Ajak

Oct 8, 2020 (Thessherald)–Last Saturday, African leaders gathered in South Sudan’s capital, Juba, to witness the signing of the Juba Peace Agreement, which promises to end decades of conflict in Sudan’s restive Darfur, Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile regions. The agreement, brokered by South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, is yet another milestone in Sudan’s gradual transition to peace and democracy.

And while Kiir deserves commendation for his successful mediation in Sudan’s conflict, his own management of South Sudan has been disastrous. Just last month, the Social Progress Imperative ranked South Sudan dead last on its 2020 Social Progress Index, at 163 out of 163. This is only an indication of how quality of life has deteriorated in the world’s youngest nation under Kiir’s leadership.

South Sudan cannot address its enormous challenges and thrive with Kiir in charge. Any hope for a better future lies with finding a rapid path to credible elections, which will finally allow the South Sudanese people to vote for leaders of their choice.

South Sudan’s story is a tragic one. Its people fought decades of civil war against regimes in Khartoum that wanted to impose Islam and Arab culture on them. The war claimed the lives of some 2.5 million people. But a new dawn broke in 2005 when, thanks to years of intense U.S. diplomacy, Sudan’s government was pressured into a peace deal that granted Southern Sudan autonomy and a right to secession under an internationally supervised referendum. And it was this referendum that resulted in the birth of South Sudan on July 9, 2011, which was joyously celebrated. Since then, the United States has invested more than $11 billion in assistance, but has had little to show for it.

Kiir assumed the presidency by appointment, charged with building democratic institutions that would allow for national elections to be held in 2015. In 2013, he and his former vice president Riek Machar plunged the nascent country into a new civil war. Horrific crimes against humanity, including tribal massacres and widespread rapes were committed, and nearly 400,000 lives were lost. The scheduled elections were deferred to 2018, and again to 2021.

Kiir and Machar finally reached a peace agreement in September 2018, after a 2016 agreement failed, but implementation didn’t begin until February 2020, with elections deferred again until 2022. Already, this agreement is faltering, as Kiir has shown little interest in its implementation. Although it brought many of the warring factions back to Juba, Kiir’s unwillingness to deliver on the specific commitments within it — the merging of warring militias into a national army, the reconstitution of the parliament and the establishment of sub-regional governments — has created great risks of a new conflict emerging.

Meanwhile, intercommunal violence flares in many parts of the country. The economy is on its knees, decimated by the fall of oil prices and the insatiable corruption of Kiir and his cronies. In August, the deputy governor of the Bank of South Sudan said the central bank was out of foreign exchanges. As reported by Human Rights Watch, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention and torture have become commonplace as the National Security Service — the country’s intelligence agency, which functions as a private army personally loyal to Kiir – terrorizes the population in Juba and other towns.

What then should be done? The only viable option lies in exerting pressure for the timely implementation of the peace deal with elections taking place by March 2022. This requires specific tasks be front-loaded, such as the conducting of the census, the promulgation of a new constitution, the appointment of independent elections commissioners and the updating of the voter registry.

If Kiir remains unwilling to make progress on these vital areas, and that date comes without elections, then the thinking should shift to consideration of the Liberian model under which that country’s then-dictator, Charles Taylor, was forced to step down to allow a genuine transitional government to shepherd the country toward the holding of democratic elections.

Kiir is already arguing that elections should be deferred to 2023 due to the delays in forming the unity government. Yet, the procedures amending the agreement couldn’t be clearer. Not only would an amendment require the endorsement of the unity cabinet and other institutions created to oversee the agreement, but it would also require the approval of a two-thirds majority of the yet-to-be established Transitional National Legislature.

Kiir and Machar may well establish the legislature and seek to amend the agreement, but such a move should be rejected outright. If the international community acquiesces to a fourth deferral of elections, it would crush the hopes of the South Sudanese people, who will conclude the promise of the independence referendum to finally give them their own democratic state was just a cruel illusion.

South Sudan cannot improve the quality of life for its people with Kiir in power. He knows that the South Sudanese people will never reelect him in free, fair and credible elections. He sees conflict, endless negotiations to nowhere and severe repression as the only way of maintaining his grip on power. But if the people can finally vote, they will undoubtedly send him home and elect visionary leaders who will rebuild South Sudan and restore enduring peace, development and human rights for all its people.