Despite overseeing the near-total destruction of Africa’s newest country, South Sudan’s liberation hero-turned-rebel leader Riek Machar says that his war is just. In an in-depth interview at his residence, Machar tells SIMON ALLISON that while he has some regrets, he’s not the bad guy and that history will vindicate him.
One of Africa’s bloodiest wars is being waged from a three-storey building in a calm, upscale Addis Ababa neighbourhood. It is here, in a typical suburban villa, an easy walk away from luxury hotels, burger-joints and the city’s red-light district, that Riek Machar maintains his residence.
It’s a long, long way from the frontline.
Machar is a man of many titles. He’s a doctor, with a PhD in mechanical engineering from an American university. He’s a hero of South Sudan’s decades-long war for independence. He’s a father and a husband, a former vice-president, and a seasoned diplomat. But his most relevant title, as South Sudan enters its third year of a disastrous civil war is Commander-in-Chief of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Opposition (SPLM-IO).
Along with President Salva Kiir, who still runs what remains of South Sudan, Machar has presided over a vicious internecine conflict in which the brutality has been matched only by the scale of the slaughter. Tens of thousands of civilians have died since the war began in December 2013, as fighters from both sides have raped and pillaged their way through towns and villages, while more than two million people have been forced out of their homes. Many more are slowly starving to death as fields lie fallow and markets empty.
Life in South Sudan, Africa’s newest country and a beacon of hope when it became independent in 2011, is more difficult than it ever has been. And Machar is one reason why.
I meet the rebel leader at the house where he spends most of his time. Security is tight, and one of my pens is confiscated, its unusual yellow cartridge attracting attention. An element of paranoia comes with the territory. Guards lead me into the house itself. Heavy curtains are closed against the midday heat, and the ornate, dark wood furniture lends the living room a gloomy, gothic air.
Machar sits in a claw-foot armchair. He rises to greet me. “The day is good if it starts with journalists,” he jokes, and, despite myself, I warm to him instantly. He speaks slowly, in perfect English, and his grave manner commands respect. His fighting days are behind him: he’s in his early 60s, and his smart white shirt can’t conceal a significant paunch. It’s immediately obvious that the commander-in-chief designation is honorary. In his business suit, from another country, Machar is clearly not directing the troops himself.
This is not to diminish his importance. As chief negotiator in the peace talks, it is Machar’s job to end the fighting rather than conduct it. This diplomatic battle culminated last year in the signing of a peace agreement between the rebels and the government which imposed an immediate ceasefire, and was supposed to lead to a government of national unity with Machar once again in the vice-president’s office.
It hasn’t quite worked out that way. The ceasefire has been repeatedly broken by both sides, and Kiir has been reluctant to cede power. Most recently, the president unilaterally created 28 new states in a clear attempt to derail the transition.
Machar, however, remains optimistic. “I am happy with the agreement signed, that this is going to usher in reforms. It will also usher in a new system of governance, federalism, in my country. And I am satisfied with that. If this agreement could be implemented with the necessary focus from the guarantors of the peace agreement, peace will prevail in the country.”
His reliance on the guarantors of the agreement – the Intergovernmental Authority for Development, the regional body, along with international heavyweights including China, the United Kingdom and United States – seems misplaced. The international community is out of ideas when it comes to South Sudan, and has less influence in Juba than ever before (for example, after Kiir announced his controversial plan to expand the number of states, he refused to even talk to ambassadors in Juba for six days).
Also misplaced is Machar’s insistence that only Kiir has failed to uphold his end of the bargain. Machar says his troops have stopped fighting, but rebel forces have been implicated in ceasefire violations.
I can’t help but wonder, aloud, how much he actually knows about the situation on the ground, and whether he has full control of the forces supposedly under his command.
“We have united the different groups within the movement. The movement is very democratic. We are a cohesive group,” he says. It doesn’t quite answer the question.
He also claims that he has managed to stamp out the culture of human rights violations – including mass rape, ethnic violence and the use of child soldiers – which characterised the early days of the war, as outlined in a scathing African Union report. “We formally organised April 2014. The violations that are being enumerated happened prior to this date. However, we took responsibility. But we have contained these violations now. We are open to investigation…Once the investigation has come we will take action against those individuals who have committed such atrocities. Some are known, some are not known, but we will stamp it out.”
Again, this is disingenuous. Not only has Kiir conspicuously failed to take action against commanders implicated in war crimes, but the human rights abuses have continued long after his supposed April 2014 cut-off.
Machar refuses to take personal responsibility for any of this. Quite the opposite. When I bring up a leaked United Nations memo advocating that both Machar and Kiir be hit with individual sanctions, he says: “It’s unfair. They are acting without justice. How can you create a perpetrator who is a victim? I am a victim. Why would sanctions be imposed on me?”
He elaborates on his own sacrifices. “I spent all my life for liberation of South Sudan, I would have done something better for my own self, but I forsaked that. Resisting dictatorships is more worthwhile than accepting them and thinking things will change by themselves.”
I put it to him that the real victims are the dead and displaced, and that he could stop the suffering today if he simply gave up the fight.
“Giving up would be irresponsible. You leave when things are settled. When you see that things will not go worse than when you left them. You don’t leave when there’s a crisis, that would be irresponsible. History would not forgive one for that.”
Me: “So how do you want history to remember you?”
Machar: “I created a country. I created a country,” he emphasises. “I was fought by my own brothers when I said self-determination is what we should fight for, and by enemies, but in the end we won self-determination. We are free.”
I press him further. “But given the scale of the subsequent suffering, was independence a mistake?”
He holds my gaze and speaks slowly and deliberately, containing his irritation at the question. “I’m a hero of the independence. It can never be a mistake. We have found ourselves in this despicable situation, but that doesn’t mean that our independence is not cherished. We cherish our independence. We fought for it for many generations. We have achieved it during our time so the independence is deserved by the people of South Sudan. They deserve it, nothing will take it away.”
It is a revealing answer.
For Machar, the triumph of independence was enough, even if it failed to bring the stability, prosperity and rule of law that it was supposed to; even though, on its own, it’s just an abstract political concept. And this war’s no different: again, an abstract political concept, which makes so much sense in the comfort of his Addis Ababa living room, trumps the unimaginable suffering of the people he is supposed to be fighting.
“It’s a battle of ideas, of systems of governance,” he says, sounding for all the world like an old-school Cold War warrior. Except the Cold War is over, and it’s hard to discern any ideology in the wreckage of Africa’s newest country.
It’s equally difficult to escape the conclusion that at least some of Machar’s motivation is personal. He doesn’t like Kiir, for one thing. “I don’t have to like him,” Machar shoots back. And he also clings on to the idea, shared by many leaders who have spent too long in positions of power, that the show can’t go on without him.
“The time for my retirement is coming. It’s inevitable,” he says, and laughs to himself. But that time is not now. “I have lived a full life. What remains for me is to ensure things are moving correctly and for others to take over so if there’s anything I want to live longer for, it’s to create stability in the country and to see that the system moves even without me.”
Again, I ask him if it was all worth it. “My regrets would be the death, the suffering that my people have been through. But then I tell my people: there’s no independence on a silver plate. We have to sacrifice for it.”
As we conclude the interview, Machar’s wife, Angelina Teny, sweeps in and offers me tea. We sip it and make small talk, and Machar relaxes, slumping in his chair and letting the formidable Teny, a senior rebel in her own right, do most of the talking. At one point, he rests his head in his right hand, and closes his eyes for a moment. He looks like the he’s got the weight of the world on his shoulders – the weight of a country, at least – and I feel a rush of sympathy for him. It’s hard to square the eloquent, genial old man in front of me with the extraordinary pain and suffering he is accused of orchestrating.
But orchestrate it he did, along with President Kiir, and I leave the interview with more questions than answers. I can’t tell from our conversation whether Machar is a cynical, masterful politician well-versed in spinning propaganda to foreign journalists; or if he’s a deluded ideologue who has somehow convinced himself it is his destiny to bring South Sudan to its knees before building it up again, no matter what the cost.
Not that it really matters. The news from South Sudan is not good. On Monday, the African Union said the crisis is getting worse, not better. As if to underline that point, government troops were accused of suffocating 50 civilians to death by locking them in a shipping container in baking heat. This is what the war has brought to the people of South Sudan. As much as Machar might like to pretend otherwise, there is precious little nobility to be found here. DM