How I Almost Got Arrested With A South Sudanese Ex-Minister : Parallels A dozen war heroes from South Sudan's long struggle for independence are now accused of launching a coup to overthrow the democracy they helped create. One of them, Peter Adwok Nyaba, was telling NPR's Gregory Warner about the political roots of the conflict when police came for him.

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

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel. Peace talks between the warring factions in South Sudan have stalled. In the meantime, fighting there continues in a conflict that threatens to ignite an ethnic civil war. More than 200,000 people have been displaced. A major stumbling block in negotiations is the fate of 11 political prisoners. Many of them are heroes in the country's long war of independence, but they now stand accused of plotting to bring down the democracy that they helped create. NPR's Gregory Warner was in the capital Juba where he interviewed one former government official just moments before his arrest.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: The unmarked streets of Juba can be a little tough for the outsider to navigate. And so by the time I found the house of Peter Adwok Nyaba, it was 5 o'clock. That meant I had less than an hour to do this interview and get back to my hotel before the city-wide curfew.

PETER ADWOK NYABA: Relax, I mean let's, let's...

WARNER: But he insisted that I first drink some of the soda his wife had brought on a tray.

NYABA: I think it would be much better.


NYABA: Than the water...

WARNER: There's only one glass. You won't have any?

NYABA: No, no, I'm all right.

WARNER: As I drank, Adwok rubbed the stump of his left leg, a casualty of the long civil war against Sudan. Like other war heroes in the struggle, he was granted a post in the government. He was minister of health after South Sudan gained its independence in 2011. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Adwok previously served as the minister of higher education, science and technology.] But five months ago, Adwok and all his fellow ministers were sacked by the president for disloyalty. And now leaning against the wall beside his aluminum crutches was a small rolling suitcase he'd packed for prison.

NYABA: They called me, the inspector general of the police, that they will come for me. I am one of the people who should be arrested.

WARNER: And what did the inspector general say you'd be arrested for?

NYABA: They say there was a coup attempt.

WARNER: The violence engulfing South Sudan began three weeks ago with what the president says was an attempted coup led by former vice president, Riek Machar. But Adwok denies the charge. He says that President Salva Kiir is trying to purge the party of his political rivals. And that Kiir, who before becoming president spent 28 years in the bush fighting Sudan, handles politics like a military campaign.

NYABA: Because definitely Salva is not a political animal. He is a soldier and doesn't perceive the political process as some of us perceive it.

WARNER: Adwok says the unraveling of South Sudan began not with an attempted coup but months earlier when Riek Machar declared his intention to run for president. Kiir's response to this political threat, he says, was to fire his cabinet, and use his executive power to strong-arm the process.

NYABA: He looks at it from a military point of view, and he gives orders.

WARNER: And Peter Adwok says that's when the world's newest democracy, South Sudan, failed the true test of any democracy. That is having made it through the first election it failed to reach the all-important second, the one where an existing ruler may be asked to peacefully hand over power. Even though the elections are a year and a half away, the country has been now derailed by ethnic conflict.

NYABA: The democratic culture is still very shallow. I mean it is a long struggle, you know, to bring these concepts really to the minds of people and so they can internalize them.

WARNER: He said internalizing these concepts is only a matter of time, five to 10 years or so. But a few minutes after he spoke these words, Peter Adwok ran out of time. His wife burst in and hurried me into the spare bedroom. The police had come.

OK. So, I'm now in the Adwok spare room. Now, I'm whispering here because the South Sudanese police don't know I'm here. And his wife, Abuk Payiti, has begged me not to show my face. They're searching the house now. Abuk pops her head in one more time to say that dozens of police officers armed with machine guns have now taken away the one-legged ex-minister.

ABUK PAYITI: But I have prevent them not to enter, because if they enter and they take your things, it would be another problem.

WARNER: The next day it was official: Adwok's name was on the list of coup plotters.

MICHAEL MAKUEI LEUTH: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: This is the minister of information, Michael Makuei Leuth, at a press conference. After he read the list, he was asked what might happen to these men.

LEUTH: OK. The harshest penalty? Death sentence, either by firing squad or to be hanged by the neck until you are dead.

WARNER: President Kiir's insistence that this was indeed a coup and not just democratic dissent has stalled peace talks now underway in Ethiopia. Riek Machar wants to negotiate for the prisoners' release. Kiir refuses. Only Peter Adwok has been set free, although he's essentially on house arrest, forbidden from leaving the country. And when I spoke to him today, he told me he's worried that South Sudan is running out of time, that each day that the war drags on, there's less chance to rescue this democracy. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi.

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