Correction: The text of the earlier version of this Interview was wrongly attributed to Dr. Bassiouni. Please find the correct text of the interview with Dr. Bassiouni below.
WASS: Tell us about yourself
DSB: Dr David S. Bassiouni Chairman & Chief Executive Officer, The Bassiouni Group; President & Chairman. The Mary N. Bassiouni Foundation; Adjunct Professor of International Humanitarian Affairs at Long Island University, Brooklyn Campus; 26 years of service in UN holding senior positions including in UNICEF, UNDH, OCHA and UNDP as First UN Humanitarian Coordinator of the System, UNICEF Representative in 7 countries (Somalia, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Ethiopia, Occupied Palestinian Territories based in Jerusalem, Egypt and Bangladesh; Deputy UNICEF Representative for Nigeria; formerly Minister and Director-General of Regional Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources of South Sudan and Graduate of Khartoum, Princeton and Harvard Universities.
WASS: What is your most vivid childhood memory in South Sudan (if you grew up there)?
DSB: Together with my niece Alice Maliba, I joined Lui Elementary School in Moruland in 1951.It was then the practice for the Teacher Training Mundri Practicing School and Nugent School, Loka to draw their students from Lui Elementary School. My first shocking experience at Lui was the imposition of a strict rule on all new students coming from urban settings to shed off their clothes and shoes and wear the Moru loin cloth to maintain a level playing field and equity in the student body. It was therefore a common desire among the majority of the students to join the Mundri Teacher Training School where they would enjoy the amenities of decent dressing. In December1952 a team came from Mundri Teacher Training Practicing School (MTTPCS) came to Lui to select new entrants for their school. Tensions were high among the Lui students most of who were aspiring to join MTCPS for reasons stated earlier. On the selection day, we were all lined up and the joint Mundri/Lui team walked passed us selecting students for MTCPS. My half-brother, late Bishop Ephraim Natana was ahead of on the line. When the team came to him they asked him to step forward. That made my heart leap! When the team came opposite to me and they asked me to step forward my School Master Natana Ibidri, quickly stepped forward and told the Mundri team that they should leave me to stay in Lui because they need me to gather firewood and water for them. The team moved forward and I stood still in absolute shock and disappointment. For me it was the end of the world. Things changed in January 1953 when a team from Nugent School Loka came to Lui to select new entrants to their school. This time the selection was based on interviews and merit based on scholastic performance in Standard National Intermediate School Entrance Examination. I did well in the examination. Five of us including Elikiya Tona,William Apaya, Agangwa Gbodo and Poland Walla were selected to join Nugent School Loka. I did so well in Loka Nugent School Loka that seven of us including Rubena Lumaya Wani,Ade Wudango,Khamis Lado Kenyi,Elikiya Tona,Morrison Yapete Bagari and Jok Lek, jumped class and in 1954 sat the National Secondary School Entrance 2.Examination in our 3rd Form. We did so well in the Examination that 5 of us occupied some of the top places in the results for the whole of South Sudan! In retrospect, by missing to go to Mundri, I was able to go to one of South Sudan’s premier education institutions and continued on an academic track to Rumbek Secondary School and Khartoum, Princeton and Harvard Universities. Those colleagues who went to MTCPS were forced to limit their professional options to teaching. Late when my former Head Master passed, I asked his son Wesley Natana to announce at his father’s funeral service my deep gratitude to his late father for not allowing me to go to Mundri Teachers’ Training Practice School because his decision was a game changer and a turning point in my life.
WASS: How would you describe yourself in three adjectives and in one word?
DSB: Principled, Strategic and Innovative Leader
WASS: How do your friends describe you?
DSB: Humble, caring, generous, witty, charismatic, honest, and trusted and an unwavering companion on whom one can rely totally but gives serious work the highest priority.
WASS: When, how and why did you leave South Sudan?
DSB: I left South Sudan in September 1992. I reached pinnacle of senior level Government Public Service as Regional Minister of Agriculture and Natural Resources. I left in September 1982 as the result of change in Regional Government following an election won by the opposition group. Earlier, I was arrested and imprisoned at the Kobar Maximum Security Prison in Khartoum as part of a crackdown by the President Nimeiri’s Government on the leading South Sudanese Politicians. It was no longer safe for me to remain in the country. My departure from the country coincided and was also facilitated by my acceptance for further studies at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs of Princeton University in USA. My elder children Emile and Aida later joined me at Princeton then about a year or so my wife (Mary Bassiouni), her nephew and our youngest son also came to join us as the family was reunited once again.
WASS: How do you describe what you do for a living?
DSB: After my retirement in February 2010 following over 26 years of UN service, I am currently heading The Bassiouni Group (TBG), a New York based International Development, Trade and Investment Firm as well as functioning as an Adjunct Professor of International Humanitarian Assistance at the Long Island University, Brooklyn Campus.
WASS: Would you have been doing the same thing if you would not have left South Sudan?
DSB: Absolutely not!
WASS: When did you consider yourself a success in what you do?
DSB: When I was appointed on merit as South Sudan’s First Director-General of the Regional Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources (I cannot equate this level of recognition for outstanding public service with my later appointment as Regional Minister of Agriculture and Natural Resources which although also based on merit, could not be divorced entirely from political considerations). It was a recognition of the outstanding public service I rendered to the people of South Sudan as I rose in rank from Assistant Director, to Deputy Director, to Director and finally to Director-General of the Regional Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
WASS: What was your greatest success in life?
DSB: My appointment as the First and only UN Humanitarian Coordinator, based in Somalia, selected by the UN Secretary-General, Boutrous Boutrous Ghali and appointed by the UN Security Council.
WASS: How did you achieve it?
DSB: I did not aspire for and compete for the position because when I was serving as the UNICE Representative in Somalia, the position did not exist. Even the UN General Assembly Resolution 46/182 of December 19th, 1990 on the Strengthening of the Coordination of Humanitarian Emergency Assistance of the United Nations that set up the Department of Humanitarian Affairs (DHA) and its supporting mechanisms and its Head, the Emergency Relief Coordinator (UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs) did not provide for the appointment of a UN Humanitarian Coordinator! It merely delegated the UN responsibilities for responding to and providing humanitarian assistance at the country level, to the regular UN Resident Coordinator. I believe I was appointed to the position of UN Humanitarian Affairs based on merit achieved on three counts. My leadership and courage in taking UNICEF back to the risky environment of Somalia while all the other UN agencies remained in the safety, comfort and luxury of Nairobi, Kenya; my intimate knowledge of Somalia and its people and the trust and confidence I enjoyed among them and my reputation in taking risk and daring the impossible brought me to the attention of the high-level UN Leadership and won me the appointment to the coveted position.
WASS: What has been your biggest failure?
DSB: Before leaving Somalia in 1992, UNICEF, in recognition of my outstanding and dedicated service in Somalia first as UNICEF Representative and later as UN Humanitarian Coordinator, created a senior UNICEF Representative position for Yemen and nominated me to the Government as the candidate to occupy the position. This was one of my happiest moments in life. To my utter surprise and shock the Government of Yemen rejected my nomination! My world came tumbling down! As during my childhood in Lui Elementary School, it was to me the end of my career and future! I later learned reliably the Government of Yemen rejected my nomination for three reasons: my South Sudanese, origin, my Christian religion and a negative political report from El Bashir’s Sudanese Government. Later I was compelled to accept a lateral transfer (same grade level) from Somalia to the Office of Emergency Programmes at the UNICEF Headquarters in New York. I consider my rejection as candidate for the position of UNICEF Representative for Yemen, my greatest failure in life.
Later I was compelled to accept a lateral transfer (same grade level) from Somalia to the Office of Emergency Programmes at the UNICEF Headquarters in New York. Then followed the most unhappy and miserable phase of my UN career. I had a Director who was not inclined positively towards me and a new Executive Director who was misinformed on my performance and working relationship. Things changed dramatically only in January 1997 when I was transferred on promotion to the Department of Humanitarian Assistance (DHA) in Geneva, Switzerland. Thereafter I was able to regain the trust and confidence of the UNICEF Executive Director who having discovered my true and unique professional capacity and excellent interpersonal relationship, refused to allow me to retire and kept me as UNICEF Representative in several countries far and beyond the retirement age!
WASS: How do you push through your worst times?
DSB: Except for the irretrievable loss of my beloved wife. Mary N. Bassiouni to cancer in 2008, which no amount of psychological counseling, philosophical, persuasions and religious comfort could heal, time and again whenever faced with a grave adversity my strong faith in God has always carried me through thick and thin. I have come to accept adversities and challenges as hills and valleys of life through which we all have to pass. What matters is not that adversities strike at us but that in their faces, we summon enough courage and perseverance to overcome them and triumph. It is human to blame our failures on our ill-wishers and people we perceive to be our enemies. Yet when we later look back at failures and calamities that we sustained in the past, we become grateful that they opened up completely new and far better opportunities for us in life. In retrospect, we then become grateful to those we perceived were responsible for our failures. This phenomenon inspired me to coin the maxim “your enemies will take you to heaven” that has always reinforced my belief in God.
In January 1991, I together with other UN Heads of Agencies in Somalia were the last batch of UN staff to be evacuated from Mogadishu to Nairobi Kenya. As we could not much of our personal effects, we simply locked the doors of our homes and left, hoping to return one day to find our homes secure, safe and intact. We had hardly turned our backs to Mogadishu when the Somalis looted and vandalized all our homes. In our case we occupied an imposing 8-room mansion formerly occupied by the USA Ambassador to Somalia which was swept clean and, in the process, we lost all our worldly belongings including our most valued assets, the photographs of our children! Before being evacuated to London, UK, my late wife videoed the whole house. When we reassembled in New York, I presented my application for compensation supported by the video to the UN. The evidence was so overwhelming that we were given one of the highest compensation for the loss of our belongings in Somalia. We decided to invest the compensation in a penthouse apartment close to the United Nations Headquarters in New York, overlooking Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn and with a panoramic view of the East River. My rejection by the Yemen Government rendered us stateless persons. My late wife applied for a Political Asylum which covered her, our four children and myself. This led to our securing residency and USA citizenship. As we relaxed in our high rise apartment in of all places, New York we re-affirmed my maxim of, “your enemies will take you to heaven”. We felt grateful to the Somalis for giving us a gorgeous priceless high-rise apartment in New York and to the Yemenis for giving us a country!
WASS: What keeps you awake at night and what motivates you to get out of bed in the morning?
DSB: What keeps me awake at night and gets me early out of bed are unfinished urgent, important and time-bound tasks; unresolved important problems with far-reaching effect on institutions and people, critically important appointments with key partners and emergencies and meetings for which one is not fully prepared. At the same time, sleepless nights have given me many Eureka moments and epiphany shining answers and solutions to some of the most intractable and elusive problems one is preoccupied with.
WASS: What’s your biggest dream in life or what’s the one thing you’d like to achieve before you die?
DSB: My one dream in whatever remains of my life is to work towards seek and find a Formula for Co-Existence of South Sudanese that will enable South Sudan to achieve peace with dignity and embracing our unique diversity and rich culture. This unity will enable us to create and build a powerful, united and cohesive nation that is capable of training and mobilizing its talented manpower to fully exploit its rich natural resources for transforming the country into a viable economy. This way, the people of South Sudan can live in stability, harmony, prosperity and within a democratic environment that respects the rule of law, justice and freedom of expression and respect for basic human rights.
WASS: Who is your role model, and why?
DSB: Lee Kuan Yew, late Prime Minister of Singapore and the nation’s founding father, is my Role Model. Lee campaigned for Britain to relinquish its colonial rule, and eventually attained through a national referendum a merge with other former British territories to form Malaysia in 1963. But racial strife and ideological differences led to its separation to become a sovereign city state two years later. With overwhelming parliamentary control at every election, Lee oversaw Singapore’s transformation from a stagnant British crown colony with a natural deep harbor to an Asian Tiger economy. Overcoming major obstacles including linguistic barriers, Lew Kuan Yew dragged and cajoled his city state to emerge from oblivion into an economy that is a highly developed free-market economy. Singapore’s economy has been ranked as the most open in the world, 7th least corrupt, most pro-business state, with the low tax rates (14.2% of Gross Domestic Product, GDP) and has the third highest GDP in the world in terms of Purchasing Power Parity (PPP). APEC is headquartered in Singapore. In the process, Lee Kuan Yew forged a system of meritocratic, highly effective and incorrupt government and civil service.
WASS: What is your favorite quote and philosophy of life, and why?
DSB: My favorite quote comes from Albert Einstein: “Only Life lived for others is a Life worthwhile”. My philosophy of life is inspired and shaped by the overriding conviction that each and every human being has in him/her an intrinsic ability to do good not only to himself/herself but more importantly to others and society. That, by inference, also means that even the most evil and vilest individual has one positive trait in him/her to do good and that a great leader should be able to identify, find and recognize that one gift and utilize it for the greater interest and good of humanity and mankind. Life is meaningless unless we live and work for others and the satisfaction we receive in return will inspire us to aspire to greater heights. This philosophy finds its roots and is supported by the thinking and major works of world renowned philosophers and scholars especially of the 18th Century Enlightenment Age including such giants as Locke, Kant, Voltaire, Rousseau and Hume amongst others. In modern days, I have not stopped appreciating and admiring consecutive Popes who have consistently summoned exceptional courage to speak out for the world’s downtrodden, poor and voiceless common people. The direct relevance and challenge of this philosophy to South Sudanese leaders, especially those who have been given the privilege of serving the public at senior political and governance levels is to embrace such opportunities as unique privileges and honor to remain honest to themselves and do good for the downtrodden, the poor and the voiceless and their rewards in the hands of the voters and under God’s watch full gaze, will be inestimable.
WASS: What was the most important event in your life that got you to where you are today?
DSB: My appointment as UNICEF Representative for Somalia in July 1990 was followed by the full blown vicious civil war in the country in December 1990.After the evacuation of all Non-Essential UN Staff and Dependents including my beloved late wife, I and other UN Heads of Agencies were evacuated to Nairobi in January 1991.That brought to an end the presence of UN in Somalia to provide desperately needed humanitarian assistance to the dying and suffering people caught up in the civil war. I accompanied the UNICEF Regional Director for East and Southern Africa (ESARO) Dr. Mary Racelis to Somalia for the first time in July 1991.It was the most dangerous and risky journey I had ever undertaken in my life but the warm welcome we received from the Somali National Staff whom we had “abandoned “after the UN evacuation, was heartwarming and inspired me to return to serve the helpless Somali population! After UNICEF obtained, at my request, a Special Dispensation from the UN Secretary-General Boutrous Boutrous Ghali, to return UNICEF to Somali after UN Declaration of Evacuation Security Phase, on Christmas Eve 1991, I accompanied by key selected international staff flew into South and North Mogadishu and thereby returned UNICEF to the country for the first time since the outbreak of the civil war! That evening, the legendary UNICEF Executive Director James P. Grant called Mary and said to her: “This is the greatest Christmas Gift I have ever received in all my life! The return placed UNICEF as the leading UN organization responding to the Somali Humanitarian Crisis and won it the sweeping appreciation and support of the Donors especially as all the other UN agencies remained outside in the comfort and safety of Nairobi. It brought my leadership and daring courage to the attention of the high level UN leadership and the International community. It contributed significantly to my later selection and appointment by the UN Secretary-General and UN Security Council as the First UN Humanitarian Coordinator of the system assigned to Somalia. From there on my career progress and path took an upward trajectory.
WASS: What is your favorite book, song and movie, and why?
DSB: My favorite book is, “The Conquest of Happiness”, by Bertrand Russel (British Philosopher). The Conquest of Happiness is Bertrand Russell’s recipe for good living. First published in 1930, it pre-dates the current obsession with self-help by decades. It leads the reader step by step through the causes of unhappiness and the personal choices, compromises and sacrifices that (may) lead to the final, affirmative conclusion of ‘The Happy Man’. Besides the Bible, The Conquest of Man has given me inestimable guidance, support, encouragement and courage in understanding unhappiness and adjusting successfully to the ever-changing facets and challenges of life. I saw this in full live play when in 2008, as UNICEF Representative in Bangladesh, I visited the small Himalayan nation of Bhutan. Hemmed in between India, Bangladesh and China, Bhutan is at peace with all its neighbors. It relies for its viable economy entirely on producing hydro-electric power and selling it to India. It governs over the happiest and most contented citizens in the world who inspired and gave a powerful meaning to the “Gross Happiness Index” that in turn informed and inspired the, “Happiness Planet Index.”. Movie: My Favorite movie is Steven Spielberg’s 1993 ”Schindler’s List”. The film relates a period in the life of Oskar Schindler, an ethnic German businessman, during which he saved the lives of more than a thousand mostly Polish-Jewish refugees from the Holocaust by employing them in his factories during World War II. It stars Liam Neeson as Schindler, Ralph Fiennes as SS officer Amon Göth, and Ben Kingsley as Schindler’s Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern. Schindler’s List premiered on November 30, 1993, in Washington, D.C. and it was released on December 15, 1993, in the United States. Often listed among the made, it was also a box office success, earning $321.2 million worldwide on a $22 million budget. It was the recipient of seven Academy Awards (out of twelve nominations), including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Original Score, as well as numerous other awards (including seven BAFTAs and three Golden Globes). In 2007, the American Film Institute ranked the film 8th on its list of the 100 best American films of all time. The Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2004.
The special appeal of the film to me is that although universally the Germans are universally held for the death of six million Jews in the Holocaust it was a German Businessman, who had the kindness and courage to save at least 1,000 mostly Polish Jews from imminent death. It is an act of monumental historical proportion of moral courage act.
Song: My favorite song is, “Reach” the official theme song for the 1996 Olympics sung by Gloria Estefan. The song is about doing our very best for the dreams we hold and hearing it is uplifting and makes my spirit soar. It urges you not to be afraid to reach out and give your effort your everything. It urges you not to be afraid to aim high and soar, ignoring all the naysayers around you. It assures you that when you put your heart and soul into what you do, you will live your life to the fullest.
WASS: What are your success habits?
A: My habits for success include a punishing respect for time keeping; a relentless commitment to meeting deadlines; in the face of a daunting crisis/problem, daring the impossible until proven otherwise: leading by example; resorting to one’s natural humility in accepting one’s limitations and viewing failures as postponed successes.
WASS: What do you do when not working?
DSB: Watching serious historical and or political movies and TV Series especially those based in historical, documentary and satirical contexts; following world news and events; engaging fitness exercises and listening to Latin, Classical Music and Congolese Music.
WASS: What odds stood on your way to success?
DSB: My South Sudanese origin played negatively against me as it did in case of Government of Yemen with the collusion of the Government of Sudan rejecting my nomination for the position of UNICEF Representative in the country. Although my father provided well for my upkeep and education, I still faced hardship in my childhood and some setbacks in my career but all of these challenges have made me the man I am today. As Secretary-General of the Students Union in Rumbek Secondary School, I played a significant role in the planning and launching of the successful Sunday Strike that challenged the Government imposition of Friday as an Official Public Holiday in the South Sudan nullifying Sunday. Several of the student leaders were arrested and imprisoned in Wau, Bahr-El-Ghazal. I was later arrested in Kiyela, Eastern Bank of Equatoria and brought to Juba and detained. I was released after a short detention. Most of our older colleagues who were imprisoned but did not betray us lost years of education. We the younger colleagues got off more easily and continued our education almost uninterrupted except by the one year, 1956 that we lost when all schools in South Sudan were closed because of the worsening security situation. We were able to join Rumbek Secondary School in Khartoum where it had been transferred and continued our education to the university level.
WASS: What is the riskiest decision or action you have ever taken to get to where you are today?
DSB: My decision to take UNICEF back to Somalia which has been presented in greater detail elsewhere in this questionnaire is the riskiest decision I have ever undertaken in my life. Together with that, once we settled in Mogadishu with two teams operating respectively in the South Mogadishu led by me and in the North Mogadishu led by my late colleague Dr Tibebu Haile Selassie, we could not cross from one part of the city to the other. I was compelled to cross from south to north Mogadishu by a life threatening circumstance. My American Staff Rudy Ludwig was stranded in the north and besieged by a very intense fighting between the militias respectively controlling two parts of the city separated by a demilitarized zone known as the “Green Belt”. I met with the Militia Warlord in the south General Hussein Farrah Aidid and asked him to rescue Ludwig. He promised to help but did nothing and as time passed on, fearing the worst for Ludwig, I decided to take things in my hands and proceed north to rescue him! On that day, I had our car loaded with medicine and relief supply and instructed the converted armored pick-up truck used by our armed bodyguards known popularly as “Technicals” accompany us to the border between the two sides. My second in command Peter McDermott, a British took the wheel. We drove first to General Aidid’s compound but found him absent. I left him a message that I had proceeded to North Mogadishu. On arrival at the border crossing point we asked our bodyguards to step down from the technical and exchanged them with bodyguards from the north. As we drove into the north we were met with menacing gun-wielding and grenade-happy youth. We kept our cool and reached the Headquarters of the other Warlord Ali Mahdi who received us warmly and produced Ludwig for us. It was a great reunion! After meals and a very fruitful meeting with Ali Mahdi, we departed with Ludwig and returned south. This time Ali Mahdi himself accompanied us all the way to the crossing point. We rejoined our bodyguards and returned to our base. This was just as risky if not more risky than returning UNICEF to Mogadishu. It was a resounding success as we rescued Ludwig alive from the teeth of imminent death and from there on the Green Belt remained open for traffic between the north and south Mogadishu! The extensive coverage that BBC gave us and the accolades UNICEF received globally won me and my staff a UNICEF Award in recognition for our courage and outstanding service to children and women and dedication to duty. But I was to pay a heavy price for this successful rescue operation. General Aidid chose to perceive the rescue as a challenge and humiliation to his military leadership and bravery. A few months later, he declared me persona-nongrata. I had to leave Somalia.
WASS: What’s the greatest fear you’ve had to overcome to get where you are today?
DSB: My fear of violence, guns and death were endemic. When I was assigned by UNICEF as Representative in Somalia, I came into a very peaceful and orderly country then under the oppressive dictatorial regime of strongman Siad Barre. When the civil war erupted in December 1990, the city of Mogadishu was rocked and shaken for the first time by the overwhelming mortar bombardments and gun-fights and the resulting massive casualties! It was therefore a relief when we were evacuated in early January from Mogadishu to Nairobi Kenya. So when I decided to accompany the Regional Director to Mogadishu in July 1991 it was with a trepidation as the security situation had deteriorated further. The plane that brought us into Mogadishu, left after the cut off time and we found ourselves stranded in Mogadishu fearing for our lives. It was hence a relief when we were picked the next day and brought us safely back to Nairobi. The decision to take UNICEF back to Mogadishu in December 1991 was as pointed out earlier the riskiest undertaking of my life as we did not know what to expect at the height of the civil war raging in the city. After living and working in the city for about one month, we got used to gun-fire and thereafter we would not sleep comfortably without hearing gunshots. I could venture into any dangerous part of Somalia without the slightest fear. So the baptism of fire that one received in Mogadishu took away my inborn fears and freed me to rise to a level of courage where I was comfortable and able to face danger as I ascended in my career. That is why I say, “Mogadishu gave me courage”.
WASS: Can you tell our readers about a time when you almost gave up, how you felt about that, and what you did instead of giving up?
DSB: The loss of my beloved wife, of 42 years, Mary Bassiouni in 2008 of cancer, may her soul rest in eternal peace, left me and my children, crashed and adrift in a new world that I did not know. My closest trusted companion, advisor, defender and the anchor of our family had gone! The commanding, cheering and lively reassuring voice had gone silent. For the children and myself there was suddenly a gaping, silent and frightening void and emptiness we were unused to. We sought bereavement counseling but to no avail. No reflections and reminiscences of our great past professional, social and personal achievements we collectively realized together could bring consolation, comfort and change in our hearts. My children and I did not see any purpose to live on but in the absence of their mother all the children looked up to me for encouragement, assurances and support! Although I was just as weak as the rest of the family, I had no choice but to pick up the pieces and appear strong! In the end through prayers and the moral support of friends and colleagues, we came to terms with the loss but every one of us has kept a continuous daily special personal links and communication line with our beloved Mary and consult with and seek her advice and guidance all the time on all the major issues that affect us individually and as a family, The children’s decision to have their mother buried near them in New York, has maintained the close family bond with her over the years!
WASS: When have you been most satisfied in life?
DSB: I have been most satisfied in life by my marriage to my beloved late wife of 42 years, Mary N. Bassiouni, a Pioneering South Sudanese Woman Leader, Leading Parliamentarian and First South Sudanese woman Minister of Internal Affairs in the Central Government of President Gaafar Nimeiri; the blessings God has given us over the years of our three great children, Emile, Aida and David Bassiouni, grandchildren Nura and Natalia Bassiouni, and nephew Richard Philip.
WASS: What is your (honest) opinion of the current crisis in South Sudan and what do you think are some of the possible solutions?
DSB: The implementation of the Addis Ababa Agreement that established the Southern Regional Government was undertaken based on the understanding that General Joseph Lagu who lead the armed struggle would remain in the Army and manage the demobilization and reintegration of the Anya Nya Forces into the Sudan Armed Forces and that the civilian government structure and system would be under the overall leadership of the President of High Executive Council Hon Abel Alier and run by a technocratic civil servants. Working relationship between the two arms of Government and Legislature were harmonious and things worked well and much was achieved.
WASS: Tell our readers about the South Sudan you knew before this current crisis.
DSB: The South Sudan I knew was an insecure region that was going through a civil war in which the North held most of urban areas as garrison towns and the successive South Sudanese guerilla movements controlled the rural areas and attacked government positions at will. Rampant killings, widespread atrocities and gross violations of human rights were the order of the day. This situation developed from the frustrated and failed efforts of South Sudanese reaching out and negotiating with the North in the forties and in early fifties for at least a Federal arrangement granting the South a degree of autonomy covering power and resource sharing within a united Sudan. Southerners were double-crossed and betrayed and many promises made by the North were broken and dishonored with impunity. The severe political and social oppression and denial of any form of freedom only emboldened South Sudanese to unite strongly and fight even more fiercely for their freedom and independence. The civil war escalated and a very formidable political organization, the Southern Front emerged that worked closely with the Southern armed movement and defied the Khartoum government. It stood for and represented and symbolized the solid unity and determination of South Sudanese to fight for their freedom, aspirations and hopes. This was the golden era of South Sudanese unity, dignity, defiance and courage in the face of overwhelming northern avalanche of suppression. However, this pales in magnitude and degree of suffering compared to the on-going civil war in South Sudan.
The 1972 Addis Ababa Peace Agreement was a turning point in the political and governance relationship between the north and south. Under the leadership of Hon Abel Alier as the President of the High Executive Council the South Sudan Regional Government was launched in early 1972.It was the first test of the South Sudanese leadership and technocrats in designing, planning and managing and building a whole infrastructure of governance, security and basic social services and development from scratch. Despite the poor flow of resources to the Regional Government it did its best to meet and achieve significant successes in the security, governance and development fields. To cite just one example, the elegant and imposing office buildings which the Government of the Republic of Sudan is using today was built by the Southern Reginal Government. The Government of which I was an important part and player had its successes, failures and ups and downs but on the whole it stands in good light in the annals of history of South Sudan.
WASS: What do you think went wrong and how can this be fixed?
DSB: Unlike the establishment of the Regional Government in 1972 which capitalized by deferring civil responsibilities and authority on the political leadership and technical cadres in the country, although it lacked the experience and technical know-how, the new leadership took over the full leadership of South Sudan in 2005, assumed responsibility for all the military, security, governance, economy and basic social services and excluded all qualified and experienced South Sudanese cadres inside the country from joining them in running the country. The mantra, “We fought the war we brought independence to South Sudan, where were you?” became the rationale for the “winner-take-it-all” entitlement attitude. The endemic malaise of inefficiency, lack of transparency and accountability permeated the governance system and corruption became rampant. The international community did not help matters by failing to put in place a verifiable working system of monitoring performance, ethics and human rights violations and linking that to penalty. The matter came to a head with the emergence of power struggle within the ruling party over the reform and adjustments to a more open democratic form of government. This led to the outbreak of violence in December2013, leading to the vicious civil war from which we have yet to recover. At the heart of the crisis is the underlying social gap that we fought for and gained independence before we became a nation. This fact is borne out by an important anecdote following the marking of independence of South Sudan on July 9th 2011.It is reported that in the first meeting of the South Sudanese Cabinet following the Independence Day, the late much respected South Sudanese Veteran Politician, Isaiah Kulang asked President Salva Kiir,”Mr. President, we have been united as a people because of the North. Now that the North has gone what will unite us?” We are now in this deep crisis because we have not been able to answer that question!
WASS: How can your skills and training be useful to help with solving the current crisis?
DSB: I believe my skills and training can be useful in solving current crisis through the continuation of my current involvement as an independent and impartial elder Statesman and Professional as Senior Advisor and Resource Person in the on-going efforts to unify and strengthen the ranks of the South Sudanese Opposition Groups, ensure effective participation and success of the High Level Revitalization Forum (HLRF) and Consensus Building among all South Sudanese as a step towards advocating for and promoting the culture of mutual respect, integrity, patriotism and love for country, working collectively towards a united democratic and just South Sudan where every single South Sudanese will feel he/she belongs.
WASS: In which way have your success and achievements been or could be of benefit to South Sudan and South Sudanese?
DSB: My invaluable ten-year practical experiences, success and role and as a Senior Technocrat, Manager, Administrator and Development Specialist and Regional Minister in the Regional Government under the leadership of Hon Abel Alier in building a whole infrastructure of Central and Local Governments, Basic Social Services and physical infrastructure of South Sudan, should together with the experiences of many of my colleagues who are still alive today, be warmly embraced and utilized strategically to rebuild a new democratic South Sudan. In addition, my extensive work experiences of over 26 years in the UN working all over the word and in some of the most dangerous crisis spots plus my on-going experiences in the private sector are available and at the disposal of my country to use and benefit from. This unique package of vast high caliber professional and work experiences and technical know-how spanning Government and Public Service, the United Nations UN and Private Sector is what I represent and offer to the South Sudan. When peace comes. I see myself involved strategically at the appropriate leadership level with the early recovery, reconstruction and development efforts of transforming South Sudan into a stable, responsible and one united nation in which all its citizens enjoy security and rule of law, equality, justice, democracy and the respect for basic human rights.
WASS: Have you mentored or are you willing to mentor young South Sudanese who are or want to pursue the path you have taken in life?
DSB: Back home in South Sudan in my day as the Director-General and Minister of Regional Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources, I employed and trained hundreds of young South Sudanese professionals and sent many abroad for post-graduate studies even when at the time, I had sacrificed my own higher education to give service to our my people. I pursued and completed my higher education at Princeton and Harvard Universities only after leaving government! On the UN career side, I was as UNICEF Representative in 7 countries (Somalia, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Ethiopia, Occupied Palestinian Territories based in Jerusalem, Egypt and Bangladesh, a Deputy Representative in Nigeria as well as senior staff at UNICEF New York and Geneva Headquarters),responsible for mentoring thousands of young and mid-level professionals. Now as Chairman and CEO of the Bassiouni Group we are in out tenth year of a very dynamic and thriving internship programme through which many young professionals have gone through. So, yes, given the opportunity, I will be happy to go back and resume with all the energy in me, to do what I did earlier as the normal duties of a senior civil servant, senior UN official and a Corporate Executive.
WASS: In which other ways do you think South Sudan could benefit from your achievements?
DSB: My long and vast professional experiences and skills and the relevance of their application to the context of South Sudan are presented in detail in Section 30 above. In that regard the long and wide connections and excellent relationship I have established in life with all South Sudanese across regional and ethnic lines have given me a broad acceptance in and by the diverse cultures, societies and communities that will allow me to relate easily to and work freely with any South Sudanese even at the height of the current crisis especially in harnessing consensus, promoting unity and building nationhood.
WASS: What are your parting words for young South Sudanese?
DSB: We have by our own self-inflicted short-sighted greed, hunger for power and propensity for dominance landed ourselves in the deepest crisis South Sudan has ever gone through in the short history of our young country. It therefore behooves us to dig ourselves out of the abyss. This leadership and generation is responsible for driving South Sudan over the cliff into the abyss. It is their duty to accept responsibility for creating the crisis, apologize to the people South Sudan for betraying the trust vested in them and work in good faith to conclude doable appropriate recommendations coming out of the HLRF process as the path to resolve the crisis in South Sudan. However, since we borrowed this land from our children, but are already mortgaging it away and cannot preserve it for them, it is the duty of all young South Sudanese to step up, reclaim their inalienable right to enforce solutions to restore peace and ensure security, stability, recovery, reconstruction, development and prosperity for the much wronged and long suffering people of South Sudan.
I wish to leave you with this remarkable and moving story. It is reported that in the first meeting of the South Sudanese Cabinet following the Independence Day celebration on July 9th, 2011, the late highly respected South Sudanese Veteran Politician, Hon Isaiah Kulang,then Minister of. Wildlife asked President Salva Kiir,”Mr. President, we have been united as a people because of the North. Now that the North has gone what will unite us?” We are now in this deep crisis because we have not been able to answer that question! It is your national duty to answer Hon Isaiah Kulang’s question!