Q&A: ‘We need face-to-face talks in Rome’- Gen. Cirillo

NAS leader General Thomas Cirillo has emphasized the importance of a pre-mediation meeting with the government and the mediation in Rome, Italy, before the talks could be relocated to Kenya.

General Thomas Cirillo, the leader of the National Salvation Front (NAS), emphasized the importance of a pre-mediation meeting with the government and the mediation in Rome, Italy, before the talks could be relocated to Kenya.

In an exclusive interview with Radio Tamazuj, Gen. Cirillo expressed concerns with the relocation of the talks to Kenya, saying past incidents in Kenya involved the arrest and handover of South Sudanese opposition officials to Juba, resulting in casualties.

 The South Sudanese rebel leader further said they seek to understand whether the government of Kenya will solely initiate the talks or if they will involve a broader international community, as seen in Rome and Addis Ababa.

Below are edited excerpts:

Q: Gen. Cirillo, will NAS under your leadership participate in the peace talks in Kenya facilitated by the government of Kenya and organized with the involvement of Sant’Egidio?

A: Thank you, Radio Tamazuj, for the question. NAS was established to alleviate the suffering of the South Sudanese people and has actively engaged in talks in various locations, such as Addis Ababa, Khartoum, and Rome. Our commitment is to finding solutions to the root causes of the conflict. We emphasized in Rome that talks must prioritize peace and not be centered around positions and intimidation. NAS is dedicated to the well-being of the people of South Sudan and insists on inclusive discussions that address the country’s challenges.

The same scenario that we had in Addis Ababa and Khartoum is recurring. The ideology in Juba, led by Salva Kiir and his government, assumes ownership of South Sudan. They believe that individuals who rebel can be appeased with positions and money to serve their interests. Unfortunately, this perspective is also reflected in the international community’s perception that South Sudanese only seek financial gain, leading to mistreatment and tribalism by the government.

NAS remains committed to the cause of the people, both within and outside South Sudan. We have consistently advocated for talks that address the root causes of conflict, seeking a genuine agreement that ensures lasting peace. However, the government’s approach, as seen in Juba’s assumption of ownership and control, hampers the prospects of fruitful negotiations.

In our recent formation of the National Consensus Forum, we highlighted the unbearable situation in South Sudan, expressing concern that the country is heading towards separation. To address this, we called for a roundtable conference involving all South Sudanese political parties, civil societies, youth, women, and religious leaders. Our aim is to collectively discuss the root causes of conflict and find universally accepted solutions, ensuring that no single entity claims overall authority. This proposal, however, has not been well-received by Juba, as they fear losing control and authority.

The government’s reluctance to engage in such conferences became evident in March last year when they promised to inform their leadership in Juba about the roundtable initiative but never returned. Instead, they surprised us with a letter to Kenyan President Ruto, requesting him to mediate and move the talks from Rome to Nairobi. While we welcome Kenya’s involvement in promoting peace, there are critical aspects we need clarity on before engaging in talks in Kenya.

We emphasized the importance of a pre-mediation meeting in Rome, given President Ruto’s mention of partnership with Sant’Egidio. Our concerns include security issues, as past incidents in Kenya involved the arrest and handover of South Sudanese rebels to Juba, resulting in casualties. Additionally, we seek to understand whether the talks will be solely initiated by the government and people of Kenya, or if they will involve a broader international community, as seen in Rome and Addis Ababa.

As the National Salvation Front, we are resolute and unwavering in our commitment to the South Sudanese people. Despite attempts to recruit individuals in the name of NAS and create divisions, we remain steadfast and focused on our goal of achieving lasting peace for the people of South Sudan.

Q: You mentioned that the government did not consult with Sant’Egidio before moving the talks to Kenya, and President Ruto indicated that the talks would involve the assistance of Sant’Egidio. Can you provide clarification?

A: Certainly. The issue here is that we cannot provide details on this matter, as it is based on President Rutto’s letter. He mentioned a desire for partnership and cooperation with Sant’Egidio, the organization that initiated the talks. However, as the opposition, we have not received any official communication or letter from Sant’Egidio indicating that the talks in Rome, under their mediation, have concluded. As of now, we are not officially aware of the status of the mediation in Rome, as we have not received any information from the organization based there.

Q: After your letter to Kenya regarding security guarantees and agenda clarity, have you received any assurances or information from the Kenyan government?

A: To be precise, what we communicated to the Kenyan government is our request to meet in Rome. We seek clarification on specific points before indicating our readiness or acceptance of continuing talks in Kenya. As of now, we have not provided any response regarding our acceptance of Ruto’s mediation in Kenya. Our decision will be based on a face-to-face meeting in Rome, where we can better understand the Kenyan government’s stance.

Our acceptance of Kenyan mediation hinges on our conviction that meaningful talks leading to peace for South Sudan can occur. If we are convinced that Kenya and Ruto can facilitate such discussions, we will consider accepting their mediation. However, if their approach resembles that of Khartoum and Bashir, aiming to mislead South Sudanese into accepting detrimental agreements, we will not endorse such mediation.

Q: General Cirillo, as holdout groups, why do you believe there has been no progress in the four years of talks, both initially in Rome and now proposed for Kenya? Is it a venue issue, a problem with involved parties, or a concern with the mediators?

A: Until now, we have not reached any agreement with the Juba government for one simple reason – Juba itself. Under the leadership of Salva Kiir and the SPLM government, all South Sudanese are victims of this system. The people have nothing in their hands, and we are urging Salva Kiir and his government to acknowledge the needs of the South Sudanese. We are carrying the voice of the people, telling Juba that it’s time to allow South Sudanese to take control of their country and organize it according to their wishes.

Our hands are not tied; the issue lies with Juba’s refusal to recognize the legitimate demands of the people. If the government accepts the South Sudanese people’s right to live freely and fully exercise their rights, allowing them to take charge of their country, we are willing to sign a peace agreement immediately. However, if Juba insists on maintaining control and suppressing the people, such an agreement will never happen.

It’s crucial to be clear that returning to South Sudan under the current conditions does not guarantee peace. Citizens who returned home under the promises of peace are now suffering, divided, and even facing violence. The situation in Bentiu exemplifies this, where forces aligned with Dr. Riek Machar are still facing challenges, despite claims of unification. The lack of peace in Juba is squarely attributed to Salva Kiir Mayardit and his government.

Q: Gen. Thomas, NAS has observed situations where talks proceed even when NAS decides not to be part of the agreement. There are concerns about NAS, under your leadership, consistently withdrawing from agreements. Can you clarify if this is due to internal disagreements within NAS or perceived dictatorship in decision-making?

A: Thank you for the question. It’s an important one in the context of our struggle for the country. I want to assure our supporters and the people of South Sudan that such scenarios are not unique to NAS. Human beings have diverse motivations and tolerances. Some join the movement with expectations of a quick agreement and subsequent return to civilian life, obtaining positions and benefits. However, when peace doesn’t materialize as swiftly, some individuals lose patience and choose to leave.

In times of prolonged hardship, with shortages of essentials like medicine, food, or basic amenities, some individuals may find it challenging to endure. It’s a human trait, and some may opt to return to their villages or towns or even join the government. Additionally, individuals sent by the government may infiltrate the movement, later claiming association and then defecting.

South Sudanese, both within and outside the country, are facing severe challenges. Even those not directly involved in the conflict suffer. People in diaspora and refugee camps experience hardships, with limited support from international organizations like the UN, which faces resource constraints due to global conflicts and disasters.

The defections and movements between groups are not unique to NAS; they occur worldwide. Even during the struggle under Dr. John Garang’s leadership, with substantial international support, defections occurred. It’s a human phenomenon, and we should not be surprised when such incidents happen. NAS is not just about filling stomachs or seeking positions; it’s a movement committed to the well-being and future of the South Sudanese people. Those hesitant to join now may do so later, possibly waiting for conditions such as a signed peace agreement and a return to Juba, where they can align themselves as nationalists.

Q: Commanders from NAS have recently stated that you are no longer the leader of the movement. What is your response to this claim?

A: Thank you, Radio Tamazuj, for providing me with the opportunity to address our NAS members, fellow South Sudanese, and global listeners. Regarding the statements from some former colleagues who claim to represent NAS, it’s important to clarify that these individuals left the NAS movement four years ago for various reasons. They have since resided as refugees in Uganda camps, where they have been for an extended period.

The government in Juba managed to persuade them to return for peace, offering them ranks and deceiving them with promises of improved conditions. It’s crucial to note that the current situation in Juba is challenging, and the government is struggling to provide essential services to the population. Furthermore, the government is facing difficulties in conducting elections, lacking the necessary political, administrative, and constitutional arrangements for a successful and fair electoral process.

The government has also attempted to extend its rule, a move strongly opposed by the South Sudanese population. Additionally, the diaspora community is exploring avenues to resist any extension by the current leadership. It is essential for our supporters and members to understand that Juba is actively seeking ways to prolong its governance while facing difficulties initiating elections.

Moreover, the government is contemplating a strategy similar to what Omar Al Bashir employed in Khartoum, pressuring rebel groups to accept agreements. When NAS leadership refused to sign such agreements in Khartoum, the government resorted to recruiting agents within political and military circles to falsely represent NAS and sign agreements on its behalf.

NAS is of utmost importance to all, and the leadership is unwavering in its commitment. Attempts to manipulate or intimidate the leadership have proven futile. The government’s recent strategy involves spreading lies to create division within NAS. They approached our leadership directly, but failing to sow discord, they resorted to exploiting individuals who have been residing in Ugandan camps for over four years.

These commanders were enticed with promises and convinced to form a faction claiming to be NAS, fostering a false perception of division within the movement. We are closely monitoring this situation and want our people to understand that NAS remains united, resolute, and impervious to attempts to weaken our cause through deceit and misinformation.

Q: General Thomas, is there any evidence suggesting that the government is orchestrating the division within NAS? The group claims to have removed you from leadership without acknowledging any defection. Can you clarify the truth behind these assertions?

A: Certainly, these claims and assertions are part of a calculated plan devised by Juba to portray that they have ousted the leader of NAS and taken control of the movement. However, these statements are entirely false. We closely monitored their actions, and our colleagues engaged in communication with them when they initially expressed their dissent. It was evident that these individuals, identified as the ringleaders, were headed in the wrong direction despite our attempts to advise against it. Many South Sudanese who sought peace in Juba faced challenges, with little improvement in their circumstances.

In response, we took the decision to dismiss these individuals from the movement. If they were within our jurisdiction, we would have arrested and conducted a thorough investigation. However, as they are residing in a foreign country and moving freely, our jurisdiction is limited. The proper course of action would have been to pursue legal measures against them.

After their dismissal, they expressed bitterness, engaging in communication with some individuals in Nairobi. Letters were written to them, though it is essential to note that the majority of these individuals lack literacy skills. Even the declarations they made were likely drafted for them in Nairobi by unidentified individuals. We refrain from disclosing names, but it is clear that external forces are influencing their actions.

It’s crucial for our NAS members and forces to understand that the meeting location was a contentious issue. While some wanted it in Kenya, we insisted on Rome. The dismissed group received a letter instructing them to agree, sign, and circulate the document on social media, despite having no genuine connection with our soldiers.

As of now, the National Salvation Front remains intact, with our forces, soldiers, and global offices undisturbed. The challenge lies in the misinformation spread on social media, where anyone can make claims that, unfortunately, some may believe without verification. This situation primarily involves individuals in the camps who are exploiting social media to create false narratives.

Q: Did you formally dismiss the group that asserts they removed you from NAS leadership, considering your statement about dismissing them multiple times?

A: Yes, we issued a formal order for their dismissal before they penned their letters. Our decision to dismiss them occurred prior to their written claims, and we are well aware of the activities surrounding them, both in Uganda and with the assistance they receive from individuals in Kenya and Juba.