Former missionary from Meath who helped southern Sudan win freedom
A farmer’s son from Ratoath is proud of his role in the struggle for freedom in south Sudan
MENTION the name Dan Eiffe around Juba, and you might quickly find yourself lost in an ecclesiastical adaptation of a Boys Ownadventure story. “Yeah, he used to run guns for the SPLA [Sudan People’s Liberation Army],” says one man of the former Catholic priest from Co Meath.
“Single-handedly kept the rebel movement alive during the civil war, he did.”
“Dan? You mean Dan the Confessor?” says another.
“He’s the personal confessor to Salva Kiir . Does Mass with him every Sunday.”
The story itself, on how a farmer’s son from Ratoath, a former Sacred Heart missionary, managed to get caught up in Africa’s longest civil war is worthy of a book in itself, never mind a cartoon strip.
And Eiffe, cheeky looking, always smiling, does little to dampen down a lot of the gossip that has sprung up around it.
“My role in Sudan is very prophetic,” he says, sitting underneath the mango tree of a Juba hotel . “I don’t think there is another white man in Africa that turned a whole war around.” That’s the way Eiffe tells it at least. But no matter where the truth starts and finishes, there’s no doubt about his commitment to the cause of southern freedom, even if some of the stories told about him are a bit tall, he says.
After training as a priest with the Sacred Heart Missionaries at Moyne Park in Galway, Eiffe went to South Africa, motivated by a “real sense of justice”, first found reading books about Irish freedom and Tom Barry in boarding school in Coláiste an Chroí Naofa, Carraig na bhFear, Co Cork. “But even at its worst, apartheid was a tea party compared to what was happening in Sudan,” he says.
He took a leave of absence from the missionaries and went to Sudan in 1987, to wind down the operations of the NGO Accord. “But I ended up winding them up!” he says, raising money and getting more funding for projects in the country, even as the war intensified.
So bad did it get that by 1989, the population of Juba swelled from 40,000 to 80,000 as southern rebel forces of the SPLA closed in, and then began shelling the town, then held by the northern army.
Eiffe had at this stage decided to leave the priesthood, after marrying a Sudanese woman and having twins, Daniel and Desmond. “I remember lying on top of them in 1989 in a trench, my stomach over them. And I swore I’d kill John Garang (the southern rebel leader) if he killed them.” Eiffe left with his family but returned in 1991 as an aid worker, eager to represent southern grievances to the world, the principal ones being that the government in Khartoum had failed to develop the south economically and was enforcing a programme of “Arabisation” on the “African” region.
“I got tremendous satisfaction representing them, trying to get the media to come in, bringing in shelter and blankets and medical supplies for hospitals. It was the most satisfying thing in the world.” By 1994, the SPLA was pushed over the Aswa River, to within one kilometre of the Ugandan border and was on its last legs, when Eiffe began looking for more concrete support. “I never ran guns,” he says, but “I was an advocate for military support as a means of defence.” It is this side of Eiffe, the man who lobbied President Museveni in 1994 to give military aid to a dying, bankrupt rebel movement that has generated the most criticism of his time in Sudan.
Eiffe says he met Museveni in Gulu in northern Uganda, telling him that if the SPLA was defeated, it would take the army of the government in Khartoum just three hours to reach Gulu. “Museveni jumped up and said ‘you’re fighting my war’!” he recalls.
Eiffe is vague on what kind of support was given. “I didn’t look at it. I’m not a military man,” but he stoutly defends his role in bolstering the rebel movement, in whatever way that actually was.
“The SPLA had little or no ammunition. No trucks, no transport, no food. It was like a last stand. We were using 15,000 fish hooks, fine big ones I got from the Norwegians” from an aid programme that had just finished. “We put them in the river to stop reccies [reconnaissance] coming across.
“They were fighting for their survival. They have been treated as nothing better than slaves by Arabs in the north who had carried out slave raids as far back as the 1860s. And here they were again, the Africans, up against it. Imagine if I was living back in Ratoath, and 400 men on horseback came to rape our wives, take our daughters as concubines and enslave our sons. There is a moral obligation to defend yourself.”
Sixteen years later, Eiffe can hardly believe southerners have a right to choose their destiny.
But in building a country with over 200 ethnicities, one in which some tribes have accused the major Dinka tribe of monopolising positions in government, he is worried . . .“divisions deepen as politicians begin looking for support. They use their people to suit their own ends as they need a constituency.
Eiffe is now the publisher of the Sudan Mirror and the owner of the first private TV licence in southern Sudan. “They lost two to three generations of education in this country. The levels of poverty here are worse than anywhere else in the world. It is a monumental task to rebuild this country because we are starting from scratch. It is not so much rebuilding, as building.”