The unmarked, unpaved streets of Juba, the capital of South Sudan, can be tough for an outsider to navigate.
By the time I found the house of Peter Adwok Nyaba, the country's former minister of higher education, science and technology, it was already 5 p.m. The sun was dangerously low on the horizon. I had less than an hour to interview Adwok and get back to my hotel before the citywide curfew — imposed when the violence began three weeks before — took effect. After 6, there would be no one on the streets except myself and soldiers.
But Adwok invited me to sit down on the couch in his study; he seemed to be in no rush. He insisted I refresh myself with a chilled soda that his wife, Abuk Payiti, had brought in on a tray. While I drank, Adwok rubbed the stump of his left leg, which he'd lost fighting in the long civil war against Sudan. Like other war heroes of the struggle, Adwok had been given his post in the new government after South Sudan won its independence in 2011.
But five months ago, the president sacked Adwok and all his fellow ministers for alleged disloyalty. And now, resting against the wall beside his aluminum crutches was a small rolling suitcase he'd packed for prison.
He told me he'd recently received a call.
"They will come for me," he said. At least, that's what the police inspector general on the phone told him.
"I am one of the people who should be arrested," he said he was told.
Coup Or Purge?
The violence now engulfing South Sudan began with what President Salva Kiir says was an attempted coup led by former Vice President Riek Machar and supported by many former top government officials, including Adwok.
But Adwok laughed off this claim. In his opinion, Kiir was trying to purge the party of his political rivals. Oddly, Adwok made this accusation without bitterness. He had known Kiir for decades as a fearless commander who'd spent 28 years in the bush fighting Sudan. Now, as president, he was handling political threats like another military campaign.
"Salva [Kiir] is not a political animal," Adwok said. "He is a soldier, and doesn't perceive the political process as some of us perceive it."
The sounds of closing shutters from the nearby market told me that time was getting short. I looked at my watch, but Adwok unhurriedly took me through his interpretation of events. In this version, the unraveling of South Sudan had begun not with an attempted coup, but months earlier, when Machar declared his intention to run for president. The president's response to this political threat was to fire his Cabinet and use his executive power to strong-arm the democratic process.
This was the point at which, Adwok said, the world's newest country flunked the test of any democracy. Having made it through the first election, it failed to reach the all-important second election, the one where an existing ruler may be asked to peacefully hand over power to a successor. Though elections in South Sudan are still a year and a half away, the country has descended into ethnic conflict.
"The democratic culture is still very shallow," Adwok said. "It is a long struggle to bring these concepts to the minds of people so they can internalize them."
It would take five to 10 years, he figured, for these concepts to be internalized.
Dwindling Chances Of Saving Fledgling Democracy
But a few minutes after he spoke these words, Adwok himself ran out of time. His wife burst into the room and whispered that two-dozen policemen had surrounded the house with machine guns. She begged me to turn off my recorder and pushed me into the spare bedroom.
It occurred to me that if the police barged in at this moment, there would be little room for me to conceal myself between the large painted vase and a dresser covered with beauty products. I could hear heavy footsteps on the floor below, and muffled voices speaking Arabic.
I worried that my car, parked outside, might have somehow lured the police to Adwok's home. Whatever dangers an arrest posed for me, I feared it would have graver consequences for a member of the opposition to be caught speaking to a Western journalist.
When she opened the door again some 20 minutes later, Abuk told me that her husband had been taken away. Concerned for my safety, Adwok had come downstairs to give himself up and by so doing prevented the police from searching the house.
The next day, Adwok's name was on the official list of coup plotters, read aloud by Minister of Information Michael Makuei Leuth at a news conference.
A local reporter asked what might happen to the men.
"The harshest penalty is death sentence," Makuei said, "either by firing squad, or to be hanged by the neck until you are dead."
The question of whether a coup actually took place has stalled peace talks under way in Ethiopia. Machar, the former vice president, wants to negotiate for the prisoners' release. Kiir refuses, saying they won't be released without going through a "legal process."
So far, only Peter Adwok has been set free, though he's essentially under house arrest, forbidden from leaving the country.
When I spoke to him on the phone Monday, he told me he's worried that South Sudan is running out of time — and that each day the war drags on, there's less chance to rescue this fledgling democracy.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
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. 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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.