South Sudan Diplomats Prepare for Big Day
On the top floor of an office building behind the Euston road in central London, sharing premises with banqueting halls and the National Union of Teachers, lies the diplomatic mission for what is soon likely to become the world’s newest sovereign state.
“Some people are like, what? The government of South Sudan? Here, on the fourth floor?” said Linda Kot Martin, the mission’s information and documentation officer, as she wended her way through the maze of strip-lit corridors.
And it’s true that with just seven staff sharing the five small office rooms, each hung with twin giant framed photographs of South Sudan president Salva Kiir and vice-president Riek Machar, the mission lacks a certain grandeur. There is no official driver - the team take taxis, or the tube – and the mission’s remit does not yet even extend to issuing travel documents.
But with independence likely to be declared on July 9 this year, following the January referendum on secession from north Sudan, staff are not only anticipating a move to much larger premises, but also a pivotal role representing their country in a highly significant posting.
“The day before yesterday, we received a book listing all the diplomatic missions in the [United Kingdom] and the Government of South Sudan is there,” said Daniel Othol, the head of mission, with obvious satisfaction, noting that the office, established here in August 2009, was only accredited as a diplomatic mission in May 2010.
The UK diplomatic mission in Juba is about to be upgraded too, Othol added, who was appointed to his role by Kiir after spending three decades as a doctor of tropical medicine.
“Looking after patients also needs some diplomatic talent, so I didn’t find it a very hard changeover,” he noted wryly.
“Visitors here don’t expect much,” said Elizabeth Adhieu, the softly-spoken protocol officer from Bor, the capital of South Sudan’s Jonglei state. “But after 9 July there will be very high expectations.”
Sitting in Othol’s office, round a conference table hosting a friendly jumble of half-eaten cake, fruit squash and newspapers, the mission staff are relaxed and informal, all on first-name terms, but all displaying an intense sense of purpose.
Martin only spent the first six months of her life in South Sudan – she moved from Jonglei state to the UK with her family as a baby – but this hasn’t affected her strong identification with her birthplace.
“It’s a pleasure to be able to serve my government and use my skills to contribute to my country,” she said. “There’s no place like home, and I do feel very much at home here in the mission. I would be absolutely more than happy to go back to South Sudan if my country needed me there.”
She and Adhieu monitor the media, liaise with Juba, organise meetings and deal with visitors. “The office is open to anyone who wants to visit, anyone can drop in, and they do,” Martin said.
Most visitors come from London’s tiny but tight-knit South Sudanese community, numbering only a couple of thousand - out of the 653 who participated here in the referendum on independence, 626 voted yes – just 13 voted no.
“The mood around the referendum was very euphoric,” said Paul Malongo Akoro, deputy head of mission, sitting behind a desk piled with documents on the laws of South Sudan and guides to constitutional matters. “For the first time, South Sudanese were participating in defining their own destiny. But because every family has lost loved ones in the conflict, it was also a time to remember those who lost their lives – a national, but also a family event.”
He and the mission’s other two political officers spend much of their time attending events in parliament and on the think tank circuit, making their presence felt at every occasion connected to Sudan.
Othol is keen to stress that relations with their Sudan diplomatic colleagues are more than cordial, even though their aims have sometimes been at odds. “We are brothers and sisters and we’re always intermingling, always invited to the same places,” he said.
Nonetheless, one of his staff’s top priorities is to lobby for the international community to put pressure on Khartoum to fulfil remaining elements of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, CPA, which in 2005 ended decades of civil war. The referendum was part of that agreement; in the next six months serious work remains to define the borders between the two countries and resolve the status of the disputed area of Abyei.
Othol acknowledges the challenging tasks ahead, but is resolutely sunny in outlook, dismissing concerns that the new state faces either a renewed war with the north or internal conflict.
The former is “far–fetched”, he said. “Khartoum is excellent now, the north was the first to recognise the referendum and it doesn’t get better than that.”
As for the fear of tribal fighting in the south, “I have never felt any ethnic tensions in my life in South Sudan.”
Many would disagree with such an upbeat assessment. But then, after decades of unending conflict and with sovereignty just in sight, the next few months might be South Sudan’s last chance for some undiluted optimism before the harsh realities of independence make themselves felt.
Daniella Peled is an IWPR editor.