Prominent South Sudanese economist and government critic Peter Biar Ajak have sought asylum in the United States, accusing South Sudan President Salva Kiir of trying to have him abducted or killed.
Ajak landed on Thursday at Dulles Airport outside Washington with his wife and three small children after travelling from Nairobi, an anxious departure complicated by coronavirus restrictions.
He told Reuters that top South Sudanese officials whom he declined to identify had warned him that Kiir had ordered a team to abduct or murder him in the Kenyan capital.
“The last few weeks have been a bit terrifying. Extremely terrifying,” the 36-year-old activist told Associated Press shortly after landing. It was only when the plane was taxiing for takeoff that he could feel relief.
Ajak, a Harvard graduate and economist who helped shape his young country’s national security system — one that imprisoned him years later — was tipped off by “very senior” officials back home, his lawyer Jared Genser said.
A US State Department spokesperson noted Ajak’s announced arrival and referred all questions on his immigration status to the Department of Homeland Security.
“I knew this was no idle threat,” Ajak wrote in an opinion piece published in The Wall Street Journal after his arrival. “In January 2017, two other dissidents were abducted from Nairobi and murdered, leading the U.S. to impose sanctions on five South Sudanese officials.”
Ajak urged the U.S. to impose additional sanctions, including against South Sudan President Salva Kiir while insisting on a path to elections or “the world will have squandered billions of dollars to create another African failed state led by a brutal dictator.”
South Sudan government spokesmen Ateny Wek Ateny and Michael Makuei didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Ajak now plans to resume his work and, if the chance arises, meet President Donald Trump to thank him for the pressure U.S. government officials have applied: “It would be my great honour.”
The drama reflects the plunge in U.S. confidence in South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, which won independence from Sudan in 2011 and massive support from Washington, including billions of dollars in aid. Now, however, after years of devastating civil war and corruption by high-ranking officials, the U.S. is losing its patience.
The latest U.S. action “speaks volumes about the enormous concerns Washington clearly has about what’s happening in South Sudan and the serious problems about President Kiir’s leadership,” Genser said, describing Ajak as “one of the most feared critics of Kiir’s regime.”
Ajak, a former refugee who went to the US as a teen but later gave up his green card, played a key role as an adviser in shaping the new South Sudan’s national security structures. But he was fired after clashing with the official who now leads the National Security Service, Gen. Akol Koor Kuc, and became an outspoken government critic.
In 2018 he was arrested as he tried to attend a youth conference. He later was accused of inciting trouble behind bars. But early this year he was released along with other political prisoners as part of a peace deal ending the country’s five-year civil war.
The prison experience was “extremely harsh,” Ajak has said.
Ajak now plans to settle down and continue pressing for a “generational exit” of South Sudan’s leaders, with the help of the country’s diaspora — and he didn’t rule out the idea of pursuing South Sudan’s presidency himself.
The United Nations has warned the country is at risk of becoming a police state. Human rights are being trampled, and killing and intimidation are widespread, a UN commission warned in March. The need to swiftly implement the peace deal “has never been so urgent,” the UN secretary-general has said. (Source: Mainichi Japan)