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The Contributions of Dr. Francis Mading Deng to South Sudan and Abyei

Interview by Mawien Deng


Father’s dying invocation on the destiny to serve

Francis Mading Deng:

Father certainly expected us to be of service to our people. But he did not instruct us to follow any particular line on issues. From the time we were in junior secondary, Father repeatedly told our brother Zackariah Bol and me that he looked to us for the future of our people. Of course, he was not talking about our becoming chiefs. In fact, in discussing with me on several occasions the issue of which of our brothers he should prepare to succeed him, he always began by saying that Bol and I were no longer for tribal leadership and that our roles were now national. So, what he had in mind was leadership or public service of a more general nature. He maintained that position until the end of his life.

 When Father became terminally ill, Bol and I went back to the Sudan in late August 1969 after years abroad, Father could not have been more elated to see us. A letter from him to President Nimeiri, who had assumed power only three months earlier, was waiting to be delivered. Father, who had probably thought that we were out of  the country for political reasons, and  could not safely return, was asking the President to bring us back safely to the country. He gave an account of his long service to the country and said that his only wish was to see his two sons back in the country before he died. Since we had returned, it was of course no longer necessary for the letter to be delivered. When we first entered his hospital room, Father kept embracing us one by one and then together as though to assure himself that we had truly returned. He said that even if he should die, he would go happy to have seen us back. There was no doubt that he felt that the faith he had placed in us for the future of his people was soon to be brought to bear.

One day, I visited him with Izzelddine Hassan, a colleague and friend from the university days who had obtained a masters degree at Howard University in Washington DC, and had briefly served in the Legal Department of the United Nations, where we reconnected. He had returned after his father’s death and resumed his earlier position as a judge. The following day, when I visited him, Father recalled my visit with Izzelddine. “Were you not together in America?”, Father asked.  I responded affirmatively. ”And has he not returned to serve his country?” Again, I responded accordingly. Father then went to the point, “What about you, where is your country?” It was a rhetorical question, which did not need an answer. Father continued, “Mading, if I survive this illness, I want to have a serious talk with you”.

Of course, I understood perfectly what Father was aiming at. So, I gave him the details of my crisis in London, when I was accused of masterminding the Southern Sudanese rebel activities in the whole of Europe, and the unexpected instructions for me to go back to the country, which I did not do. The issue was eventually resolved after my meeting with President Ibrahim Abboud in London, and he told me that he had received a message from my father about my case. Abboud said that whatever I had done should be forgiven for my father’s sake. I then received a letter from Father telling me what Abboud had told him about my subversive activities, and how I had been forgiven. He urged me to focus on my studies and repeated his usual message about our responsibility for our people. He asked me to convey the same message to Bol.

By then, I had already accepted an offer from Yale University to pursue my post graduate studies in the United States. I agreed to return to the Khartoum University after my doctorate. I told Father how I had tried to keep my promise of retuning to Khartoum when I completed my studies at Yale and the offensive way the University responded to me as though I was a foreigner applying for a job. They said they hoped I would join the university in “our beautiful country we dearly love”. I of course felt insulted and chose not to go back.

After listening to my account, Father surprised me with his understanding and wise counsel. “I have heard your words”, he said. “In our Dinka ways, when a man is mistreated by his tribe and leaves in protest, it is for his people to reach out to him, apologize for the wrong they had committed, and persuade him to return with dignity. Stay where you are. They will reach out to you.” I was deeply moved. And of course, I was aware that Father was not asking me to abandon my responsibility to serve my country and my people, but to wait for the right time, which he felt sure would come soon.

Mawien Deng

In our Dinka ways, what he said to you in his moment of immanent death was a sacred word of God.

Francis Mading Deng

That was exactly how I took it. We took our father to Cairo in a desperate hope to save his life, even though we knew that his condition was terminal. He died in early September 1969, amidst the rainy season and we were able to fulfill his death wish that his body be taken home to be buried in accordance with the rituals of our people. We landed in the turmoil of the civil war in which the security forces under the command of a young officer were terrorizing the people with arrests, torture and extrajudicial executions. Two of our cousins, Justin Deng Biong and Osman Kooc Aguer were leading the rebellion in the area. The security forces suspected our family as coordinating with them. Abdalla Moyak, whom Father had left in charge and who would succeed

him as Paramount Chief, was the principal suspect and the object of incriminating reports by the Dinka security informants. The security forces concluded that our family was leading both inside and outside. So, much of the harassment, torture are killings were against family members. They had killed an uncle the day we arrived. And had tortured and crippled an aunt, the mother of Osman Kooc.

We agreed with the commanding officer that we hold a public meeting to discuss the security situation and try to harmonize between the security forces and the chiefs. In that public meeting, I spoke in earnest of those who were living on the blood of others and how they would eventually be made accountable, even by the policeman inside them as human beings. I said that those enemies of our father who assumed that he was dead and gone and that they would work against the tribe with impunity were mistaken. In the Dinka tradition of continuity through descendants, we were there to continue our father’s name and mission as the leader of his people. Unfortunately, more arrests of some of those who had spoken at the meeting took place. We then stood our ground to ensure their release. We wrote to our cousins that since the government was reaching out to the rebels and offering amnesty, they should either  join us in our internal efforts to ensure security for our people, or move further south, away from our vulnerable border situation at Abyei. We were told that they seriously considered joining us, but decided in the end to continue the armed struggle.

After a month of intensive efforts to improve security for our people, with marginal success, we left a very precarious situation, conscious of the fact that the heavy burden of responsibility to serve our people, about which our father had often talked to us, had now fallen upon us. We prepared a report to the central government, with recommendations for reforming the security arrangements in Abyei.

A Family and society divided by tragedy

Mawien Deng

Did your report help bring security to the area?

Francis Mading Deng

Sadly, although it seemed to improve the situation, insecurity eventually escalated. In accordance with our recommendations, the commanding officer and his men were replaced by an older officer from the Missiriya who proved to be even worse. Within a year, the security forces massacred our leaders, including Abdalla Moyak Deng, our brother who had succeeded our father as Paramount Chief and who was doing his best to protect his people, the Ngok Dinka, and the seasonal cattle herders from the South,  two of our brothers and three of our uncles. The massacre was reported by the Times of London, which highlighted the irony of Abyei, which had been a point of reconciliation between the North and the South, having become a victim of North-South conflict.

One of our brothers, Adam Kuol, who had contested succession to the chieftaincy, was suspected of having been an accomplice with the security forces. The suspicion against him was based on his close association with the security forces and their Dinka agents. I never believed that Adam had a hand in the assassination, but his ambition for power made him an easy suspect, especially because the authorities immediately appointed him the paramount Chief. This created a feud that acutely divided the family and the tribe, causing the mass exodus of family members to Northern towns.

Mawien Deng

That was a most tragic situation for our family and the tribe. We also know that it was you in the end who brought the family back together and reunited the tribe. Can you talk about how you did that?

The budding of Father’s prediction

Francis Mading Deng

I will. But before I do, I would like to go back. Father’s prediction, indeed will; about my professional future came to pass within less than a year, which opened doors for what I was able to do in the service for our family and our area of Abyei. Joseph Garang, Nimeiri’s Minister for South Sudan Affairs, visited the United Nations in New York. I had known him since our days in Rumbek Junior Secondary School and had kept contact with him while I was in Khartoum University and he was a practicing lawyer. His visit to the UN reconnected us and we caught up on the developments back home. 

Soon after his return, he wrote urging me to accept the position of Minister Plenipotentiary and Deputy Ambassador in London. He elaborated the need for qualified Southerners to join Sudan’s diplomatic service at that critical juncture in the history of the country. I had high regard for Joseph Garang and Nimeiri’s regime was sending positive signals for ending the war in the South. But peace had not yet come and war was still raging on. I politely declined, using the argument that I had just accepted a post-doctoral fellowship at Yale University and taking a leave of absence from the United Nation. I said I would seriously consider joining the service at a more opportune time.

The relationship of Joseph Garang and South Sudan were ambivalent. Although an effective advocate for the cause of the South, Joseph was one of the most prominent communist leaders in the country and communism was unpopular in the Christian South. Abel Alier, whom I also knew since our days in Rumbek Junior Secondary School and more closely as a finalist in the Faculty of Law in Khartoum University, was also in Nimeiri’s cabinet. Abel was a low-key leader in whom South Sudanese had much confidence. With contrasting idealogical profiles, the two Southern ministers could not work together. That was a known fact. I wanted to do something in an attempt to make them cooperate over the cause of the South.

So, in 1971, when I stopped in Khartoum on my way to a UN meeting in Gabon, I decided to meet with the two ministers to try to bridge their differences and foster closer cooperation. I first met with Abel Alier, a mild gentle personality who, as I had expected, said nothing critical of his colleague with whom I knew he profoundly differed. I then went to meet Joseph Garang, an affable personality, with whom I had a cordial discussion. It was toward the end of the working hours and our conversation went on for so long that we were left alone in the ministry

In sharp contrast with Abel Alier, Joseph Garang was very spirited. He said that the impasse over the responsibility for the South between the two of them had reached a point where nothing was being done. He welcomed my initiative to try to reconcile them, but he said that there were no people within the Southern Sudanese community with such a conciliating vision. He said that the differences had become unbridgeable and that he himself was waiting for a clear determination of responsibility for the South. Joseph Garang sounded categorical, relaxed and confident. That late afternoon, the communist coup took place and Joseph Garang emerged as one of its leaders. I then understood fully why he had sounded so confident.

As soon as the airport opened, I left for my UN meeting in Gabon. While in Gabon, I heard of the news of the trials and executions of the leaders. Joseph Garang was among them. I was deeply saddened, though not entirely surprised. Abel Alier assumed the responsibility for Southern Sudanese Affairs. And Dr. Mansour Khalid, a staunch anti-communist leader, whom I had come to know as Sudan’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, became the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Mawien Deng

Was it not through him that you became Ambassador?

Francis Mading Deng

Yes, but that came later. I went back to the United States through Khartoum to try to reconcile our divided family. I went to El Obeid where family members who had left the tribe, had settled. But feelings were still very high and any talk of reconciliation was met with tears. So I withdrew to wait for a more opportune time.

Dr. Francis Mading Deng

While in Khartoum, I was surprised by a message from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that an appointment had been made for me to see the President. I had not asked for an appointment to meet the President. And I was still haunted by the massacres of the coup and the mass executions of its leaders, including a friend, Joseph Garang. I suspected that Mansour Khalid had probably engineered the appointment to introduce me to the President, but it was a mystery to me what he had in mind. Of course, I went to the meeting.

I found President Nimeiri sitting at his desk with Abel Alier in a chair on one side of the desk. I was seated in the chair facing Alier. After the greetings, I waited for a moment to hear the reason why I was asked to meet the President. Nothing was forthcoming. So, I took the lead and introduced the issue of Abyei. The gist of what I said was the contrast between the historical linking role Abyei had played between the North and the South and the suffering of the people which we had witnessed at Father’s death, the assassination of his successor, and the ongoing insecurity in the area at a time when the North and the South were moving toward peace.

Nimeiri told me that he had wanted to go to Abyei, especially after the assassination of the Chief, but that he was advised against going for security reasons. Instead, he sent Abulgassim Mohamed Ibrahim to go on his behalf. He however assured me that Abyei was high on his list of issues needing attention.

I waited for a moment to see whether either of them had something to say about the reason for the meeting. And when no one spoke, I said that I should then leave them to continue with the affairs of the state. I left, seriously wondering why the appointment had been arranged. I still believed that Dr. Mansour Khalid presumably wanted to introduce me to the President, even though he himself had said nothing to me. I don’t think I had even met Dr. Mansour in Khartoum.

Mawien Deng

So, when did he get you to join the Ministry of Foreign Affairs? We know that you did not join the government until after the Addis Ababa Agreement. What role did you play in the peace process that led to the agreement? And how was the issue of Abyei handled in the peace process?

Click the link to read PART ONE The Contributions of Dr. Francis Mading Deng to South Sudan and Abyei – One Citizen Daily

Click here to read PART THREE The Contributions of Dr. Francis Mading Deng to South Sudan and Abyei – One Citizen Daily

Click the link to read PART FOUR The Contributions of Dr. Francis Mading Deng to South Sudan and Abyei – One Citizen Daily