Saturday,21 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1309, (25 - 31 August 2016)
Saturday,21 October, 2017
Issue 1309, (25 - 31 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Machar: Arrest or rescue?

Having fled Juba a month ago, rebel leader Riek Machar is currently at the leisure of authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But was he arrested, or was he rescued, asks Haitham Nuri

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Al-Ahram Weekly

In a rare development, the UN mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) announced that the former vice-president of South Sudan “has been handed over to the authorities of the Democratic Republic of the Congo” last week, more than a month after he fled Juba, the capital of South Sudan.

UN Spokesman Farhan Haq said that MONUSCO had learned of Riek Machar’s location last Monday and informed Kinshasa, which in turn asked the UN mission to extract him.

Haq added that the taking of Machar, the leader of the armed opposition in South Sudan, took place Wednesday, but, he added, “we’re not in a position to confirm his location.”

Although the DRC government denied that it had been in contact with any party to the conflict in South Sudan — which has been raging since December 2013 — regarding the extraction of Machar, Haq said that the UN force had undertaken the mission for “humanitarian reasons.”

He added that operation covered Machar’s wife and 10 of his associates.

A statement issued by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition, led by Machar, said its leader had left Sudan to a “safe country within the region”, without identifying the country.

Machar’s spokesman, General James Gatdet Dak, said on his personal Twitter account, “Our leader is now in a neighbouring country, where he can have access to the world and media.”

Machar, whose political positions are unpredictable, led a rebellion in December 2013 after South Sudanese President Salva Kiir accused him of conspiring to overthrow the government.

Fighting erupted between forces loyal to the president and the vice-president, especially in Upper Nile and Bahr Al-Ghazal. The clashes left tens of thousands of people dead and millions displaced and put the country on the brink of famine, according to UN estimates.

Although the conflict appears political, there are also tribal dimensions, as old conflicts have been rekindled between the Dinka, 37 per cent of the population and the tribe of the president, and the Nuer, 16 per cent of the population and the tribe of Machar.

According to a UN report issued last week, all parties to the conflict in South Sudan have committed human rights violations and have recruited child soldiers. UNICEF says that both parties released 1,700 child soldiers following the signing of the peace agreement in Addis Ababa, but points to thousands of other child soldiers.

The two parties signed a peace accord in the Ethiopian capital in August 2015 under international and regional pressure. The UN also threatened to bring sanctions against both sides if the fighting continued.

But this did not prevent renewed fighting between the two leaders’ forces in Juba, in the wake of which Machar fled. He had only been in the capital for three months, having returned to Juba in April after the announcement of the formation of a unity government, which has still not been formed.

As differences grew over the unity government and clashes erupted, Salva Kiir removed Machar from his position and appointed Taban Deng Gai in his stead, a former negotiator for Machar who later broke with him.

According to Reuters, the UN informed the South Sudan president that any change in political position must be consistent with the peace agreement, which states that the armed opposition should select the vice-president.

Some 60,000 people have fled the fighting in Juba for Uganda and other neighbouring countries since July, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Uganda hosts 310,000 refugees from South Sudan. The UN is planning to provide them with food after they were cut off by floods.

As the fighting flared, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in Eastern Africa decided to deploy forces in South Sudan, following approval from Juba. The decision was made at the behest of Machar, who no longer trusted the government army forces, composed mostly of Dinka.

This force of 4,000 soldiers will be added to the 12,000 soldiers affiliated with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), which has lost many soldiers since the fighting resumed in July.

Machar fled the capital in fear of his life, according to spokesman James Gatdet. Gatdet said that government forces were pursuing him in order to kill him in the southernmost province of Equatoria.

According to press reports relying on sources in Machar’s party, the Nuer leader walked for 40 days to escape government forces, until he was found by MONUSCO.

Despite an announcement by the Machar-led opposition that he would appear in public and speak to the public at the right time, sources in South Sudan spoke of MONUSCO’s rescue of the opposition leader.

A political source in South Sudan who requested anonymity said that the aim of the rescue was to put Machar under UN surveillance in case the International Criminal Court opens an investigation into crimes in the country’s latest civil war.

The source added that this would be consistent with the desire of neighbouring and major states to calm the situation in South Sudan, which will not happen as long as Machar is free.

Machar has changed many of his positions since the beginning of the second Sudanese civil war (1983-2005). He was a deputy of the late John Garang, the then-head of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, before turning against him in the 1990s and receiving support from the Khartoum government. He returned to the opposition as Garang’s deputy until the peace accord was signed in 2005, but did not get on with Garang’s successor, Salva Kiir, throughout the transitional period (2005-2011) until South Sudan declared its independence.

Analysts believe that South Sudan’s demographic makeup contributes to the instability of the newest independent nation in the world. Based on numbers alone, democracy will ensure that the Dinka reach the seat of power, regardless of their party’s performance. They are assisted in this by their control over the army and government, as well as their alliance with smaller tribes in Equatoria.

The Nuer, with their fighting, centralised culture, refuse to submit to the Dinka. They are not a small tribe, but neither are they a majority like the Dinka.

Instability in South Sudan is also stoked by Khartoum’s desire to fuel unrest to compel Juba to resume petroleum exports on the North’s terms, says Alor Deng, a researcher at the Kush Centre for African Studies, which is close to the Juba government.

At the same time, Deng says, “MONUSCO’s rescue of Machar is a conspiracy against Juba that aims to bring the rebel leader to power or to compel the government to respond to demands it would normally reject.”

Deng asks, “Why did MONUSCO rescue Machar at the request of Democratic Congo? Does Kinshasa want to avoid the crisis over constitutional amendments by exporting it to South Sudan in the form of a regional conflict?”

South Sudanese journalist Matiang Guy disagrees, “because Democratic Congo is a strong ally of Uganda, which is a major support for Salva Kiir, so there’s no conspiracy against Juba”.

Guy continues: “Machar’s death could fragment the White Army, the Nuer militias, and transform it into criminal gangs bent on intimidation, which will fuel unrest in the country.”

The White Army is a popular force established by Nuer youth in the 1990s to protect their flocks and villages during the civil war with the North. With time, it became a major force in the political conflict.

But the reason for Machar’s rescue will remain unknown until he emerges in public and speaks to the media.

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