“…….the University of Juba is an independent academic institution which employs nationals and non-nationals like Dr Luka Biong Deng who is a citizen of the Republic of Sudan.”
That’s the statement that caused a major public outcry, leading to the dismissal of South Sudan’s long serving government politician, Dr Barnaba Marial Benjamin.
The statement referred to Dr Luka Biong, a native of Abyei and former Minister of Cabinet Affairs in the government of Southern Sudan, as a Sudanese citizen.
The document was written supposedly by the office of the Minister of Foreign Affairs in response to a report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Assessment Mission to Improve Human Rights, Accountability, Reconciliation and Capacity in South Sudan.
Dr Marial’s office was responding to a section of the report which faulted the government of suppressing freedom of opinion and expression, and the right to assembly of its citizens – insinuating that Dr Biong was dismissed by the President from the University of Juba after he organized a public debate questioning the establishment order of the 28 states.
Several public figures attended the lecture, including the leader of the DC party, Dr Lam Akol, the Presidential Advisor on Legal Affairs, Lawrence Korbandy, and the Chairman of the Jieng Council of Elders, Justice Ambrose Ring Thiik.
In October, 2015, an order issued reportedly by the Office of the President called for the dismissal of Dr Biong as the Director of the Centre for Peace and Development Studies at the University of Juba.
However, a letter written in the same month by the Vice Chancellor of the University, John Apuruot Akec, indicated that Dr Biong asked to be relieved from his position over ‘personal issues’. However, it was not clear what these personal issues were.
When contacted by Eye Radio on a later date for clarification, the Press Secretary of the President, Ateny week said: “There is no any single presidential order, or presidential decree that has asked the University of Juba to sack Luka Biong”.
But the UN Human Rights report saw this as an attempt by the government to gag public discussions.
When the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued the response to the UN Human Rights report, some media reports indicated that Dr Marial was not in the country.
It is not clear whether the report was written by junior staff and that Dr Marial only appended his signature without reading and ascertaining that the details conform to the stance of the government on several issues – including Abyei.
Dr Luka Biong responds
The response which has been described by several politicians and critics as a ‘blunder’ portrayed Abyei as a territory of the Sudan because the Ministry of Foreign Affairs regarded Dr Luka Biong as a Sudanese.
Dr Biong immediately took to his facebook page to clarify his stand on the issue.
“Dr Barnaba Marial called me and apologized for what happened and reassured me of his commitment to the issue of Abyei and that the Ministry will withdraw the document and present another…without reference to that part that describes me as Sudanese,” Dr Biong wrote on his page.
However, analysts believed it was too late to retract on a document which has supposedly been served to the United Nations as an authentic position of the government on all issues it has been accused of in the report on human rights.
But Dr Biong said the incident presented an opportunity for the government and the people of South Sudan to reintroduce the status of Abyei into public discussions. He urged the Ministry to take action against those who drafted the document.
“This is a positive development for the government to come out clearly reaffirming the constitutional status of Abyei and to take necessary steps to endorse the outcome of Abyei referendum,” he added.
Dr Biong urged the public not to overact to the issue but to use it effectively to realize what he calls the ‘strategic political objective’ that could unite the people of South Sudan.
The Democratic Change party outraged
However, the social media and politicians were already enraged by the document.
The Democratic Change party [formerly SPLM-DC], and the Former Detainees immediately issued statements calling for the outright resignation or dismissal of Dr Marial.
The DC party said the document was ‘irresponsible’ and lacked depth and rigor required to address such a report of the UN.
“This also means that the government has decided by the stroke of a pen to cede an area of South Sudan to another country, i.e., the Sudan. If so, the consequence is that the government has stripped the citizenship of South Sudan from all its citizens of Abyei. This is a betrayal not only to the citizens of Abyei but to all South Sudanese,” partly read he statement.
The DC party further called for punitive measures against Dr Barnaba Marial.
“The government must prove in deeds and not just words that this letter does not represent its position on the eligibility of the citizens of Abyei to belong to South Sudan. In this case, the Minister of Foreign Affairs who signed the letter must be dismissed. Any action less than that will be an attempt to hoodwink the people,” said the statement.
The DC was also critical of the language of the document by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It said it was punctuated by a lot of linguistic and grammatical mistakes.
Former Detainees [SPLM-FDs] dismayed
For their part, the Former Detainees described the statement presented to the United Nations by the Minister as inconsiderate, ill-advised, unconscionable, and unconstitutional.
“It is a gaffe that has not only rubbished our brothers and sisters from Abyei unfairly, but has also brought embarrassment and shame to the President, government and the people of South Sudan at large,” the statement read.
The FDs called on those involved to willingly resign or face sanctioned by the President or the National parliament for bringing the country to ‘disrepute’.
President Salva Kiir reacts
On Wednesday, 23rd March 2016, President Salva Kiir unexpectedly issued decree that was read out on the state-owned television, SSTV.
“In exercise of powers conferred upon me by the Interim National Constitution of the Republic of South Sudan 2011, section 112 (A) I, Gen. Salva Kiir Mayardit, President of the Republic of South Sudan, do hereby issue a Republican decree no. 169, 2016 AD, relieving Dr Barnaba Marial Benjamin from his duties as Minister of Foreign Affairs & International Cooperation, with effect from Wednesday, 23 March 2016.”
As usual, no further information on why the President relieved Dr Marial.
Dr Marial receptive to the decree
On his dismissal, Dr Barnaba Marial told Sudan Tribune that his dismissal was part of a ‘normal administrative practice’.
“It is a constitutional prerogative of the President to appoint and relief ministers. I feel honored and grateful to the President and the people of South Sudan for the trust they gave me to serve in different capacities. I will be ready to serve the country in any capacity whenever the President, the leadership and the people of South Sudan decides where my skills and expertise would be required for use,” Marial said.
Social media demands
South Sudanese on social media welcomed the removal of Dr Marial from office for the ‘blunder.’ However, many thought the President was not observant of the most pressing needs of the public over the economic situation.
Several reactions to this story had the same call for the dismissal of the Minister of Finance, David Deng Athorbei and the governor of the Central Bank, Kornelio Koryom.
On facebook, Emma wrote that: “[President] Kiir, instead of first firing [Central] Bank Governor Kornelio Koryom Mayiik, you decided to fire a Minister [Dr. Marial]. Our priority is not foreign policy; we need domestic reforms -economically.”
Another social media user, Morris said: “Koryom should have been sacked before Marial for worsening South Sudan economy. Imagine Pound is trading 4,250 SSP for $100 as of yesterday [23.03.2016], while citizens are suffering by eating one bread per day.”
Albert wrote on his profile: “[Dr. Marial] Appointed for how he defended the presidential decree in 2013 that dissolved the entire cabinet and [now] fired for calling Abyei citizens foreigners in RSS.”
Another user, Jok, welcomed the dismissal of Dr Marial saying it paves way for the appointee from the Former Detainees to take over when the Transitional Government of National Unity is formed.
“Marial Benjamin has been decreed out. Thanks to President Kiir. Abyei people are 100% South Sudanese…But wait the best part is, his position will be occupied by a son of Abyei,” Jok wrote.
According to the allocation of Ministerial portfolio in the Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic in South Sudan [ARCSS], the position of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, goes to Deng Alor Kuol – who was nominated by the FDs.
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