Riek Machar signed a peace deal designed to end one of Africa's worst conflicts, but he says U.S. neglect could unravel it.
South Sudanese rebel leader Riek Machar is visiting Washington this week to seek support for the increasingly fragile peace deal both he and his rival signed under intense U.S. pressure in August.
But the Obama administration has grown so frustrated after both sides failed to follow through with the agreement — at least the seventh of its kind in the past 20 months — that National Security Advisor Susan Rice abruptly scrapped a scheduled meeting with Machar at the White House on Tuesday. The cancellation has not previously been reported.
In a wide-ranging interview with Foreign Policy Tuesday, Machar accused American officials of “not supporting peace” and slammed the White House for not doing more to ensure the deal they backed in August is enforced on the ground. Under the terms of the accord, all fighting was supposed to halt immediately, and troops from both sides were instructed to retreat to their barracks. Instead, violence has continued to break out, and President Salva Kiir has refused to demilitarize the capital of Juba by the deadline agreed to in the deal.
“I am frustrated,” Machar told FP during an interview at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank. “Why would she cancel such a meeting? America has been supporting a lot, and in the last minute you can’t chicken out.”
Machar, who served as vice president of South Sudan until Kiir accused him of plotting a coup in 2013, took personal offense to Rice’s cancellation of their meeting, saying it was a symbol of the disconnect between Washington and the situation on the ground in South Sudan. Machar told FP he was informed of the cancellation through Donald Booth, the U.S. envoy to South Sudan, when he met with him Tuesday morning.
Ned Price, a spokesman for the National Security Council, confirmed that Machar, Vice President James Wani Igga, and former political detainee Pagan Amum all had their invitations to a joint meeting with White House officials revoked because of a lack of commitment to the peace process in South Sudan, where at least 10,000 have been killed and millions displaced since late 2013.
“After a renewal of fighting over the weekend, Machar’s unwillingness to make compromises in security sector reform negotiations, and the government’s decision to create 28 new states in violation of the spirit of the peace agreement, we decided not to receive the parties at the White House until they demonstrate a stronger commitment to promoting peace in South Sudan,” Price said.
The cancellation is the latest evidence of the increasingly troubled relationship between the United States and South Sudan, a country that came into existence largely because of strong support from the U.S. government. Machar is effectively laying the blame for the current draft’s possible collapse at the feet of senior administration officials; those officials, in turn, are pointing their fingers squarely at Machar and Kiir.
Machar, in Washington until later this week, is clearly taking those tensions personally.
Wearing a neatly pressed navy blue suit and matching striped tie, Machar told FP that the administration is adamant that he return to the capital of Juba even if the city is not demilitarized.
According to August’s deal, Machar said, Ugandan troops based in Juba to support government forces are supposed to exit the capital by the end of this week. But Machar said Booth told him Tuesday that the troops would not be leaving on time and then urged the disgruntled former vice president to return to the capital anyway — a suggestion Machar called suicidal and refused to even entertain.
Recalling his conversation with the American envoy, Machar grew visibly agitated. Inching forward in his chair, the hefty rebel military chief clasped his hands together and let his gold and leather watch hang loosely from his left wrist.
“He wants me to be slaughtered by Salva, then I would be a good person,” he said. “‘Go to Juba, sign your death,’” he added, mocking Booth’s suggestion he go back to the capital even if the Ugandan troops do not retreat. “Why would I return to a killing ground?”
Price, who mentioned Machar’s unwillingness to compromise on the security sector in his email to FP Tuesday, said the White House expects “senior State Department officials will express our concerns in meetings with the group this week.”
An American analyst close to Machar who declined to be identified in order to preserve that relationship told FP Tuesday that the opposition leader is scheduled to meet with Secretary of State John Kerry this week, but a State Department spokesperson was unable to confirm either way and told FP there was no meeting on Kerry’s public schedule to that effect.
Meanwhile, Machar does have reason to be concerned about his return to Juba. After Kiir’s unfounded accusations that he was plotting a coup in 2013, three military tanks rolled through his family’s house in the capital city, destroying it. Over the following months, thousands of innocent civilians, many belonging to his ethnic group, were killed, including groups of men who were reportedly rounded up and summarily executed by government forces. As the conflict continued, at least 10,000 South Sudanese — including civilians, children, and soldiers on both sides of the conflict — were killed, raped, and maimed. Farmers’ fields were burned, and entire villages were razed to the ground. Today, millions are displaced within the country, others are seeking refuge outside, and a third of the population relies on international assistance just to access food each day.
Born in what is now South Sudan in 1953, Machar has been at the center of Sudanese and South Sudanese politics for decades. A cunning military commander, he has four children and is married to Angelina Teny, a prominent South Sudanese politician who refers to him strictly as her “chairman” when they work together professionally. He was also briefly married to British aid worker Emma McCune, who in 1993 was killed in a car accident in Nairobi while pregnant with their child.
Years after a 1991 massacre that killed an estimated 2,000 Sudanese civilians in the town of Bor, Machar apologized publicly for the attack that was carried out by rebels reporting to him. When asked about that apology on Tuesday, Machar said he was not on the ground in Bor but apologized and shouldered the blame to help move toward reconciliation. “I did not kill a fly,” he said, to which his wife responded with a laugh.
August’s peace deal was signed late by Kiir, who initialed an additional dozen pages of reservations that neither Machar nor the United States recognized as legitimate. His reluctant signing came after a threat of sanctions by the U.N. Security Council, which would have included an arms embargo suggested by the United States.
Among other points, the 75-page deal called for both government and rebel forces to be confined to their barracks within 30 days — a requirement that was not reached by either side in time.
In his conversation with FP, Machar made clear he thinks the United States owes opposition forces substantial logistical support to help round up his troops and implement the cease-fire, which would include offering tents, food, and medicine to urge the starving soldiers to return from the bush and settle into cantonments. According to him, U.S. involvement in the peace deal — including the threat of sanctions — means Washington now has a duty to follow the process through to the end. “Provide us tents, food, medicines, water so that they are assembled and they wait,” he said Tuesday. “A tent is a dividend for peace.”
But the United States, which poured billions of dollars into South Sudan to help the country break away from Sudan and establish itself as an independent state in 2011, and has most recently shouldered the burden of humanitarian assistance, has reason to be skeptical that the current deal will last.
There have been so many tentative South Sudanese peace agreements in the past 20 months that Machar’s wife and top aides who sat in on Tuesday’s interview had to help him count on his hands all of the pages he has signed, periodically interrupting him to remind him of an instance he forgot.
And tensions only increased in South Sudan over the weekend after Kiir announced his plans to redistrict the small country from 10 to 28 states, which he claims would bring the country closer to a federal system. But the peace deal signed in August was based on the country’s 10-state layout, and Machar echoed the Obama administration Tuesday in saying the plan is a clear violation of that deal. “This is fueling the conflict,” Machar said with a wave of his hand. “He acts as if there is no peace agreement before him.”
Meanwhile, Machar himself was busy this weekend meeting with the South Sudanese diaspora in Nebraska and Kansas, where he looked to gain support for the peace deal in populations he said have grown increasingly influential online, to the point they impact popular political opinion on the ground in South Sudan.
“If they’re not persuaded that this peace agreement is workable, oh, they’ll crucify us on the Internet,” Machar said with a laugh, revealing his gap-toothed smile.
But gaining support for the deal is useless, Machar said, if the United States is not willing to spend the money necessary to make the details of the peace plan happen on the ground.
Those who have been down this road with Machar before don’t quite agree. Kate Almquist Knopf, a former senior USAID official who worked in both Juba and Khartoum during the Bush administration, said Tuesday that it was “deeply disappointing” to watch Machar appeal for more money after so much U.S. funding has already gone to waste.
“If I were sitting back in my old seat, I wouldn’t see any evidence of commitment from the parties to support that the United States should invest billions more dollars in the same power-sharing arrangement that just failed so spectacularly for the people of South Sudan,” she said.
Price echoed that sentiment in his email to FP Tuesday, saying the United States is committed to helping the people of South Sudan, but needs to see a renewed engagement with the peace process from the country’s opposing leaders.
This latest peace deal, which would restore Machar to a position titled first vice president, would also force him to work alongside Kiir on the same team — a requirement that is growing increasingly unrealistic. Machar said Tuesday he does not need to trust Kiir to work with him, but he will do it “for the sake of the people.”
And if the two can’t find a way to agree soon?
According to Machar, “all hell will break loose.”
Photo credit: ZACHARIAS ABUBEKER/AFP/Getty Images