Death and duplicity in South Sudan: A lesson for Africa

Death and duplicity in South Sudan: A lesson for Africa
Photo: South Sudan President Salva Kiir (R) and former rebel leader and First Vice-President Riek Machar (L) attend a ceremony after a new unity government was sworn-in

The recent history of South Sudan is one of political double-dealing and duplicity, the exploitation of ethnic divisions, corruption and power-grabbing. The story of the former vice-president of South Sudan, Dr Riek Machar, is a salutary one for the rest of the continent.

On 16 October 2016, the vice-president of South Sudan, Dr Riek Machar landed at Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport from Addis Ababa as a guest of the South African government, seeking political asylum. He arrived with his wife, Angelina Teny, and a team of security personnel. He was offered security protection by South Africa, including living expenses.

His arrival followed a 40-day-long walk through a thick forest infested with animals and venomous snakes, and across rivers from Juba, in South Sudan, to the Democratic Republic of Congo border. This was a consequence of a shooting incident at the South Sudan Presidential State House on 8 May 2016 between President Salva Kiir’s armed forces and Machar’s protection unit.

I had the opportunity to interview Machar and the members of his entourage who had been with him throughout his ordeal.

He gave me his background before he became involved in politics. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Khartoum. He completed his Master’s Degree at my alma mater, the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, in Production Management and Manufacturing Technology. He went on to obtain a PhD at Bradford University in Strategic Planning and Complex Mathematical Formulae. He returned to Sudan and lectured at the University of Khartoum before becoming a full-time political activist. The tall, dark, friendly woman accompanying him is his wife, Angelina Teny. She is a university graduate, a political activist, a former deputy minister in the Kiir government and a senior member of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).

As a political activist myself, I was curious to know why he was visiting South Africa and what problems in South Sudan had led to the shooting of 8 May 2016.

Machar and his wife gave me the background to the South Sudan political scenario. He also invited his chief of staff and senior security officer to join the conversation and to answer questions. This article is a product of that discussion, which was aimed at getting a better understanding of the way African leaders approach complex socio-political problems.


The trouble in South Sudan began with the implementation or lack thereof of the transitional arrangements of 2005 before Sudan as a single country was formally divided into North and South. South Sudan was treated as a region before the national election of 2005, which was for the whole of the undivided Sudan. 

Salva Kiir was put forward by SPLM as their interim regional leader and presidential candidate who would take the party through the process of drafting the constitution and the transition to democracy in South Sudan, which later became a sovereign state. 

The SPLM assumed that Kiir, if given two terms at the helm of the party, would take them through the transitional arrangements from 2005 to 2010 and from 2010 to 2015’s national elections. 

Hence the SPLM, in trust, put his name forward again in 2010 to continue as interim president of South Sudan, believing he would facilitate the constitution-drafting process with no vested interest. This was based on the assumption that he would have served his two terms by the end of 2015 and would not contest for the presidency in 2015.

It was in this period that trouble started between Kiir and the first vice-president, Machar. The latter believed that he would become the party’s presidential candidate in 2015 following the party convention leading up to the election.

In 2010, South Sudan held its first national election as a country. The SPLM nominated Kiir as its presidential candidate in the hope that he would take them through the process of drafting the constitution and end the war that had ravaged the country for so many years. 

Machar was Kiir’s running mate as a vice-presidential candidate. The interim constitution of South Sudan, which was agreed to before the elections, restricted the president to two terms. But, after the elections, Kiir scrapped the constitution and unilaterally made significant amendments without consulting the electorate or even his party. He refused to accept dissenting views from his own party and ministers.

As stated above, after the referendum of 2005 which gave South Sudan the right to self-determination, a set of principles was developed and agreed to by all the parties to the conflict. Among these principles was that the country would have a federal system of government in which the country would be divided into 10 regions, the president would be directly elected by the people of South Sudan, the governors of the regions would be directly elected by the regions and the speaker of the legislature would be elected by the National Assembly. 

These principles culminated in the “The Resolution of the Conflict In The Republic Of South Sudan” document signed on 17 August 2015, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The implementation of this agreement was to be coordinated by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development(IGAD).

The peace agreement in South Sudan was signed between the government of the Republic of South Sudan (GRSS), the South Sudan Armed Forces, Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement/Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army, SPLM leaders, SPLM/SPLA, the other political parties of South Sudan in their individual capacities, the women’s bloc, representatives of CSOs, faith-based leaders and eminent personalities. 

These parties committed themselves to uphold enduring peace and stability in the Republic of South Sudan. They further accepted the immediate need to end the conflict that had been ravaging South Sudan since 15 December 2013.

The parties also accepted a federal system of government for the Republic of South Sudan where the country was to be divided into 10 regions. They all committed to build an inclusive and democratic society founded on the rule of law.

Kiir was uncomfortable with these provisions from the beginning. He refused to sign the agreement initially and when he finally decided to sign he proposed conditions, which were rejected by the Joint Peace Monitoring Committee, chaired by former Botswana president Festus Mogae. This was the beginning of the tension between Kiir and Machar.

Opening the plenary meeting of the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC), on 19 October 2016 in Juba, Mogae made the observation that an unfortunate sequence of events had unfolded in South Sudan and the fragile peace had deteriorated into open hostilities. 

“The resolve of the JMEC to implement the agreement is being put to the test,” he lamented. 

He further noted that there was a regrettable delay in the establishment of the Transitional Security Arrangement as well as “dysfunctionality of critical mechanisms and a growing incidence of ceasefire violations”.

However, after the 2010 elections in South Sudan, a Government of National Unity was formed in which Machar’s SPLM was given 10 ministers and two deputy ministers. Other parties were also given two ministers and deputies. 

Between 2010 and 2013 this Government of National Unity proved to be on a shaky foundation. The party leadership wanted a national convention, which was long overdue, to be convened to address the leadership contest. When Kiir felt the pressure from the Machar faction in the Politburo calling for the convention, he became suspicious and angry and dissolved the Cabinet.

Machar remained as deputy chair of the party but without a government executive portfolio, angering the Machar faction of the party. On 16 December 2013, Machar and his forces left Juba for the north of South Sudan to pursue the armed struggle out of frustration with what they perceived as the dictatorial tendencies of Kiir.

Some of the former detainee ministers refused to join the two major factions, preferring to pursue a peaceful solution rather than armed struggle, albeit outside of government. Machar believed that there was no point in pursuing a peaceful path to democracy in light of the aggressive behaviour displayed by Kiir towards opposition parties. 

The Machar group expected that the regional African leaders would intervene to mediate, as Kiir had violated the peace agreement. But the regional leaders remained silent.

Events leading to 8 July 2016

The 2005 agreement following the referendum that gave South Sudan the right to self-determination, stipulated that the exercise of self-determination be conducted under an elected government. Kiir was nominated by SPLM to be the president for the transitional government, that would take them to the finalisation of the draft constitution of the country from 2005 to 2015.

In the elections of 2010, the SPLM nominated Kiir to continue as president of the country until the constitution and the peace process were finalised. It was then decided that the party would convene a national convention in May 2013 where a new leadership would be elected. 

In the spirit of comradeship, Kiir and Machar were running mates in the 2010 elections. It should also be noted that members of the Politburo were also cabinet ministers and governors of the states.

Kiir was uncomfortable with convening a convention that could result in his replacement as chairman of the party. The convention was scheduled to take place in May 2013, but this did not happen. Instead, in July 2013 Kiir dissolved his Cabinet and replaced the elected regional governors with hand-picked individuals.

In North Sudan, there was also an agreement to move towards a constitutional state and away from the Islamic state with appointed regional governors. The intention was to strengthen democracy and move away from tribal and ethnic-based regional governments. The regional governments which were answerable to Khartoum had been seen as instruments of oppression and corruption. However, President Omar al-Bashir ignored that agreement and continued to appoint regional governors and reverted to an Islamic state. 

The route Kiir was taking was in line with what Bashir was doing in the north. It is interesting to note the silence of the AU and the African leaders on the deviation by Bashir from this agreement. It is therefore not surprising that Kiir felt he could follow in the footsteps of his former boss by violating the peace agreement with impunity.

These violations of the peace agreement and the constitutional principles forced Machar to the north of South Sudan to continue with the war on 16 December 2013. Instead of condemning and putting pressure on Kiir, African leaders mounted pressure on Machar to return to the government of South Sudan to pursue the peace process from within the establishment.

Following pressure from the regional African leaders, Machar arrived in Juba from Gambella in Ethiopia on 26 April 2016 and took an oath of office as vice-president of South Sudan. His conditions for returning to the country included confinement of troops to cantonments, return of the 10-states proposal agreed to in the peace agreement, and respect for the principles enshrined in the peace agreement ensuring that state representatives were elected and not appointed by the president. 

On 8 July 2016, Machar was summoned to State House by Kiir. He agreed to the meeting, but was worried that this was not the normal scheduled Cabinet meeting which took place once a week. He raised his fears with the Peace Coordinating Committee and requested them to accompany him to the meeting. 

On arrival at the ministerial precinct, he noticed a strong presence of armed government soldiers. However, he continued to the designated venue where he waited for Kiir, who reportedly was delayed at another meeting. Kiir finally arrived at the venue much later that evening.

Within minutes after the arrival of the president and the second vice-president, government soldiers started shooting at Machar’s security personnel. In just over an hour 100 armed personnel from both sides were dead. All this took place while the president and two of his deputies were locked in discussions in the Cabinet Room.

Inside the meeting room, discussions were suspended to attend to the crisis outside. Machar is reported to have asked Kiir to tell the chief of staff of the defence force to ceasefire. Kiir instead called for the suspension of the meeting and told Machar to leave the room and walk to his vehicle in the midst of the shooting. 

Machar’s bodyguards, who had forced their way into the meeting room, intervened. They called on Kiir to accompany Machar to his car. Machar’s bodyguards threatened that if Kiir failed to obey they would be forced to kill Kiir and the first and second vice-presidents.

Kiir succumbed to the pressure and, accompanied by a senior defence force officer, walked Machar to a military vehicle and out of the presidential precinct. They came to a roadblock, and the commander demanded to know who was in the vehicle. When he was told that it was Machar he shouted, “What does this man want here? He should have been killed inside.”

This proved to Machar that the so-called meeting between the president and the vice-president was a plot orchestrated by Kiir to kill him. 

The following day the army harassed and killed civilians in the streets of Juba, and on the night of 9 July, Machar’s house was bombed by the army – fortunately, he was not inside. 

Machar and his wife managed to escape unharmed out of Juba and walked for 40 days towards the Democratic Republic of Congo protected by about 1,000 soldiers from Machar’s camp. They were pursued throughout by Kiir’s forces using drones and helicopters. More than 100 of Machar’s soldiers died and an undisclosed number of the armed opposition forces were injured.

Some of the soldiers were killed by insects, snakes, and from eating poisonous plants when they ran out of food supplies. Some drowned when they tried to cross dangerous rivers. Machar himself lost energy and his leg gave in and he had to be carried for some distance on a makeshift stretcher. 

They were pursued until they crossed the border with DRC. Throughout this time they struggled to communicate with the outside world as any electronic communication would have given away their hideouts. After they crossed the border they called the United Nations Peace Mission in South Sudan to airlift them to Khartoum. Later they were flown to Addis Ababa and finally to Johannesburg.

The breach of the peace agreement

Kiir has shown a deep inclination towards ethnic mobilisation rather than national peace and social cohesion. On 19 October 2016, he issued an order following a meeting of the Presidency which included himself, First Vice-President Taban Deng Gai and Vice-President James Wani Igga, announcing the reinstatement of all civil servants who defected or abandoned their positions when conflict broke out in 2013. 

He also announced the establishment of four cantonment sites in the Equatoria region. He further announced that the number of states would be increased from 10 to an undetermined number, which later became known as the 28 states.

Following the non-compliance with the peace agreement, Botswana’s President Mogae was appointed to evaluate the state of affairs in South Sudan. In his report-back meeting he drew the attention of the African leaders to what he termed “egregious violations of human rights, including rape, gang rape, looting, intimidation and harassment of civil society and the media, and the killing of civilians” (19 October 2016). 

He underscored the need for an inclusive peace process which would lead to an enduring and sustainable peace in South Sudan. We “do not make peace with our friends; we reconcile with those with whom we disagree,” he stated.

As if to endorse the JMEC declaration, the deputy minister of labour and public service in Kiir’s government, Nasike Allan Lochul, resigned in December 2016, citing lack of political will on the part of Kiir and members of the administration to implement the 2015 peace agreement. 

The deputy minister immediately declared her allegiance to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition (SPLM-Io) under the leadership of Machar, which she said was an organisation working to avert a catastrophic collapse of the nation.

In 2013, when the members of the SPLM protested against violations, Kiir contrived a story of an attempted coup and solicited support from Uganda. President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda sent 1,370 soldiers supported by helicopters using cluster bombs and gunships to quell the rebellion which was triggered by Kiir’s violation of the constitutional principles. The soldiers killed members of civil society along ethnic lines.

Machar argues that there was no way not to fight back as this war had assumed a tribal dimension, with the Dinka turning against the Nuer and other minority ethnic groups. 

The situation developed into a state of mutiny in the military, and according to Machar, about 75% of the soldiers and a large section of the civil service joined his forces when he moved to the north of South Sudan to prosecute the struggle from there.

There were, however, a number of ministers and deputy ministers who refused to join the war even though they did not agree with Kiir. It is alleged that they were encouraged by the US to form a third force against the SPLM-I0 led by Machar. The leaders of the AU who were tasked with bringing about peace in South Sudan, without condemning the actions of Kiir, put pressure on Machar to return to the peace process and to stop the war. He consented.

There are a number of fundamental principles which Kiir violated. First, he refused to follow the guidelines towards the drafting of the constitution of the country. Second, he removed from office elected representatives of the regions and appointed his lackeys. Third, he increased the number of states from 10 to 28 without consulting with leaders of opposition groups and representatives of civil society.

And fourth, he refused to confine his forces to the proposed cantonments in terms of the peace agreement – instead, he chose to establish cantonments in the Nuer region and other minorities while the Dinka were let loose.


The fundamental question that arises from this article is, what motivates African leaders to violate their own constitutions and resort to dictatorship? In my view, it is not the love of power for power’s sake: it is the desire to use power to accumulate personal wealth at the expense of their citizens. Tribalism and ethnicity become useful instruments to entrench the hegemonic power base of the leader to hide extortion of the nation’s wealth. While many African leaders often trample on the constitution of their country, this is not sufficient basis for leaders to be corrupt and to exercise nepotism.

Changing the constitution is not a prerequisite for corruption and abuse of power; corruption exists even in societies where there is rule of law with strong democratic institutions. However, in many African countries, the changing of the constitution is designed to enable the leaders to weaken the institutions that provide checks and balances in order to create conditions necessary to accumulate personal wealth through corrupt practices. 

The incumbent president of an African state is capable of orchestrating plots as a device to justify liquidating opposition parties and leaders and carry out arbitrary arrests and torture of critics of his government. Ahmed Sékou Touré created plots which were used as a pretext to liquidate his opponents in Guinea. Some of those plots were contrived and others were simply fictitious, according to the author Martin Meredith.

In the absence of the rule of law, the constitution and a bill of rights, African leaders have a licence to act arbitrarily. Consequently, a sub-culture of kleptomania develops among the ruling elite and the public servants. This constitutional lacuna enables African leaders to silence opposition parties and civil society using their security forces. The state security institutions are established not to protect the citizens, but to terrorise and eliminate opposition to protect their evil deeds.

The question which everybody needs to ask and attempt to answer, given the situation in South Sudan, is whether African leaders are capable of acting against each other in defence of democracy, the rule of law, and in defence of human rights.

The campaign seemingly led by South Africa, to pull out of the International Criminal Court (ICC) may have had justification from certain quarters, but the risk of human rights abuse by political leaders in the absence of the legal recourse provided by the ICC is high. 

Right now, human rights abuses in South Sudan are threatening to challenge the Rwandan genocide figures. DM

Thozamile Botha is currently a member of the ANC Stalwarts and Veterans of the ANC.


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.7% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.3% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.3% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.3%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.