The high hopes created by South Sudan’s independence three years ago have withered. Following months of political tension within the governing Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), fighting broke out on 15 December last year.
President Salva Kiir says former vice-president Riek Machar attempted to overthrow him. Riek denies this, claiming that Salva tried to eliminate him and other dissidents. Within days of the stand-off, the country was at war.
Rebel to Ruler and back again
1953 – Born in Leer
1984 – Doctorate in philosophy – University of Bradford, UK
1991 – Fell out with SPLM leader John Garang
2005 – V.P. under Comprehensive Peace Agreement
Dec 2013 – Rebellion against Pres. Salva Kiir’s government
Since then, thousands have been killed, ethnic tensions have been exacerbated and well over a million people have been displaced.
The UN warned in July that there is now a real risk of famine. Despite international pressure, negotiations between the warring parties have stalled.
The Africa Report: How did you manage to get out of Juba last December? One version has you leaving on a boat up the White Nile. There is the claim that a foreign embassy helped.
Riek Machar: I walked. I walked through forests and crossed at Kuda to Mangala. I then walked to Bor. There is no foreign embassy that helped.
Take us through the events of the next few days after you left Juba.
I arrived in Bor on 24 December. I got a message from the foreign minister of Ethiopia, Tedros [Adhanom], asking me to form a peace delegation.
By 24 December, you had already said you were leading this armed movement against Salva Kiir.
Yes, by that time we felt there was nothing else we could do except resist the onslaught of the government.
But how did that actually happen? Did Peter Gadet [the general who mutinied] spring into action to take the town of Bor, and then you had a phone conversation with him later? Were you in contact with him before he took up arms?
I found Bor already captured by forces loyal to Peter Gadet. I think they had their own spontaneous reaction, like it happened in Magri and it happened before that in Mangala and then Bor. Also there was fighting in Bentiu and Malakal, so this spontaneous revolt had to be managed.
But you had a choice at this point. You could have left the country quietly. Why make that choice at that point?
Well, the massacres that happened in Juba played a big role in my decision, like it also played a big role in the decision made by the troops in Mangala, Magri and elsewhere in South Sudan. It seemed the government was killing its people and targeting them ethnically. In such a situation, one will have to make a choice, so I made the choice to resist, along with those who had made that choice before me.
Various towns have gone back and forth between rebel and government control – Bor, Malakal, Bentiu. Recently your side hasn’t been doing as well. How damaging is it strategically to have lost control of these towns and Nasir, your headquarters?
Well, losing a town or losing a battle in a long struggle is not conclusive. We could lose a town today, we could regain it the next time. That’s always the case in guerrilla warfare. We are a very young resistance movement. If we assess and compare with what we had done in 1983 [the start of the SPLM’s rebellion against the Sudanese government], we have done so well. We control a great chunk of land, so I cannot complain. The government has all the resources. We are only starting from scratch. In actual fact, we only began to formally organise ourselves last April.
You make the case for federalism as the solution to South Sudan’s problems. The counter-argument against the federal system is that in such an ethnically divided country, a federal system could take away from a sense of national unity rather than add to it.
You don’t force national unity. You foster it, you nurse it. We are not the only nationality that is composed of several tribes and ethnic groups. I am advocating that we revert to the 22 districts used during British rule. Those districts were actually heterogenous.
There must be a political calculation, too. Equatorians in general seem in favour of federalism.
Federalism since 1947 has been the call for people of South Sudan. It’s not only Equatoria, it’s the whole of South Sudan. I’m happy that the majority of Equatoria is calling for a federal system. They are joining Upper Nile and parts of Bahr el Ghazal.
Your forces are responsible for massacres in Bentiu and Malakal, as the government forces are elsewhere. Why did this happen?
I tell you, we formally organised last April. But we are also investigating the incidents which happened, the issue of Bentiu, which was highlighted. Now it has boiled down to a squad of ten people. So we are locating them one by one.
Ten people were responsible for the hundreds of deaths the UN talked about?
In actual fact, not all the ten did commit that. It also boils down to one person who had a machine gun.
One person is responsible for killing as many people as that?
Well, unless the report is wrong. The people who did the investigation, I trust, they did it well. We are moving in to take action. I have already given instructions to Peter Gadet, who is the commander in the area, to locate the ten and in particular that guy who had a machine gun.
Is this report going to be made public?
Surely, yes. We will provide it to the African Union commission of inquiry.
With more than a million people displaced and the thousands of people who have lost their lives, at what point do you think: ‘This isn’t worth it. This is too damaging for the people of South Sudan’?
Well, frankly, I didn’t start the war. I don’t want it fought. I don’t want anybody to die, but the people are forced to fight this war – even the elements of the White Army joining us in the fight. These are civilians. Why would civilians volunteer to fight against the government? This is because there is something wrong, there is disgust at what is happening in Juba. So we want to end this war in the shortest possible time. ●
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