By Mustafa Sirri
London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Majak D’Agoot, South Sudan’s deputy defense minister, has asserted that his country will never cede his home town of Hajlij. In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, the South Sudan’s deputy defense minister said that his country would insist on having the town in the negotiations with the Sudanese Government because it historically belongs to the south and was annexed to the north during the rule of former President Jaafar Numayri in 1978 following the discovery of oil in it. He added that his forces’ withdrawal from it was in response to appeals from the international community and his country’s friends, in particular the United States.
D’Agoot admitted that the South Sudan people and Popular Army expressed their anger at the state’s decision to withdraw the forces from Hajlij considering the step the aborting of seven victories they had achieved against the Sudanese forces inside and outside the town but he said his government achieved military and diplomatic victories.
Following is the text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How did you reach the decision to withdraw your forces from Hajlij and was it a complete withdrawal?
[D’Agoot] We reached the decision to withdraw the Popular Army after a full assessment of the military and security situation. Our forces carried out the missions they were given competently and they remained in the Banthou (Hajlil) area for more than 10 days. South Sudan’s National Security Council recommended on the night of 19 April the withdrawal of the Popular Army forces from the area after a full assessment of the situation. Our decision was also in response to the international appeals from the UN, its Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and the heads of several countries, in particular our friends. They are convinced of our right to the Hajlij territory or Banthou historically. We will not cede it. It was annexed to the north during the rule of former Sudanese President Jaafar Numayri in 1978 following the discovery of oil in it. The decision was implemented in three stages, the last of which was on Saturday.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Were there clashes between you and the Sudanese forces during the withdrawal?
[D’Agoot] There were no direct clashes but the Sudanese Air Force continued its bombardment of our forces during the withdrawal. They also bombarded positions in Al-Wihdah Province. This bombardment continued until the early hours of Saturday morning. But we completed the withdrawal in an organized way.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why was the decision to seize Hajlij taken?
[D’Agoot] Because of the Sudanese Air Force’s constant bombardment of Al-Wihdah Province and the land forces’ advance inside South Sudan’s borders. All this was carried out from a military base in Hajlij. We entered the area for the first time at the end of March and expelled the forces of the National Congress [the ruling party in Khartoum] and then withdrew after mediators and friends asked us to do this. The armed forces then carried out another attack after its [Khartoum’s] delegation evaded signing in (the Ethiopian capital) Addis Ababa an agreement to stop hostilities. Our response was to pursue the Sudanese army inside Hajlij and seize total control of it after inflicting a heavy defeat on these forces.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Khartoum said its forces defeated your army in Hajlij?
[D’Agoot] This is absolutely not true. The last battle we fought was on the evening of 19 April and Khartoum’s army was defeated. We fought all in all seven battles and won them all. The Sudanese army which did not win a single battle with us was chased. They are deceiving their people with these lies. Correspondents of satellite channels, among them “Al-Jazeera”, saw our forces’ retreat and reached with them Al-Wihdah Province. There was no battle.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How did your people and army soldiers receive the withdrawal decision?
[D’Agoot] There were soldiers who expressed their discontent because they have achieved brilliant victories and they believe the withdrawal decision aborted their victories. But they will understand that the decision was right. The South people are also angry with the decision because they were demanding to punish (Sudanese President) Al-Bashir’s forces for their insults to our people and their political leadership. The incitement by Khartoum also increased our people’s anger, especially the expulsion of southern students from the Police College in Khartoum. But these are the assessments of the political leadership elected by the people and it represents them when taking such decisions.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you explain the Sudanese forces’ seizure of a vehicle belonging to you carrying your soldiers?
[D’Agoot] This vehicle whose story was aired by satellite channels belongs to the services regiment and was carrying food supplies to the soldiers. It lost its way from our position. It was carrying 12 soldiers and two officers and they entered the enemy’s positions by mistake and a clash ensued with them. Three of our soldiers were killed, one officer was captured, and the rest, seven, returned. This is the only vehicle in which they achieved a victory.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What are the lessons learned from this?
[D’Agoot] Firstly, we achieved two victories: Militarily, we proved that the Sudanese army is a paper tiger and cannot stand against our forces in any future battles if there is war between us. The resources we had built during the past seven years showed real strength in our forces on which we will build for the future, particularly as our forces engaged in small clashes with the Sudanese forces during the transitional period, like what happened somewhere in Upper Nile and Abyei. These showed us the weak and strong points. Now after South Sudan had become a fully sovereign state, we were able to develop the forces and this was clearly demonstrated in the battles we fought with the Sudanese army in Al-Wihdah Province and Hajlij. We used part of our military capability in the various military branches.
On the other hand, we were able to turn the table against Khartoum politically. We were coming under diplomatic pressures at first, especially from our friends and the UN, but we succeeded in containing this and managed the diplomatic and political battle in a better way. You might be seeing now how the world dealt with our correct decision with a new spirit and you are going to see a new stand in the international community that will certainly be in our favor. This is the coup we have carried out. We have therefore achieved military, political, and diplomatic victories and the international community will see that Khartoum is against peace and prefers war.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But Khartoum is saying it defeated you and forced you to withdraw?
[D’Agoot] As I said, Khartoum is deceiving. This is the imagination of the National Congress. The Sudanese army has become weak in the region.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But the Sudanese army is superior to you with its air force. How can you defeat it?
[D’Agoot] Possession is one thing and competence is something else. It is true we do not have warplanes and that is not something difficult. We will possess an effective air force. But look at the Sudanese army. Its Air Force does not have capabilities and competence while we have developed our air defenses and brought down Sudanese Air Force aircraft in these battles.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your response to Al-Bashir’s promise to bring down the government in Juba?
[D’Agoot] Al-Bashir was in a state of hysteria while dancing and his words are pitiful because he is lying to his people. Let me be clear with you. If Al-Bashir decides to fight a battle with us then that will be the biggest mistake for him and his army. We are not worried by his attack on our country. I think such a decision will spell the end for his regime and Sudan will collapse completely because the economic blockade on it will increase, its forces will be defeated, and its people will not follow it again in any war.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Al-Bashir said your oil will not pass through his country’s territory even if you shared its revenues equally?
[D’Agoot] Al-Bashir and his state are the losers. He is talking as if our country does not have neighbors other than his country. You know that South Sudan has turned toward East Africa where it has better infrastructures than Sudan. His talk suggests isolation and lack of vision. The south will not be harmed by Khartoum’s decisions about oil even though we were eager to export it through the north, not out of love for the National Congress but because of the historic relations with the Sudanese people. We know that our relations with this people would become stronger if this government changed.
Sudan will lose a lot because of Al-Bashir government’s policies. We are the biggest market for the northern country which exports to us more than 100 commodities. Add to this the oil that reaches Port Sudan and the revenue it provides. All this now goes to Uganda and Kenya and the expertise is coming from there, even in education.
We are very interested in the relations with the country to the north because it is a thermometer of relations with the Middle East and North Africa. We do not want to sacrifice all this because we can go have contact with Sudan without the need for interpreters. But if this is Khartoum’s decision, then it is its affair.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There are international pressures to return to the negotiating table. Are you ready for this?
[D’Agoot] We are not only ready but also committed to the negotiations. We believe that the most important urgent issue which we want to resolve is the demarcation of the borders and the return of the areas controlled by Sudan in Abyei, Banthou (Hajlij) and others in Kafya Kanji, Hafrat al-Nahhas, Al-Muqaynis, commercial Kaka, and Jawdah. As to the oil issue, I do not believe it is a major one because it all depends on Khartoum. We will reach agreement if it wants to benefit from our country’s oil. But there are many countries from the United States to China and Europe which want to benefit from South Sudan’s oil.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What are the scenarios if negotiations failed?
[D’Agoot] If we do not agree, we will then go to the International Arbitration Commission to which the two parties resorted in the Abyei case. The worst scenario is the border war if all these efforts failed and we do not want this.