Rebel with a cause
Sabit Abbe Alley has been through many trials to get to where he is today – from a child refugee and exiled rebel to South Sudan’s very first Ambassador to London.
As a toddler Alley was forced to flee with his family to Uganda after the Southern, largely Christian, part of Sudan rose up against rule from the largely Islamic North following independence in 1956. It signalled the start of 50 years of conflict.
After the South was offered autonomy in a peace deal, Alley returned home to study at the University of Khartoum. After graduating in 1977 he joined the civil service in the South, working in the regional parliament, governor’s office and tourism department. But his career was cut short by a military coup in 1989.
A fierce critic of the regime, Alley fled to Kenya and then the US. In exile, he served as an Associate Representative of the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). In this quasi-diplomatic role, he lobbied US politicians and UN officials, NGOs, churches and the American public about the plight of the South Sudanese.
“The American people were not that interested in our desire for self-determination, but when we told them about the human rights violations of the South Sudanese and the enslavement of our people, that caught their attention,” says Alley.
After more than a decade of stop-start talks, a deal was signed in 2005. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) created “one country, two systems,” explains the Ambassador. The power-sharing agreement expanded participation of South Sudanese citizens in central government.
Alley joined the Foreign Ministry in 2006 as Ambassador before becoming Director of Environment and Natural Resources. After a voluntary stint assisting the Ministry of Public Service in the South, he returned to the Foreign Ministry in 2008 as Director for the Department of International Organisations and was later posted as Sudan’s Ambassador to Zambia.
It was uneasy compromise, he reflects. “We had to project a common foreign policy even though our aspirations were different to those of the central government. So you had to walk a fine line.”
Part of the CPA was a commitment to hold a referendum on independence in the South within five years. The Ambassador was appointed to the South Sudan Referendum Commission. “It was a huge responsibility, and nobody thought we could pull it off in eight months, but we did,” he recalls. “I will never forget seeing the long queues of people waiting in the sand, from 05.00 in the morning, because they wanted to vote.”
For the basketball-loving Alley the result was a slam-dunk. “The people voted emphatically in favour of independence,” says the Ambassador, whose first job was Director General of Protocol at the new Foreign Ministry, welcoming dignitaries to his brand new country.
But he is under no illusions that the first two years of statehood have been tough. “People’s expectations went through the roof, and while the government is doing its best to provide basic services, you cannot do this overnight,” he explains. After decades of conflict, there is a skills vacuum, leaving gaps for corruption to thrive.
Insecurity is a problem but after an amnesty issued by President Kiir, most of the militia groups have handed over their weapons, says Alley.
Conflict persists in the Jonglei state where tribal clashes have been stirred up by a powerful militia group, which the Ambassador suspects has external paymasters who are against South Sudan’s independence.
“There are those who want to cause insecurity to make the country ungovernable but they will not succeed,” he says.
Tensions with South Sudan’s northern neighbour also resulted in the shutting down of oil production for almost a year. “It was an argument over transit fees. Sudan was charging us very high prices and siphoning off our oil,” explains the Ambassador. “Our decision to stop production was not well received but we stood firm. There was this fear that the country would collapse and we would be a failed state, but it never happened.”
The AU High Implementation Panel and the Troika – the US, UK and Norway – persuaded Presidents Kiir of South Sudan and al-Bashir of Sudan to sign a series of Cooperation Agreements in September 2012.
Oil production resumed and the agreements also set out a roadmap to resolve the ongoing border dispute over the oil-rich Abyei region. But arguments over whether pro-Sudanese nomadic cattle herders should qualify to vote in a referendum have stalled the process.
“This border issue is very delicate,” says the Ambassador who is hoping Britain, as the former colonial power, may be able to provide maps and documents that indicate where the border lies.
Britain can help in other areas, he adds, from education and training to investment in South Sudan’s untapped agriculture, mining and energy sectors. Tourism also has huge potential and the country needs investment in its patchy infrastructure.
While in London, the Ambassador has also set the wheels in motion for South Sudan to become the 55th member of the Commonwealth and his government is working to meet the organisation’s standards in democracy and good governance.
“There is a lot to do,” smiles Ambassador Alley. “But I believe very strongly that we will overcome these challenges.”