How I Almost Got Arrested With A South Sudanese Ex-Minister

The unmarked, unpaved streets of Juba, the capital of South Sudan, can be tough for an outsider to navigate.

By the time I found the house of Peter Adwok Nyaba, the country’s former minister of health, it was already 5 o’clock. The sun was dangerously low on the horizon. I had less than an hour to interview Adwok and get back to my hotel before the city-wide curfew — imposed when the violence began three weeks before — took effect. After 6, there would be no one on the streets except myself and soldiers.

But Adwok invited me to sit down on the couch in his study; he seemed to be in no rush. He insisted I refresh myself with a chilled soda that his wife, Abuk Payiti, had brought in on a tray. While I drank, Adwok rubbed the stump of his left leg, which he’d lost fighting in the long civil war against Sudan. Like other war heroes of the struggle, Adwok had been given his post in the new government after South Sudan won its independence in 2011.

But five months ago, the president sacked Adwok and all his fellow ministers for alleged disloyalty. And now, resting against the wall beside his aluminum crutches was a small rolling suitcase he’d packed for prison.

He told me he’d recently received a call.

“They will come for me,” he said. At least, that’s what the police inspector general on the phone informed him.

“I am one of the people who should be arrested,” he said he was told.

Coup Or Purge?

The violence now engulfing South Sudan began with what President Salva Kiir says was an attempted coup led by former Vice President Riek Machar, and supported by many former top government officials, including Adwok.

But Adwok laughed off this claim. In his opinion, Kiir was trying to purge the party of his political rivals. Oddly, Adwok made this accusation without bitterness. He had known Kiir for decades as a fearless commander who’d spent 28 years in the bush fighting Sudan. Now, as president, he was handling political threats like another military campaign.

“Salva [Kiir] is not a political animal,” Adwok said. “He is a soldier, and doesn’t perceive the political process as some of us perceive it.”

The sounds of closing shutters from the nearby market told me that time was getting short. I looked at my watch, but Adwok unhurriedly took me through his interpretation of events. In this version, the unraveling of South Sudan had begun not with an attempted coup, but months earlier, when Machar declared his intention to run for president. The President Kiir’s response to this political threat was to fire his Cabinet and to use his executive power to strong-arm the democratic process.

This was the point at which, Adwok said, the world’s newest country flunked the test of any democracy. Having made it through the first election, it failed to reach the all-important second election, the one where an existing ruler may be asked to peacefully hand over power to a successor. Though elections in South Sudan are still a year and a half away, the country has descended into ethnic conflict.

“The democratic culture is still very shallow,” Adwok said. “It is a long struggle to bring these concepts to the minds of people so they can internalize them.”

It would take 5 to 10 years, he figured, for these concepts to be internalized.

Dwindling Chances Of Saving Fledgling Democracy

But a few minutes after he spoke these words, Adwok himself ran out of time. His wife burst into the room and whispered that two dozen policemen had surrounded the house with machine guns. She begged me to turn off my recorder and pushed me into the spare bedroom.

It occurred to me that if the police barged in at this moment, there would be little room for me to conceal myself between the large painted vase and a dresser covered with beauty products. I could hear heavy footsteps on the floor below, and muffled voices speaking Arabic.

I worried that my car, parked outside, might have somehow lured the police to Adwok’s home. Whatever dangers an arrest posed for me, I feared it would have graver consequences for a member of the opposition to be caught speaking to a Western journalist.

When she opened the door again some 20 minutes later, Abuk told me that her husband had been taken away. Concerned for my safety, Adwok had come downstairs to give himself up and by so doing, prevented the police from searching the house.

The next day, Adwok’s name was on the official list of coup plotters, read aloud by the Minister of Interior Michael Makuei Leuth at a press conference.

A local reporter asked what might happen to the men.

“The harshest penalty is death sentence,” Makuei said, “either by firing squad, or to be hanged by the neck until you are dead.”

The question of whether a coup actually took place has stalled peace talks under way in Ethiopia. Machar, the former vice president, wants to negotiate for the prisoners’ release. Kiir refuses, saying they won’t be released without going through a “legal process.”

So far, only Peter Adwok has been set free, though he’s essentially under house arrest, forbidden from leaving the country.

When I spoke to him on the phone Monday, he told me he’s worried that South Sudan is running out of time — and that each day the war drags on, there’s less chance to rescue this fledgling democracy.

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