WASHINGTON – South Sudan civil rights activist and economist Peter Biar Ajak who had been detained for more than a year by the National Security Service has become the first-ever South Sudanese to obtain PhD from the US prestigious University of Cambridge.
He received his PhD at an official university ceremony on Saturday, nine months after a global campaign saw his release from South Sudan’s Blue House prison, which echoed nightly with the screams of tortured prisoners during his 18-month incarceration.
Arrested in July 2018 on a series of charges including treason, insurgency, harbouring terrorists, espionage and insulting the president, Dr Ajak was released in January 2020.
Relatively, he got off lightly. Still, his liver and kidney function was compromised from having to drink salty, dirty water, his back was damaged from sleeping on the floor of a tiny cell, he had lost a quarter of his body weight, and needed psychological counseling. None of his belongings – laptop, phone, money or passport – were returned to him.
“My oldest son was five when I was arrested,” Biar said. “By the time I was released he was seven. My youngest son was one – he was three years old when I got out. I was a stranger to them and I had to re-establish relations with them.”
Dr Ajak is now living with his family in Washington DC where he is a Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy and at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. He received a humanitarian parole visa from the United States after he learnt of a hit squad he says was sent by the South Sudanese President Salva Kiir to assassinate him in Nairobi in June 2020.
In addition to his PhD in Politics and International Studies from Cambridge, Dr Ajak has a BA from LaSalle University and a Master’s from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where he was also a Public Service Fellow. He has held many senior positions in international organisations, including the World Bank, UNICEF and the International Growth Centre, as well as advising the Minister for National Security in the Office of the President of South Sudan.
But it is his civil society work, and childhood experience of Sudan’s civil strife, that fuels his zeal for democratic change in South Sudan. Peter was one of Sudan’s ‘lost boys’ displaced during the civil war between North and South, from which emerged South Sudan in 2011, the world’s newest nation. But not before 2.5 million people were killed and four million people displaced, with many children like Peter carried by their fathers to neighbouring Ethiopia.
Only recently has the conflict rekindled in 2013 between the President and his rival former Deputy President Riek Machar subsided, with the formation of a national unity government in February this year.
Dr Ajak has been active in grassroots communities across South Sudan for several decades. He founded the Center for Strategic Analyses and Research in the capital Juba and the South Sudan Wrestling Entertainment, which uses the indigenous sport to promote peace and reconciliation among different ethnic groups.
Dr Ajak’s PhD examines the factors contributing to South Sudan’s current situation.
“I realized we never really had any consensus on the kind of society that we want to create. We didn’t build a consensus on the ideas of the state. That can’t be done through a militarized approach. It has to be done through people discussing and sharing ideas, disagreeing but finding common ground because that is how you build countries and societies,” he said.
That is what he set out to do with South Sudan Young Leaders Forum under the hashtag #NxGenSouthSudan – where half the population is under 18.
“Before I was arrested I was on a tour of all states in South Sudan meeting with young people and trying to build consensus among them about how we avoid being used as pawns in this conflict, we stand up and try to mobilize ourselves to bring about a better future for our people,” Dr Ajak said.
“Short-term arrests” – around 40 in 2017 – were nothing out of the ordinary for a man who was well-known at both the grassroots and national government levels. Peter’s father and father-in-law are senior figures in government and the military; he acknowledges he had a certain level of protection
But in 2018 things would turn out differently. Before returning to Cambridge for his viva, Dr Ajak took part in a panel discussion on Kenyan television, where he called for ‘a generational exit.’
It was nothing he had not said before. ‘Leaders in South Sudan are typically in their 70s. That is not a time of life to run a country. They have created this disastrous system that has no exit, no retirement, no pensions; as a result they are just there for salaries,’ he said.
“Their generation, who liberated South Sudan, are to blame for the crisis in the country, they have lost their vision and they are no longer able to tell each other the truth. The President has amassed so much power that no-one is able to tell him the truth and he is surrounded by sycophants. It is an absolutely disastrous situation for our people.”
South Sudan’s first democratic elections were scheduled for 2015. But the renewal of conflict enabled the President to postpone them to 2018, then to 2021 – and then again – to 2022.
Dr Ajak thinks the warm welcome he received from civilian and military leaders alike during his work in 2018 began to threaten the government of President Kiir.
After his arrest in July 2018 he ended up in the Blue House – in a pitch-black cell so small he couldn’t stretch out. For 24 hours he was left alone. Then he was allowed out – for 5 minutes a day. He had to choose whether to wash, use the toilet, brush his teeth, queue for food, or get some fresh air. ‘There is no way you could do all those things in five minutes,’ Dr Ajak said.
Until his wife and father-in-law were allowed to bring him some clothes, a toothbrush and a mattress, he slept on the floor with nothing but the clothes he was detained in. He was one of the lucky ones, in Blue House terms, though.
“Almost every day from 10pm to 5am you hear people screaming being tortured. You hear them say ‘bring a knife, bring a hammer, bring a nail.’ There are prisoners in that condition for years.”
There is also what they call midnight pick up. Once or twice a week soldiers will come at night. They have an individual they are targeting. They come with tasers and the person is knocked out and covered with blankets. They drive them 40 minutes outside of Juba where they are hacked to death and then sprayed with gas and their bodies burnt to ashes.
No surprise then that some prisoners led a revolt, disarmed the guards and took over the prison in October 2018. Dr Ajak was not involved. But when the rebel leader refused to stand down despite the authorities threatening to storm the prison, Peter’s civil society leadership – and self-preservation instinct – came to the fore. He mediated between the prison rebels and the authorities – outside were massed ranks of soldiers and tanks from the President’s guard – and succeeded in defusing the rebellion.
But the consequences were grim. Prisons were stripped of their clothes, guards took away the few things they had and they were confined to their cells 24/7. ‘From that moment I didn’t see any family member until February. The lights in my cell were constantly on for two weeks and then it was total darkness for two weeks,’ Dr Ajak said..
His only reading material was a pocket bible smuggled in by an empathetic guard. ‘Initially I was extremely bitter at what happened because I felt like I had risked my life to resolve this crisis and I was lucky that God stood with me and the situation ended without anyone being killed,’ he said.
“From October 2018 to March 2019 I did not brush my teeth, I didn’t shower. The cell was barely opened. I had diarrhea, malaria – there was no medical attention at all. When I become ill they worsened the conditions, reduced the food ratio; sometimes they would put in sand on purpose so that you couldn’t eat the food,” he said.
Dr Ajak was charged with new offences including disturbing the peace – apparently related to an interview with Voice of America from the prison roof during the rebellion about the dire conditions and inhumane treatment of prisoners.
In the end, he was sentenced to two years but backdated to the first day of his detention. He was transferred to a prison in Juba where the conditions were better, he received medical treatment and could stay outside until 8pm. Dr Ajak recalls: ‘It was the first time in 13 months that I had seen the stars and the moon. And I was blown away by how beautiful they were after such a long time. All these things we just take for granted.’
Reflecting on his experience in jail, the government’s intention was clear. It was as if they had read the sorts of academic papers on economic signaling he was familiar with, says Dr Ajak, only half joking.
“Given my connections inside and outside the country and the fact that they were arbitrarily detaining me for so long and the way they were treating me inside prison it was basically to send a message, ‘If we can do this to Peter, what about you? If you don’t have the same level of connections we will execute you,” he said.
“I think they were effective at that because after my detention they have managed to silence any sort of dissenting voices – people became worried and afraid for their lives.”
Campaigns in America and the UK for his release probably prevented anything worse happening to Peter in prison than the inhumane conditions he endured (try as they might for these to lead to death by ‘natural causes’). But the combination of domestic and international support made the regime jittery, he says. ‘They said to me there is all this noise being made by your friends outside, your friends from Cambridge, from the US. If that continues this is going to complicate your situation. You have to find a way of telling them to stop doing what they are doing.’
It was an absurd request to a man in solitary confinement, without a phone or access to a lawyer. Double-edged though such international support could be, overall those voices were beneficial, says Dr Ajak.
“It uplifted my spirits and encouraged me to endure what I was going through. I forgot about getting out and it became about the struggle itself and making sure I didn’t let these people down. Together we become part of a bigger struggle.
“When I got out of prison I shed tears when I learned about the Cambridge Amnesty student chapter locking themselves up in cages for days so they could highlight what I was going through. That was really something touching.”
His zeal is undiminished by his experience in prison and he regrets nothing. ‘Either you accept tyranny or you resist and when you resist there are these kind of consequences,’ he says.
Exile to America is in some ways ‘a blessing in disguise’. The UN is on his doorstep and with 95% of the Sudanese diaspora in the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, Dr Ajak is planning a global campaign to force the President of South Sudan to hold democratic elections in 2022.
He also wishes to enlist the support of the three nations who helped South Sudan gain independence: the US, UK and Norway. ‘These three countries combined have spent massive amounts of money in South Sudan. And in the end for what? To create another African country that is failed, that doesn’t adhere to any democratic norms, that doesn’t respect human rights, that is massively corrupt?’
In some ways, Dr Ajak is continuing in the footsteps of his forefathers. His grandfather was killed during Sudan’s first civil war and his great grandfather fought the British colonial authorities and was a political prisoner for four years in the 1920s. ‘There is this legacy, something that I could not shy away from,’ he says.
“I am a grateful to my ancestors, and for my experience as a child growing up in the war. It has been beneficial because it taught me to persevere and to endure.”