Interview with Hilde Johnson, the Secretary-General's Special Representative for South Sudan

Hilde Johnson, Secretary-General's Special Representative for South Sudan. UN Photo/E. Debebe

6 July 2012 – On 9 July 2011, South Sudan became the newest country in the world.

Its birth was the culmination of a six-year peace process which began with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005, which helped bring an end to the long-running conflict between South Sudan and Sudan, of which it was formerly a part of.

In July 2011, the Security Council determined that the situation faced by South Sudan continued to pose a threat to peace and security in the region and it established the UN Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS) to help consolidate peace and security and to help establish conditions for development.

As South Sudan prepares to mark its one year anniversary since independence, the UN News Centre spoke with the head of UNMISS, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for South Sudan, Hilde Johnson, about the past year and what the future holds.

UN News Centre: Almost a year has passed since South Sudan became independent. The country has been undergoing some serious problems, ranging from armed ethnic clashes to an oil dispute with Sudan. What has happened in these past 12 months.

Hilde Johnson: I think it’s [South Sudan] got a tougher start than many predicted. And I think nobody actually foresaw the escalation of events that led to a shutdown of the oil pipeline [between South Sudan and Sudan] and production, as well as major clashes between Sudan and South Sudan on the border.

I think none of us thought it would be easy – certainly not – but that, of course, has create... it’s up to them, and their Government, to now make that independence lead to those dreams coming true, so that all South Sudanese feel that this country is a country that they are proud of, and that they are part of...d a situation where a lot of the energy has been sucked into the north-south relationship, and South Sudan is also facing major economic problems now. So we have seen a tougher start than many predicted.

UN News Centre: What are the key problems underpinning relations between South Sudan and Sudan?

Hilde Johnson: South Sudan and Sudan should have seen the remaining CPA [Comprehensive Peace Agreement] issues sorted out before the referendum and before the independence of South Sudan.

Unfortunately, this didn’t happen, and so we’ve seen a prolonged, protracted negotiation process, where the major issues still remain unresolved. And that is the seed of all the problems that we’re seeing now, where the deterioration of the relationship comes out of the inability to sort out these last issues.

But that, in a way, that has been the curse of the first year of South Sudan, where one kind of chain is holding the foot back and they’re not able to get started properly. And I think that’s what has to happen now.

Now, the Security Council has really put a major effort into this and said ‘these hostilities have to stop’ and they have stopped, largely. They [South Sudan and Sudan] have to reach agreement on the remaining issues within a very short timeframe – so we hope that by 2 August we will see other remaining issues sorted out between the two.

A view of the General Assembly meeting on the admission of South Sudan to the United Nations. The delegation of the new Member State can be seen on the screens. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

UN News Centre: Is there a danger of South Sudan falling prey to the so-called ‘resource curse’ because of its oil reserves?

Hilde Johnson: Yes, I think we did actually see in 2005-2006, when South Sudan received oil income, that they received it at a time when there was no ministry of finance, no central bank, no operational major, commercial bank of international standards, and there were no fiscal management systems – so, clearly there has been issues around transparency, accountability, corruption. The President has shown a strong commitment to address it, but they’re struggling to do it in a forceful manner.

And clearly we have to see them turn that corner and make sure the resources become a blessing. Now, with the [oil production] shut-down, it’s an opportunity to do that, to try to clean up some of the practices and put things straight.

UN News Centre: South Sudan’s Jonglei state was the scene of ethnic clashes earlier this year. What has happened there since?

A delegate celebrates as the flag of South Sudan is raised on the occasion to mark the admission of the 193rd Member State to the United Nations. UN Photo/Evan Schneider

Hilde Johnson: Jonglei is the biggest state in South Sudan – it is as large as Bangladesh, actually. It is also the most under-developed state, where there is virtually no infrastructure, and where there has been a cycle of violence linked to clashes between ethnic groups for many, many years, but now has taken a new turn.

In particular in 2011-2012, we saw a major cycle of violence that involved very significant attacks and counter-attacks. With the height of the crisis coming in late December and the beginning of January, [there was] a major attack on Pibor County – and Pibor County itself is as big as Malawi. This crisis led the Mission to put the majority of its forces into the area to work with the army, the SPLA [the Sudan People's Liberation Army], to try to protect civilians, and I think we actually did save thousands of people’s lives.

But that’s a short-term measure. The medium- and long-term measure is to stabilize the situation and get Jonglei state on a better footing. We are seeing promising developments now. There’s been a peace process that’s been largely successful. It needs to be anchored among the armed youth, but is still moving in the right direction.

We’re seeing a very significant investment in security on the ground, with security forces present. This has been linked to a disarmament process, but they’re also there to protect people.

Mothers and their children from near Pibor, in Jonglei State, rest under a tree after being displaced by ethnic violence in the area. UN Photo/Isaac Billy

And thirdly, we’ve also seen an investigations committee established. We have, on our side, run a full human rights investigation into the whole sequence of events, and that report was just recently published.

We now are calling for the Government to get the investigation started on their account, because we need to see accountability for these atrocities.

UN News Centre: What has been the Government’s response?

Hilde Johnson: I discussed this with the President a few days back – actually the day before I left for New York and the Security Council [meeting] – and yes, he is going to move on that very quickly.

UN News Centre: There have been reports of mass displacement, due to violence, of people into South Sudan from neighbouring Sudan. What impact has that had on South Sudan?

South Sudanese returnees arrive in Juba, capital of the newly-independent country, after many years of displacement. UN Photo/Isaac Billy

Hilde Johnson: There are significant humanitarian crises – actually, multiple ones – in South Sudan at the moment, and of course, this is also a huge challenge for the new and independent country.

We’re now seeing 170,000 refugees coming over from South Kordofan and Blue Nile states, which is where the conflict is ongoing in Sudan. We’re expecting around 235,000 refugees coming over. It’s a huge challenge for any country, let alone for an independent, new nation with very limited capacities. So the humanitarian community is mobilizing.

But that’s not the only challenge we have. There’s a number of internally displaced, almost the same number, as well as a significant food crisis that is coming, linked to the economic problem.

UN News Centre: What impact is the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) having on South Sudan?

Hilde Johnson: The LRA challenge, of course, is related to the border areas between several countries: South Sudan, but also Uganda, DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo], Central African Republic. And we’re seeing these countries now also step up to the plate, with an African Union-led standby force that is actually devoted entirely to the LRA challenge.

Personnel from UNMISS arrive in Mayom, Unity State, to evacuate wounded civilians, after a series of air strikes. UN Photo/Isaac Billy

As regards to UNMISS itself, we have a protection of civilians mandate and we are deploying into potentially LRA-affected areas, however it’s a challenge because we’re also seeing that the LRA is moving further north-west. They are in areas that are difficult for us to detect, and, to a large extent, across the border.

So, our role, basically, is [focussed on] protection on civilians. UNMISS has not been charged with a mandate where we are going after Kony, to put it that way. That is something that others are tasked with. The Mission itself is there to protect civilians that are under imminent threat. This means both preventive protection – so we are deploying military forces and using them actively, patrolling the areas where the LRA frequently can come over.

The other thing we do is that whenever we see that threat appear, we also need to be there for physical protection. It is a challenge as the LRA attacks with speed in small numbers and very quickly withdraws across the border. We also share intelligence and information about the [LRA] movements with the African Union forces, and so that’s another part of the work we do. And of course, linked to that, is early warning. Using as much as that information as possible for early warning [and] early response.

I think the combined efforts of the African Union force, the American contribution through a number of officers that are assisting in this fight, plus UNMISS’ protection of civilians efforts, together should be able to make progress in relation to the LRA and to protect the people from this curse.

UN News Centre: Given so much else that is happening around the world, has it been difficult to keep international attention focussed on South Sudan?

Ms. Johnson visits patients at medical tents set up by UNMISS in Pibor, Jonglei State, following ethnic violence in the area. UN Photo/Isaac Billy

Hilde Johnson: That’s always the fate, isn’t it, of all crises? That even though the crisis continues, there’s always a new one popping up and getting the world’s attention. It’s the ‘CNN effect.’

I think now, with the humanitarian crisis we’re seeing, there are very few areas that can compete with these challenges internationally. We need to see the humanitarian community and all the donors that support humanitarian agencies really come forward now with a significant effort. And the reason basically is that these are challenges that are way beyond South Sudan’s capacity and way beyond their reach – and some are actually out of their control, as well.

One of the reasons for the food deficit is also the closure of the borders between Sudan and South Sudan, so the normal transfer of food that has come across the border is no longer happening, so the food prices are skyrocketing – up to 300 per cent higher than normal. It’s very, very challenging for South Sudan to cope and we need, as an international community, to really be generous in assisting the South Sudanese people.

UN News Centre: So the international community is still engaged?

Hilde Johnson: I think the initial, fantastic kind of support that South Sudan received at its independence… clearly, some of the decisions that have happened – both the shut-down of the oil as well as the clashes on the border – have led to some question marks and concerns among the international community and that’s also the reason for the urgency to sort out these issues.

They are mainly linked to managing relations with its neighbour and they are less linked to South Sudan and its own state-building and nation-building project. The critical thing is now to get those off the board and be able to start moving on the major reforms that now have to happen.

Following clashes, the Security Council called on Sudan and South Sudan to immediately end hostilities and resume negotiations. The Council passed a resolution which called the situation along their border “a serious threat to international peace and security.” UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Clearly, a number of positive steps have been taken as well. They [South Sudanese authorities] have established the foundations for democracy through legislation for multiparty-ism, for elections, etc. There have been major efforts in the reintegration of militias that have a huge potential for destabilizing the country.

And thirdly, they’ve done much more in inter-communal violence in trying to protect their own people in relation to Jonglei than they’ve ever done in the past. So there are positive developments. And there are major reforms on the way in the police and security services. So things are moving, but things would be taken to scale and done in a more speedy manner if we wouldn’t have had this situation on the border.

UN News Centre: Can these problems realistically be resolved by the time of South Sudan’s second anniversary of independence?

Hilde Johnson: I think the main issue is to get the issues remaining from the CPA process resolved. If we can see stability be established between Sudan and South Sudan, see the border monitoring mission up and running so there is a monitoring operation on the border creating some type of buffer between the two.

If we can see all those issues off the table so that there is a sense of viability on both sides, then I think South Sudan can make a clean start in a way, and get going in a much more forceful manner.

South Sudanese citizens show support for their Government’s decision to shut down all national oil production, effectively cutting off the flow of crude oil from South Sudan to Sudan. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed deep concern over the ongoing “oil crisis” between the two nations. UN Photo/Isaac Billy

I think now they’re [South Sudanese authorities] combining starting building their new country, building the state and the nation, in a haphazard way because they have to focus so much of their energy on sorting out their challenges with the neighbour in the north. And I think it’s also in Sudan’s interest – both countries’ interest – to settle the issues, and to have a foundation to create viable states on both sides of the border.

UN News Centre: What impact does a lack of national capacity, training and knowledge have on UNMISS’s work?

Hilde Johnson: The Mission that I’m leading is facing many of the same challenges that we’ve seen in East Timor and other missions that come after independence where there is very limited institutional capacity.

In the case of South Sudan, there was virtually nothing. There has been a period of six years, but that was an interim period, where one didn’t know if there would be an independent state or not, and so the nation-building efforts had to start with independence.

The capacity has been very, very limited, and, of course, that’s a huge challenge for the Mission – but that is exactly why we are there. My main job is to try to be able to meet the expectations of the Government and the public of South Sudan in implementing our mandate and try to support them as much as possible.

A minister just recently told me that the presence of the Mission, and how we have been supporting them, he said we’ve been critical in ensuring stability in South Sudan in its first year. So that’s an achievement on its own.

Ms. Johnson participates in a signing ceremony of the Jonglei State Communities’ conference for peace, reconciliation and tolerance. With the signing, six community representatives of greater Jonglei agreed to end all inter-tribal conflicts. UN Photo/Isaac Billy

UN News Centre: What is your message to the people of South Sudan on the one year anniversary of their country’s independence?

Hilde Johnson: The people of South Sudan experienced their dreams come true on the 9th of July 2011, and now it’s up to them and the Government to make those dreams come true because one thing was independence, now it is independence for what?

For a new future for South Sudan and its people. For developing the country. For making it possible for people to have water, education and health. To develop it in terms of its economy and foundations. To make sure that resources are used to the better of the many and not the few.

There are many challenges, and it’s up to them, and their Government, to now make that independence lead to those dreams coming true, so that all South Sudanese feel that this country is a country that they are proud of, and that they are part of, and that they will always think is treasuring them and their future.

UN News Centre: On a more personal note, you are the head of UN peacekeeping mission in the world’s newest country. What do you enjoy most about your job?

Hilde Johnson: For me, the most – maybe fun is not the right word – the most rewarding thing is the opportunity to make a difference and to support this new country in establishing the basic foundations of the state and to build their new nation.

It’s a unique opportunity, I don’t think many other missions in the world, and many other SRSGs [Special Representatives of the Secretary-General] in the world have had this opportunity, and I hope I will be able to live up to expectations and that we will see a South Sudan that succeeds in the medium- and long-term.

Ms. Johnson speaks about the importance of stability between South Sudan and Sudan. Credit: UNTV

UN News Centre: What is the toughest part of heading the UN mission in the world’s newest country?

Hilde Johnson: The toughest part of the job is that this is crisis management all the time. You hardly have breathing space – if there is one predictable thing about South Sudan it is that everything is unpredictable. You think you have a day that you have set out what you are planning to do – it will turn out completely differently. And that’s more the rule than the exception. As I say to my staff: ‘never a dull moment.’ That’s both the rewarding part, but it’s also the challenging part.

UN News Centre: You were born in Africa, spent much time there, and also speak Swahili. How does that sort of personal experience affect you in your work?

Hilde Johnson: For me, Africa is very much home. Of course I’m Norwegian, I’m at home there as well. But I feel very much at home [here], particularly in East Africa where I grew up. I see that the South Sudanese also have a strong affiliation to the East African countries, and these are very much areas and cultures close to my heart, and I feel are a part of me.

So for me to be in South Sudan is not a sacrifice. It’s a major opportunity and it’s very, very dear to my heart. I’m happy to be there and I hope I’m going to be able to at least do my bit of helping them get their country on a stable footing and move in the right direction.