Atem Yaak Atem (Photo courtesy Michael Abraha)

Dar Es Salaam, TANZANIA  — Barely ten months into independence, South Sudan is in a bloody border conflict with Sudan in the north over oil sharing and demarcation issues. The Juba government says Sudan is reluctant to demarcate its border, having lost two thirds of their shared oil as a result of the independence. Juba says it is fighting to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Each side is reportedly arming proxy militias to destabilize the other. Reporter Michael Abraha got hold of South Sudan’s Deputy Information Minister, Mr. Atem Yaak Atem in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, where he led a South Sudanese delegation to an East African conference last week (May 1-2) on “National Security and the Right to Information”. Here are excerpts from the interview.

Atem Yaak Atem: Khartoum fighter planes have been bombing our territories inside South Sudan non-stop for a month. This is unprovoked act against our people. We pushed back Sudanese infantry out of the oil producing border town of Heglig which is considered by some UN member states as a disputed territory. We believe Heglig is inside South Sudan according to the 1956 British colonial map. Still, we decided to pull out to avoid escalation of the war. We want to settle the Heglig matter through diplomacy. But Khartoum has refused to stop bombing us. We have complained to the international community but nobody listened although there was a lot of outcry when we went into a territory which originally belonged to us. I think the international community has not been fair, especially the African Union. Maybe they think that being a weaker party, we do not matter. But justice has nothing to do with might.

Q: Sudan is contesting the 1956 colonial border because it places almost all of the known oil inside South Sudan. Can a compromise solution be reached?

A: We in the South are fighting for our national sovereignty and integrity with or without oil, whether it is a desert or not. Our territorial claim is not about oil. Oil is only the motivating factor for the North to take areas rich in oil in the South. But we are talking of legalities. These areas belong to us regardless of whether they have oil or not. Khartoum wants the southern land because of the oil. You know, we have not been greedy. When the independence of the South became a reality, we agreed to give Sudan $2.6 billion US dollars for the next four years so that their economy does not collapse. The North refused to accept anything free from the South and instead wanted to engage in business with the South and it demanded transit fee of $36.00 US per barrel of crude oil transported from the South via pipelines to Port Sudan. This is outrageous. The standard international rate of transit fee is $0.60 US cents per barrel. This is the norm everywhere in the world. The maximum you could reach is $1 a barrel. The Sudanese demand of $36 dollars a barrel amounts to extortion. They are putting impossible conditions so that we would not reach a peaceful agreement. They hope by going to war they will be able to capture all of the oil producing areas and make them part of the North. The Sudanese government has also threatened it would go for a regime change in Juba and bring people to power who would cooperate with it in reuniting the country.

Q: But the UN and the African Union say both sides are committing acts of aggression. Is that unfair?

A: I think those making such statement should check their facts again. Recently an American envoy in South Sudan admitted that they did not know that the South had a claim over the oil-rich area of Heglig and these are the people who can sway international public opinion. The African Union has also been misguided by such advisors as Alex Duval who has always been pro-Khartoum. Heglig has always been in the South and it was taken over by Khartoum and made part of it in 2004. The Khartoum government made it part of Kordofan in Sudan.

Q: Why was President Beshir’s planned visit to Juba last month cancelled?

A: We invited President Bashir to visit Juba for talks. But this did not materialize. The hardliners within his own party in Khartoum said they had a tipping that if he were to come to the South, the government in Juba would arrest him and hand him over to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. This is completely irresponsible because in our culture, you don’t invite a guest and mistreat them. There was nothing like that. It was an excuse by the war mongers in the north who want to hamper the peace process. So while we were expecting the visit of President Basher, the Defense Minister, Ibrahim Hussein, who is a known war-monger, launched an air attack inside South Sudan. Then they started moving the infantry and crossed the border using the Southern militia forces as proxies. This was to create a situation which would not permit President Basher to visit Juba.

Q: Does the UN recognize the 1956 border?

A: This is embodied in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, CPA, of 2005 and the United Nations witnessed and accepted this agreement which recognizes the 1956 as it existed when Britain ended its rule of South and North Sudan in 1956. The 2005 accord was also witnessed by many world leaders including regional leaders in East Africa. Khartoum’s aggression is proof that it had no intention to honor the peace agreement.

Q: In hindsight, do you think it would have been better to delay declaration of independence until the border was demarcated

A: It is Sudan which is dragging its feet. If the border is demarcated it is clear that most of the oil areas will fall within South Sudan. There is oil north of the border but in small quantities. But as I said earlier our concern has nothing to do with oil. What we want is our territory.

Q: Do you believe the people of Sudan were prepared for the split?

A: When the South became independent, the ruling National Congress Party and their followers in the North were not happy with the outcome because the Khartoum government had not informed the population of the contents of the 2005 peace agreements and the consequences of those agreements. So the ordinary people were not prepared for the outcome of the referendum last year. Some people in the north accused the ruling National Congress Party of allowing the country to split. So now the Sudanese rulers have to find the justification of how to reunite the country by using force. That is why Khartoum is bent on war.

It is clear that most of the oil fields are in the South and the Sudanese economy has lost a lot of revenue. This is why they are calling for general mobilization and unite the people against the South. Normally, in the presence of a common enemy, people forget about petty differences. But the other factor they don’t understand is that this is also uniting the South. The people in the south were naturally concerned about their daily life hoping to benefit from peace dividends – asking why we were not opening new schools, producing our own food, etc. Now their question is how do we defend ourselves from the aggression from the North?”

Q: What should South Sudan do to ease the situation?

A: We have been clear about our commitment to peaceful coexistence with the north. We have a lot of things that link us together like the River Nile; that we can trade across the border; that the majority of the people in South speak Arabic and that many of us spent most of our lives in the North studying in schools and colleges or working. The people of the South and North have a lot in common. What caused the split were bad government policies in the north.

The people in the South and North have no real enmity. It is the ruling elite in the North who are inciting the people in there to hit those in the South. Despite the atrocities committed by the government in the North against the people in the South, people have always persisted saying “let’s move on”. But the people in the North seem to think that this is cowardice. But this is not true. The people of the South have been very forgiving all along. Whenever we called for our rights, they have been resorting to use of force whether it was the assassination of our leaders or the massacre of innocent civilians like the massacre of civilians in Juba in 1965 and other places. But things must move on. You can’t keep dwelling in the past. So when we say we want to have friendly relations with the north, we mean it. We want to be friends with all our neighbors. But the political elite in Khartoum do not want this friendship. That is why we accepted to negotiate with the north over border demarcation and the question of water, of oil. All this, we believe, can be resolved through negotiation. Nobody won a military victory over the other.

Q: Conflicts often hamper democratic processes as this for instance seems to be the case in Eritrea, which is at war with neighboring Ethiopia. Do you fear the conflict with Sudan will delay the constitutional process?

A: I wouldn’t say the war imposed on us by Khartoum would negatively affect the democratic process. The concern is there. But our people are democratic by nature. South Sudan is a democratic society and it has fully embarked on the path to democracy where freedom of expression is honored and where the government and the leadership are held accountable to the people. Our participation in the just concluded conference in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, on “Freedom of Information” was meant to reaffirm our commitment to the principles of the citizens’ right to information. We were invited by the Open Society Initiative for East Africa as a state rather than as individuals representing the media or civil society from South Sudan. The invitation for which I came was extended to the government of the Republic of South Sudan.

Our constitution embodies the right of our people to freedom of expression and media. Many countries in Africa have not endorsed the right to information act already signed by about 90 countries. Now we are going to join the other signatories and will become the 11th African country to do so. Being only 10 months old, it will be a great achievement for us. We do not have national security laws which often hamper media performance. Other countries are trying to repeal restrictive national security laws which we do not have.