08.05.21

Statement On Repression Of Civil Society Activists In South Sudan

Mr. LEAHY.  After decades of civil war, famine, and political instability, after millions were killed and millions more became refugees, many hoped that independence and a peace agreement in South Sudan would usher in a period of stability and progress.

Some South Sudanese refugees who had resettled in the United States returned to South Sudan to aid in rebuilding. Unfortunately, peace was fleeting and the past decade of independence has been marred by continued violent ethnic conflict, widespread hunger, and ongoing disputes between rival politicians that have cared more about their own ambitions than the South Sudanese people. Despite several power sharing agreements, promises of unity and reconciliation, and a goal to seat a full parliament in 2020, the rivalry between President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar has stoked tensions between the Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups and neglected public infrastructure and basic services. On August 2, almost a year past the promised deadline, an incomplete parliament was sworn into office, with 62 members absent due to disagreements over the power-sharing arrangement.

The people of South Sudan cannot wait another decade for progress. They cannot wait for politicians to argue over control while their children go hungry, while they sink deeper into poverty, while they worry that the next outbreak of violent conflict might send them fleeing for their lives. Recently, the People’s Coalition for Civil Action launched an effort to mobilize all South Sudanese people, whether living within the country or abroad, and demand political change. In a declaration, they said they “have had enough of war, enough of corruption, enough of insecurity, enough of economic hardships, enough of public neglect and leadership failure.” They admonished the administration of President Salva Kiir, which has completely failed to fulfill its most basic responsibilities to provide security and stability for its citizens.

Just days later, the South Sudanese National Security Service (NSS) arrested two of the leaders of the movement, Augustino Ting Mayai and a former state governor, Kuel Aguer Kuel, for signing the declaration. The NSS shut down the Sudd Institute, a think tank involved in the creation of the People’s Coalition for Civil Action, and issued arrest warrants for Rajab Mohandis and Abraham Awolich, two other signatories of the declaration, who have gone into hiding. This suppression of dissent is not new in South Sudan. Weak and paranoid new leaders often resort to projecting strength by arresting civil society leaders, journalists, and political rivals, and over the years this has become President Kiir’s trademark. This most recent transparent attempt to silence his own citizens for nothing more than demanding that he keep his promises and do his duty has not gone unnoticed by the rest of the world.  

President Kiir may not know that Abraham Awolich was one of the now-famous Lost Boys, who as a child survived the civil war that killed most of his family, endured malnutrition, and escaped attacks by rebel groups seeking child soldiers, only to find himself alone in a refugee camp. He eventually was resettled in the United States, arriving in Vermont in 2001, graduating from the University of Vermont, becoming an American citizen, and going on to get his Master’s degree. He was my constituent for many years, and I am very proud of the work he did as a member of the South Sudanese diasporic community who returned to his native country to help rebuild. President Kiir may not have known that Abraham was my constituent, or that I will always consider him my constituent. So I call upon him now to immediately release Kuel Aguer Kuel and Augustino Ting Mayai, to cancel the arrest warrants for Rajab Mohandis and Abraham Awolich, and end the repression of civil society leaders, journalists, and dissidents.

I want to read into the Record a quote from Abraham Awolich’s statement at the launch of their movement. What he said is instructive to every citizen of every democracy around the world. He said, “In the last 10 years the people of South Sudan have been dormant, they have not been challenging the status quo in the Republic of South Sudan and we cannot expect to have a democratic country without active citizenship.”  

President Kiir has an opportunity now, with a new parliament seated and the seeds for an active and engaged citizenry sown, to show true leadership. He has no time to waste, or he will risk wasting his country’s future and losing the support of the United States.

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