Prominent South Sudanese economist and government critic Peter Biar Ajak said Friday that he had sought asylum in the United States, accusing President Salva Kiir of trying to have him killed, a charge Juba denied.
Biar, a 36-year-old Harvard-educated economist who has worked for the World Bank, has been outspoken in his criticism of the country’s leadership and its handling of a civil war that left nearly 400,000 dead.
In July 2018 he was detained and held for eight months without charge. He was eventually found guilty of spying over an interview he gave to foreign media while in prison and sentenced to two years in jail. He was pardoned in January, shortly before his release was due.
In a press conference via Zoom, he described recent weeks as “one of the most scary episodes of my life”, describing his surveillance by South Sudanese security agents in Kenya, where he had moved for safety.
He said cars with South Sudanese licence plates stationed outside his apartment, or followed relatives, while he got calls from “senior people in government” saying that Kiir had ordered security agents “to either abduct or kill me in Nairobi”.
He said United States diplomats in Juba and Kenya had helped organise his departure, and that he, his wife, and three children had arrived on Friday.
Biar said his fears of being assassinated were amplified by memories of the kidnapping in 2017 of two prominent critics of the South Sudanese government in Nairobi, who were taken back to Juba and executed.
Biar said that following his release from prison, trouble began when his fellow co-accused, businessman Kerbino Wol, who was also pardoned, launched a rebellion in early June.
Wol was killed by government forces just days after announcing his movement, the army announced.
Biar said Juba believed he was also involved with the rebellion, which he denies.
South Sudan’s government said Biar’s accusation there was a plot to kill him was “completely not true”.
“Biar was supposed to say this when he was here… he was released by the government,” foreign ministry spokesman Raphael Nhial Kulang told AFP.
“He should not just make allegations without a case.”
– Call for sanctions, elections –
Biar first fled to the United State at the age of 16 as one of thousands of “Lost Boys” who had escaped the civil war between northern and southern Sudan, later returning in 2009, two years before independence.
South Sudan plunged into war in 2013 after President Salva Kiir accused his former vice president Riek Machar of plotting a coup.
A peace deal in September 2018 led to the formation of a unity government in February with Machar serving as first vice president — the latest attempt by the two men to rule together.
“We are pretending there is a peace agreement that is working,” Biar said, referring to a surge in communal violence and the failure to put together a transitional national assembly, or to unite rebel and government forces under a single army.
He said he would like to use his time in the United States to push for harsher sanctions and for the holding of elections.
“The current leaders have failed our people. What is needed is… for those leaders to leave and a new generation to take over.”