Wisdom And Courage: Have Kiir And Riek Got Any for South Sudan?

"The current situation in Juba, capital of South Sudan, calls for nothing less than both courage and wisdom from both President Kiir and his First Vice President Riek Machar".
By Jacob J Akol*

Gurtong- I just placed an order for John F Kennedy’s classic, “Profiles in Courage”. I came across the book in an American library in Bukavu, Congo DRC, in 1963, soon after the assassination of Kennedy in Dallas.  I want to reread that book because, subconsciously, something in it must have contributed to part of my actions later in life; some which others may consider as “courageous but stupid” or “courageous and necessary” or even “wise”.[1]

In November 1963, in Bukavu, a catholic priest, who gave us (Antiok Athuai and I) accommodation on the floor of a children’s dining room, to spend the nights and vacate as early as possible before the children begun their lessons, woke us up very early one morning and announced that “the US president has been assassinate” and that we should go to the church with him to pray for his soul. We were shocked but more than ready to pray for the soul of an American president, John F Kennedy. Why? Because of the Cuban Missiles Crisis a year earlier.

The US official record has it that, “The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 was a direct and dangerous confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War and was the moment when the two superpowers came closest to nuclear conflict. The crisis was unique in a number of ways, featuring calculations and miscalculations as well as direct and secret communications and miscommunications between the two sides…Kennedy summoned his closest advisers to consider options and direct a course of action for the United States that would resolve the crisis. Some advisers—including all the Joint Chiefs of Staff—argued for an air strike to destroy the missiles, followed by a U.S. invasion of Cuba; others favored stern warnings to Cuba and the Soviet Union. The President decided upon a middle course.”

In Kuacjok Intermediate School, we school children gathered under a tree around our school’s radio set every morning, then at 1 pm and in the evening to listen to the news of the crisis over the BBC. Sometimes our headmaster joined us. One boy asked him what to do if a nuclear bomb was coming down on us: “kneel down and pray. Nothing you can do can save your life”, was his ominous answer. We shivered.

From then on, I have always had respect for President Kennedy – and any similar leader – who evidently had the power to destroy the enemy but also had wisdom to defer such awesome power for greater good.

The current situation in Juba, capital of South Sudan, calls for nothing less than both courage and wisdom from both President Kiir and his First Vice President Riek Machar. The build up to the mid-December 2013 disaster was long foreseen; yet both leaders helplessly or encouragingly watched their power struggle developing into  “a misunderstanding” according to Riek or “a coup attempt” according to Kiir.

And now, in spite of courageous speeches of commitment to the implementation of the current peace accord, apologies for what had occurred and promises not to plunge the country back to another war in pursuit of personal ambitions, there is still a lingering feeling that both men are far from sincere; that the nation is being sleep-walked once again into even a bigger disaster. Do Kiir and Riek understand and appreciate the great courage and wisdom the leadership requires of them at this particular period in time? Have they got in them the courage and wisdom to take that final walk?

When we, school children from Kuacjok, went on strike in 1962 and demonstrated threateningly all over Kuacjok, a police contingent, headed by an Arab (Sudanese Arab) officer, was dispatched from Gogrial to Kuacjok to quell the demonstrations.

The police confronted us in the main street. We had sticks; they had guns. The officer lined up his men and commanded them to stand their ground. We marched on towards them. He drew a line on the dusty road and ordered his men to take a step back. We marched over the line. He repeated the same thing for the second time. We crossed the second line. He pushed back and drew the third line. We paused, and decided it would be wiser to back down to fight another day. We turned and walked away.

Yet, South Sudanese leaders have at one time or another shown great personal courage and wisdom in action. As President of Autonomous Southern Sudan in late 1970s, Abel Alier was confronted by a similar situation by mutinous former Anya-Nya fighters who refused to be integrated into the Sudanese army as per Addis Ababa Agreement of 1972. The leader of the mutineers drew the first and the second lines, each time daring President Alier to cross. Finally he drew the third line and cocked his gun. Alier looked into the barrel of the gun as he crossed the last line. The officer broke down, dropped his gun to the ground and knelt down, sobbing with rage. That was the end of the mutiny.

Some called it courageous of Alier but others readily called it unwise or stupid. Yet, what alternative was left to him as President and therefore commander-in-chief? Not much, otherwise he would have been the laughing stalk of his troops.

On the other hand, my friend, and at one time mentor, Col Emmanuel Abur Nhial, one of the most intelligent and brave leaders of Anyan-Nya One, decided to go unarmed into the forest near Wau to meet his then deserting troops. They were indeed close associates-in arms who knew and respected his leadership.

Having been one of the leading South Sudanese underground movement for a well organised second rebellion against Khartoum, he believed he could peacefully persuade his men to return to the barracks, rather than shed blood of his men in an attempt to disarm them. As it turned out, he was detained, tortured and killed in cold blood by the leader of mutineers, Captain Aguet, an officer he trusted.

The murderer ran over the border all the way to Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic (CAR). Because of the outcry for such a great loss, the man responsible was followed by the Government of Southern Sudan, who convinced the CAR government to have him identified and deported back in chains to Southern Sudan, where he was court marshalled and executed.

Abur’s action was undoubtedly courageous but thought unwise by those who might have thought he did not consider the risks he was taking. But those who knew him well will stand by him, arguing that he was fully aware of the risk to his life but, nevertheless, thought it worth taking by a courageous leader of his calibre for greater good. They come in short supply these days.     

Those who fought battles of liberation under Kiir Mayardit and Riek Machar, have better knowledge about the courage and wisdom of both men. As for me, I can only offer snippets here and there about them, those that I consider courageous and even wise:

When, in 2004, Kiir had reason, and was encouraged by some of our veteran politicians, to rebel against John Garang, at the very moment we were about to sign the final peace accord with Khartoum, Kiir had the courage and wisdom to pull back from the brink of what could have been a real disaster for future independence of South Sudan.

On his part, John Garang was courageous and wise enough to admit failure in delegating enough powers to Kiir, then his deputy, who challenged him to tell the Rumbek SPLM/A meeting if he “carried” his office in his brief case when he travelled. A disaster was averted by his promising more powers to Kiir.

On the other hand, Riek Machar had courage when he returned from Khartoum to John Garang’s SPLM/A in 2002, knowing very well his life could have been in danger. Some will say he had no choice or that he was unwise; but I will say he had many choices, including retiring into lecturing anywhere in the world.

Also, both men, aided by some far-sighted individuals, showed courage and leadership in 2005, when they avoided armed struggle for power when Dr. Garang unexpectedly died in a helicopter accident, only one month as First Vice President of Sudan and President of Interim Government of Southern Sudan.

We know that it was courageous of Kiir to pull back his troops from Panthou, the so-called Igliq, when he captured it from Bashir’s troops and caused an international uproar that could have emboldened Khartoum to attack South Sudan and seize more oil fields and territory.

Less known is, however, the challenged Kiir faced from hooks in the Interim Government of Southern Sudan, people who would insist on responding violently to Khartoum’s many provocations. In a clear provocative bombing of border areas by Khartoum, some of his cabinet ministers at one time challenged him to declare war against Khartoum; else he was “a coward”.

It was then he got up, put his hat on and picked up his walking stick. He walked to the door and called his cabinet colleagues to follow him to the Bilpam Army Head Quarters. From there, he would declare war on Khartoum. He would close the airport and the borders at the same time of announcement. “None of us will leave Juba until it is all over,” he told them. One by one, they begged him to sit down and to consider the matter further. The person who called him “a coward” apologised unreservedly. So he resumed his seat.

Kiir also drew a red line when Khartoum floated the idea of postponing the Referendum. “Not even for a second”, he said; and that was that.

The signing of the IGAD + Peace Agreement, albeit with reservations, is a courageous and wise thing to do for both Riek and Kiir. Riek’s return to Juba at this time, a city he said he escaped from barely with his life over two years ago, in spite of the presence of his bodyguards and troops in town, must be seen for what it is: courageous and a wise thing to do. Kiir own open acceptance of Riek Machar, a man he accused of attempting to take power from him by force two years ago, is in itself courageous and wise.

Yet the question remains: will the two men take the last courageous and wise step towards restoring peace, justice and reconciliation, even if some cases can be filed against them? The only way they can do that successfully is to sincerely unite and abandon their personal ambition to become candidates for presidency in 2018. They should join hands together and tour the country for peace and reconciliation and abandon struggle for power up to 2018 elections.

That, in my opinion, would be the wisest and most courageous decision any South Sudanese leader has ever taken in the war against war. Otherwise, the cabinet meetings of the Interim Government of National Unity (IGoNU), will most likely turn into more squabbles and suspicions, leading to another disastrous “misunderstanding” or “coup attempt” even before the scheduled elections. Think much deeper and act now, President Kiir and First Vice President Riek Machar. Do not sleepwalk us back again into a much deeper war, likely to destroy South Sudan.

*Jacob J Akol is Director/Chief Editor of Gurtong Trust Media    


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