By Fiona Freddy

In this interview, the South Sudan Ambassador to Nigeria, Riek Puok Riek, spoke on the ongoing crisis in his country, saying that despite the persistent crisis, if given the people of South Sudan an opportunity today of referendum they will still vote for independence.

What’s the relationship between Nigeria and South Sudan?

The relationship between Nigeria and South Sudan goes back during our struggle, during the administration of Miltary President Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida, when we established the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, SPLM, and Sudan People’s Liberation Army, SPLA. We managed to establish contact with the government of Nigeria and that was to highlight the struggle of South Sudan, the struggle and vision of the SPLM.

So, the relationship started since then and subsequently after that it continued with other successive Presidents in Nigeria.

In the 1990’s, there was Abuja one and Abuja two which was an attempt to bring about peace in Sudan and that was based on the good relations that we had with Nigeria and Nigeria was able to understand the conflicts which was going on in Sudan and they wanted to participate to bring peace and stability in Sudan.

After the independence, we then established a Liason office. Well, before independence we had a liaison office here in Abuja which was under the comprehensive peace agreement that then did the provisions. There is a provision in the comprehensive peace agreement that allowed the government of the then Southern Sudan to open a liaison here and we had a number of countries where we had liaison offices.

In West Africa, we had in Nigeria and in Southern Africa, we had in Zimbabwe and South Africa, as well as in other countries. In Europe, we had UK liaison office where I served. And then after the independence, we then established proper diplomatic relations with Nigeria.

So, our relationship has been cordial, it has been very good. So, our relation is very good. Nigeria is playing a very critical role in what we call the agreement of the resolution of the conflict in the Republic of South Sudan. A key role representing the entire West African sub region. So, you can see the importance of our relationship with Nigeria.

There are a number of things that we are working on with the government to help the Republic of South Sudan and at the moment we are about to sign a number of cooperation agreements with Nigeria.

Aside the two countries working together, how about people to people relationship?

Well, on people to people relations, there is a little with regards to people, but I think eventually that we are going to build on it, and then, we will touch on various areas in the health sector and other areas of interest between the two countries. This will then bring closer people to people relations.

As you know, there are a number of Nigerian communities working with us in South Sudan and basically, they become ambassadors of both countries. So, as we move in a closer relations, people to people relations will then be strengthened. And of course, the challenge which we face with regards to people to people relations in Africa is not only confined to Nigeria and South Sudan, but I think it is more or less a continental issue simply because of lack of infrastructure and networking.

So, at the continental level, these are some of the things that the African Union, AU, is working towards. That has been my experience when I served in Addis Ababa as a second Ambassador of the Republic of South Sudan.

At the recent AU Summit, was the crisis of South Sudan discussed?

It was not only the issue of South Sudan that got discussed at the AU Summit. At the AU summit, they discussed overall situations in the continent that also include areas that have challenges or conflicts and South Sudan of course was one of the issues discussed. They discussed about the issue of South Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, Mali and they discussed about a number of countries which have gotten a similar situation like DR Congo was also discussed and a lot of countries which are also in a similar situation like South Sudan.

Six years have passed since you got your independence, do the people of South Sudan regret coming out of Sudan due to the ongoing situation?

Not at all, on the contrary. If you were to ask South Sudanese today even with the difficulties that we are going through, still overwhelming South Sudanese would have thought they got the independence and that is a fact of life. I don’t think it is a turning point for South Sudanese changing their views about their independence. There is nothing any human being would wish to have other than independence, other than being free.

South Sudan’s independence was not easy; we sacrificed a lot of human lives. So, these sacrifices are not something that we can easily wish away, it will not happen. So, if South Sudanese are given the opportunity today for referendum, they will still vote for independence.

Many countries believed that Westernerns are behind your country’s problems. Does South Sudan suspect any country of fueling its crisis?

I supposed like any other country in the world, I think we all have got our adversary. It is not only South Sudan who is exceptional to that. This is a global phenomenon. Every country has got their own adversary who probably wanted to see a different kind of situation in its country.

Of course, we have got our enemies who wanted to see the current situation we are facing. For the challenges we are into, this is something that we are in and of course, every country has got an interest in what is happening.

In Nigeria, for instance, you have countries who have interest in what is happening in Nigeria, whether it is the issue with the northern Nigeria. So, I am sure it is not different from what is happening in South Sudan. You have also people with interest. But I am sure the people of South Sudan will eventually prevail in all these situations that we find ourselves in.

What are the efforts put on ground in regards to this crisis?

The crisis in the north, we have got so many things. We are implementing the peace agreement which was reached in 2015. My government is very committed to it. We have also recently agreed with the proposal being done by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), to look into those areas of difficulties of implementing the agreement and this is what we are working closely with IGAD in trying to see how best we can resolve them if there are any difficulties we are faced with.

The other issue of course, in terms of the implementation of the peace agreement, our President, Salva Kiir Mayardit, last year initiated a national dialogue which is now operational. The steering committee on national dialogue is now reaching out.

They were in South Africa recently to meet with Dr. Riek Machar (South Sudan’s first Vice President), but which they could not meet because Dr. Riek declined. They have abandoned that idea, they are still continuing with other people who are still holding out to make sure that those who are opposed to the government are brought on board because Dr. Riek was a signatory of the agreement and therefore it is very important for us to also embark on the national dialogue to complement the agreement and I think that was the main objective why my President came up with the initiative.

So the national dialogue is moving on quite well and we hope that eventually all the parties who are still holding out will join the national dialogue in order for us to bring peace and stability to South Sudan and that will be to complement the peace agreement.

Meanwhile, we are also implementing the peace agreement. I think these are the areas we are working very hard with our regional partners to make ensure that this problem is brought to an end.

What advice do you have for the affected Sudanese in this crisis?

The South Sudanese who are affected are citizens in South Sudan and of course, the government has got a responsibility to make sure that difficulties faced by the people that were affected by this crisis are addressed and that is the whole purpose also of bringing about the national dialogue to address the root causes so that South Sudan will not go back. We don’t want a repetition of what is happening now to happen in the future and that is the whole idea about it.

And those who are immediately affected of course, my government is dealing with it. We have gone to the refugee camps to see those who are internally displaced, and the government is working very hard to see how it is handled and those who have gone to neighbouring countries, the government is going to appeal to them to come back. This is the policy that my country is working very hard to see to it that these are addressed.

There is a plan of what is called South Sudan Humanitarian Response plan 2017 and already we have rolled it out and this is to address some of the problems that are faced by the people who are affected.

Do you see the United Nations Officials assisting the people of South Sudan or causing more harm to the affected persons?

Well, we welcomed the United Nations (UN) agencies to come. The only thing that we don’t want, is the interference, using UN presence in South Sudan for political purpose. We want to see that we work closely with the UN to address the issues. And they stick to their roles in providing humanitarian assistance, advising the government on what needs to be done in terms of resolving the conflict in South Sudan. That kind of relationship is very important because we want their participation in those kind of process.

So, it is very important for us to work with the UN. We are part of the UN international community and we will be working very closely with the UN. What we don’t want is the interference of the UN in our politics. What we want them to do is help us with the difficulties or differences that we have in South Sudan.