Real SPLM leader Pagan Amum at Nairobi’s Tumaini Initiative on June 13, 2024 (Radio Tamazuj)

Contentious issues threaten Nairobi talks – Pagan

Pagan Amum Okiech, leader of the opposition Real SPLM and now a team leader in the Nairobi peace talks, has revealed that they disagreed with the government delegation over the constitution-making process and other issues, which he said might threaten the Tumaini Initiative.

In Part I of an exclusive interview with Radio Tamazuj, Mr. Amum, who also leads a faction of the holdout group South Sudan Opposition Movements Alliance (SSOMA), said: “There are other contentious issues, and I do not want to go into detail, but our citizens should know that we are still negotiating.”

Below are edited excerpts:

Q. Mr. Pagan Amum, what is the latest from the Tumaini Initiative negotiations?

A. Thank you Radio Tamazuj for giving me this opportunity to update the people of South Sudan about the ongoing peace process. Tumaini Initiative; which means an initiative of hope, originally came from President Salva Kiir to the Kenyan President, William Ruto, to mediate between the Revitalized Government in South Sudan and the holdout groups. We welcomed the initiative because the situation in South Sudan needs a united effort.

South Sudan is experiencing a serious national crisis that is threatening to the collapse and divide it. Since our independence, the country has been in a constitutional crisis and has been being ruled by a dictatorship. We have failed to develop a national constitution, which should be the base to establish a governance system based on the rule of law. We need to establish a constitution through a national consensus so that the people of South Sudan decide what powers they should surrender to the rulers to provide them with basic services.

Q. What exactly are you discussing at Tumaini? When do we expect to reach a final agreement?

A. We have not reached any final agreement yet, but we wanted to identify a number of issues to negotiate. Once they are identified, we would engage in discussing them to determine the kind of agreement. We have a constitutional crisis, we have a humanitarian issue, and a large number of our population is living under food crisis. Not less than 2 million of our people have relocated from their homes due to climate change, which led to heavy rains, floods, and drought in some parts of the country. There is widespread violence across the country. Our society is divided along ethnic lines. We have a security crisis as our security organs are built along tribal lines and support individuals. They are not trained to carry out their national duty. We are supposed to find a durable solution to all these crises.

It has been two months now since we started negotiating with the government alongside other stakeholders such as the civil society and the religious leaders. We have made progress and tried to develop an agreement. However, the negotiation is now between the government and the opposition and focuses on the disputed issues to narrow the gap.

We have covered a lot, including the humanitarian, social fabric, transitional justice, reconciliation and social healing. We have also discussed the economic issues and we suggested quite a good number of reforms.

We are continuing to negotiate on issues such as the constitutional crisis. There are some parts that we have agreed upon, but there are others that remain disputed.

We have reached a preliminary agreement on re-building the security sector to establish a national and a unified army that represents the diversity in the country; a professional army that is not politicized but with the mandate to protect and defend South Sudan. We have also discussed national security and proposed the rebuilding of this institution that should not be involved in the violation of human rights.

We are still discussing some other contentious issues, especially a governance system that has been used to oppress the citizens. The issue of more freedoms is also contentious.

Q. What are the disputed issues at the moment?

A. They are many, but I prefer not to mention them in detail, as that may compromise the common interest.

Q. Is there hope for an agreement soon?

A. We are full of hope and as I mentioned in the beginning, this round of talks is regarded as a golden chance to rescue South Sudan. If we fail, South Sudan will collapse. That is my opinion.

Q. Why do you think this round is the last chance for South Sudan?

A. Because South Sudan is under the crises that I have mentioned and the government has shrunk to be in Juba only. The rest of the country is in chaos, violence, lawlessness, and insecurity. Even Juba is almost becoming a ghosts town due to the ongoing economic crisis. Citizens are hungry and are unable to find something to eat due to high prices. Juba may soon experience chaos, with people breaking into shops because they cannot stay hungry.

Just imagine that even the police and the army that the government uses to oppress the citizens, are not being paid. This situation is dangerous.

Q. What are the compromises that the opposition has made so far?

A. We are not looking at these negotiations as a give and take between two parties. We are focusing on a common and a unified interest for all South Sudanese. Our objective is how to rescue South Sudan and to prevent it from chaos and collapse. If there were compromises to be made, it would be our joint responsibility to rescue our country. The first compromise that we made was to stop opposing the government in Juba by looking at its representatives in Nairobi as our brothers and sisters. We are not negotiating with them to give us power. No.

Q. So, you are not after power? Please explain.

A. Not at all. That is not our intention. Never. When the government suggested that we should begin discussing power sharing, we rejected that. We should first agree on a joint national program to rescue South Sudan. That is the focus and the objective of the negotiations.

If we agree on rescuing South Sudan and prevent it from collapse, we will think about how to implement this agreement, and how we can share the responsibilities.

Our first request to President Kiir during the opening session was that we should all look at ourselves as brothers and sisters. The second is that we should put our objective and efforts on how to rescue South Sudan.

We also requested both the government, the opposition groups and all the stakeholders to change their mentality. We need to change our mentality to a unified objective, consensus, and teamwork. These are important compromises that we should all observe to rescue our country.

Q. Stakeholders have complained and expressed a concern about being prevented from attending some sessions. What is the reason?

A. It is true. As I told you earlier, the mediation team observed a huge gap between the government and the opposition. They decided to conduct some closed-door meetings to allow them to narrow the gap. We have made some progress but there are still some contentious issues that could threaten the negotiations.

Q. You want to say some stakeholders do not have any right to be in the room?

A. This is the decision of the mediation team and you should ask them why they only focus on two parties. However, for me, they were not excluded as such. They have been engaging us in separate talks, and have been giving us suggestions. They also have been engaging the government. They have suggested many points that would try to narrow the gap between the government and the opposition.

Therefore, they have not been excluded but have been so supportive in giving suggestions on the contentious issues. Their suggestions are now on the table for both the government and the opposition. At the end of the day, all the negotiation arrangements are done by the mediation team and none of us has an upper hand.

Q. Based on your statement, the gap between the opposition and the government is big. May you indicate some of these gaps?

A. We have a dispute over the constitution-making process, which might lead to the collapse of the negotiations. We hope that all should work together to resolve that. There are economic reforms issues. We have a dispute over the form of the transitional government, whether it should be a lean or a bloated government.

There are other contentious issues and as I said, I do not want to go into detail, but our citizens should know that we are still negotiating.

Q. Some observers have been concerned that the negotiations in Nairobi are not inclusive. Why the exclusion?

A. Our principled position up to now is in support of an inclusive national dialogue instead of being among the political elites. We have suggested to the negotiation team that we should use the Tumaini Initiative to be an open and inclusive forum. We suggested a national constitutional conference that would include the political parties, the civil society, the women movement, the youth and the religious leaders, professional associations and the academia inside and outside the country.

We got a positive response from the mediation team and from the international community to support such a conference. The government has not been comfortable about this idea, but we are hopeful that they would agree at the end of the day.

The initial idea of President Kiir was very narrow. He intended to ask Kenya to mediate between the government and the non-signatories to the 2018 Peace Agreement. We came and we demanded that this opportunity should be inclusive. Unfortunately, some of our SSOMA members refused to participate in this forum, even though they were welcomed. They cited that Kenya is not secure and demanded that the talks should continue to in Rome. We are still engaging them. We met recently at the National Consensus Forum and we reiterated our call on the holdout groups to join this process.

The issue of the security has been resolved and the Kenyan government is ready to put in place the protection measures.

We also demanded the government to stop intimidating and arresting members of the civil society and opposition. The government had arrested some activists in Kenya before and killed them in Juba.

Some opposition members expressed concern over the lack of credibility of the Kenyan government. This is a genuine concern, but we told them that this could be resolved through a dialogue with the Government of Kenya.

We have engaged with the Government of Kenya with the participation of those who are not here in Kenya, but unfortunately, the dialogue could not convince them. However, we are still trying our best.