His Exellency, Dr. Barnaba Marial Benjamin (JP), South Sudanese Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation recently spoke with Diplomatic Vista, expressing his views on various issues including the outcome of 2015 elections in Nigeria, wealth of untapped resources in South Sudan and on Nigeria-South Sudan relations. Excerpt.
What is your reflection on the outcome of 2015 Election in Nigeria?
First I will like to congratulate the people of Nigeria, the outcome of 2015 presidential election has sent a positive message throughout our continent that we are matured. From the days of decolonisation process, we are now into the method of independent African nations where there is political freedom, where people embark on some sort of military coups, civil wars, conflicts, and also the resolution of these conflicts. Nigeria for the first time is showing the road that we can now transfer power, especially in a situation when a ruling party peacefully hands over government in a country to an opposition which was not in power; I think it is a very good example. So I bring the congratulatory message of President Salva Kiir Mayardit, the government and the people of South Sudan to his Excellency, President Muhammadu Buhari.
President Salva kiir Mayardit had written a congratulatory letter during the inauguration through our delegation led by the vice president. This shows how our young nation which is 4 years old would learn from big brother like Nigeria. We are the last and the youngest country on our continent and number 193 at the United Nations’ level, so we are really the last born on this earth as far as political independence is concerned.
From your observation of the inauguration and subsequent relation with President Buhari what message is the whole world telling Nigeria?
The whole world is telling Nigeria to keep to this and continue doing it. The African leadership should learn that the people should have the right to choose their leaders and also have the right to change or reject them, and that we should accept that as a principle. I think this is the message that every world leader gave at the inauguration ceremony. And then secondly, for them to come and see for themselves because we have many countries that have a lot of conflicts; there are countries where the opposition is always claiming that there is no free and fair election. But for former President Goodluck Jonathan to telephone his opponent, conceding that he has lost and wished him well in his new success, I think that is the first of its kind in Africa.
Within the four years of your country’s independence, how would you describe relations between South Sudan and Nigeria?
Most people are not aware that Nigeria as a government, and as a people have developed relationship with the people of South-Sudan for a very long time. Even during the days of our liberation struggles during the SPLM/SPLA, Nigeria was helping our struggle. We must talk about it now; there are no more secrets that cannot be talked about. But I must take this opportunity to thank the old leadership and the people of Nigeria for being concerned, particularly about the war which was going on when Sudan was still a one country. And you can remember, in Nigerian capital city of Abuja, we had what we call ‘our peace process’ about Sudan and South-Sudan at that time. We had Abuja 1, 2, 3 and these were series of dialogue and negotiations carried out with Nigerian mediators. People like former President Olusegun Obasanjo and Ibrahim Babangida were deeply involved in trying to see that peace came to South-Sudan and that people of South-Sudan should have the right of self determination.
Nigeria contributed a lot to the independence of South-Sudan. It started by trying to find peace first between the North and the South and after the South achieved its peace referendum; we started to strengthen our bi-lateral relations. As I speak to you now we have Nigerian embassy in Juba and we have our embassy here. We have very strong bi-lateral relations especially in the area of capacity building. Also, we have prison officers who are training in Nigeria and I think that is a signal to how Nigeria is trying to help strengthen the capacity of the 4 year-old country. It reflects that Nigeria is playing its general role as a member of the African Union to see what contributions they can give in strengthening the young democracy in South-Sudan.
So what would you identify as potential investment opportunities in South Sudan?
I was able to meet some business community here during Nigerian South Sudan Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture forum; a very important forum which was to encourage Nigerian investment in South-Sudan because our country has a huge chunk of fertile land of about 648,000 kilometres. It is nearly two third of Nigeria in size, with population of just about 9 million. It is called the virgin territory of Africa because of the enormous resources that have not yet been exploited.
In fishery, we can produce nearly 300,000 metric tonnes of fresh fish sustainably in a year and this has not yet been exploited. South Sudan has the biggest wild life migration today in the world, bigger than Serengeti in Tanzania. We have the areas of hydro powers to be built; we have about 14,000 kilometre roads to be tarmacked and built. Now in Africa we are the biggest in terms of livestock.
That is why we think South-Sudan needs good friends and investors to come and build this country as pioneers so that we can move forward. We had a very serious conversation with a lot of big Nigerian business people who have been visiting Juba. I think it is important that Africans begin to enhance their investment together so that inter-African trade can take off in a much more effective manner. I believe we have a lot to share with Nigeria, and Nigeria through her experience, ability, capabilities and capacity can go a long way to help us.
Why was South-Sudan’s struggle for peace so difficult and why did it take so long to attain?
You know the people of South-Sudan struggled for a very long time. The British Colonial administration was there from 1898 and had both Northern and Southern Sudan as one country. The colonial administration was debating whether South-Sudan should be merged with Kenya and Uganda in East Africa, but by 1930 they changed their mind because it was a 100 percent African territory. By 1940s, they said it might be better to help the North and south unite together as one because Egypt which was a colonial partner wanted a greater control of the Nile. The British administration did not give chance to the people of South-Sudan to have a say in whether they wanted to be one country or be a state on their own. That is why in 2005 they decided that there should be a referendum for the people of South Sudan to decide whether they wanted to be one country or be divided peacefully.
When the country was one, our fellow citizens from North-Sudan did not behave, the two parts were not given equal rights. They decided to make regulations such as the Islamic law across the whole country when majority of people in the south are Christians and traditionalists. That was why they decided they might be better off apart. In 2005 there was a comprehensive agreement that in order to give unity a chance the country should remain united for six years in having one country two systems, so that the South would have its own parliament and government. It was also agreed that after six years they should go for a referendum whether they want to keep this unity or split. At the end of the day, 98.8 percent voted during the referendum to have a state of their own. The 2005 referendum was the peace that stopped the war. There had been battles going on but our leader, Dr. John Garang de Mabior suddenly died in a helicopter crash and our present leader took us through the turbulent period. The people thought there would be another war but thank God we reached a referendum and the south voted overwhelmingly. So there was no way the decision of the people would be changed and that is how South-Sudan became an independent state.
Finally, what would you say the future holds for South Sudan?
We have our vision 2040, when we hope that South-Sudan would be a country where democratic process would take root. We also envision a country that is well-informed, well educated and in harmony with its neighbours. These are the principles and they should be developed. The vision 2040 also entails how our resources should be developed for the benefits of the people, this falls within the agenda 2063 of the African Union.
So we are looking at the South Sudan that needs to be developed and that is why we are appealing today as part of this continent, that countries like Nigeria that have lived long as independent states should work together with our country. Through that, we can follow similar line of development and plant democracy as a strong foundation, so that our people do not get into wars when they want to change the political leadership in their country. It is a pretty ambitious programme but everybody is entitled to dream because even if you don’t want to dream, when you go to bed you will end up dreaming. We have a vision 2040 that we believe should guide our development plans to take us into that South-Sudan where there is national identity, unity and a country that is peaceful and stable.
Thank you Your Excellency, and we wish you good luck in the new South-Sudan.
Thank you for having me.
About Dr Barnaba Maria Benjamin:
Dr Barnaba Maria Benjamin was first appointed Minister of state for International Cooperation, representing the SPLM in 2005 when Sudan was still one country. He has since served his country in various capacities among which is the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, a position he has assumed from the time South Sudan got independence till date.