Talking Trump and War Crimes With South Sudan’s Rebel Leader
In an exclusive interview at his armed camp, Riek Machar accuses his rival of war crimes and blames the U.S. for prolonging the carnage.
JUBA, South Sudan — Since he returned to Juba late last month, South Sudanese rebel leader Riek Machar has been living in a makeshift camp made up of little more than a smattering of tents and a few air-conditioned pop-up offices.
The day I visited, rebel soldiers dressed in worn-out army fatigues roamed the property in flip-flops, dark circles under their eyes and AK-47 assault rifles slung across their shoulders. One stood next to a piece of string intended to act as a security checkpoint, holding a notebook where visitors were supposed to sign in. He didn’t have a pen.
Other armed men, many with the traditional Nuer ethnic group scarring on their foreheads, lay in the dirt under mango trees, strings of bullet casings hanging from the branches above them. A group of men and women wearing suits and dresses sat on chairs under one of those trees, looking blankly into the distance as though they were waiting for a speech to begin.
It took more than three hours to get face to face with Machar, one of the men at the center of a fragile U.S.-backed effort to end his country’s bloody civil war. While I was waiting, one young advisor wearing a navy blue suit sat with me and spoke at length about Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican Party nomination in the United States’ presidential election. At one point, he suggested that a leader like Trump could solve South Sudan’s ongoing debate over an attempt by Machar’s rival, President Salva Kiir, to change the country from 10 states to 28. The opposition claims it is a clear violation of the shaky August peace deal designed to end a conflict that has killed more than 50,000 people since December 2013. “We need Donald Trump to solve that problem,” the staffer said with a laugh.
When I finally reached Machar, he sat at the head of a large conference table, surrounded by piles of papers, folders, and three-ring binders. “I’m trying to get organized,” he said, pointing to the mess and apologizing for the delay.
Dressed in a traditional white robe and matching hat, Machar, who is now serving as the country’s first vice president, struck a surprisingly relaxed and optimistic tone for most of the hour-long conversation. When questioned about his current stance on the 28-state issue — a contentious dispute with the potential to plunge the country back into war — Machar said he and Kiir still had not directly talked about the proposal. Machar opposes the move in large part because it is seen as undermining the two leaders’ power-sharing agreement to put more territory in Kiir’s control.
“Our position is still the same. The act is a violation of the peace agreement,” he said. “It’s in the agenda. We hope to discuss it.”
Machar pulled no punches in the interview about what he derided as Washington’s hands-off approach to the conflict in South Sudan, which broke out after rumors swirled in 2013 that Machar planned to overthrow Kiir in a coup. Repeating a charge made to me in October, he angrily claimed that the United States is now delaying his country’s already fragile peace process by refusing to provide tents and food to his forces to encourage them to come home from the bush.
Instead, he said American officials want him to fund it himself, claiming that if he could pay to supply weapons throughout the war, he can pay to clean it up. He repeated their suggestion and scoffed at it, telling me it would be impossible because he doesn’t even have money to rebuild his own house which was destroyed by a government attack early in the war. When I asked who was funding the comfortable, air conditioned office we were sitting in, he smiled.
“Friends. Let’s say friends, that’s all,” he said. “One of them could be you. If you have money, you will contribute a little here.”
Machar told me he is disappointed that since finally returning to the capital on April 26, he has not heard from any of the American officials who spent months calling for him to go home. “No John Kerry, no Susan Rice, no Donald Booth,” he said, naming the American envoy to South Sudan and adding that he has not spoken to Rice, who was at the forefront of South Sudan’s push for independence, since before she canceled a meeting with him when he was in Washington last October.
During our October conversation in Washington the day the meeting was scrapped, Machar said that Booth delivered the news, then suggested the rebel leader return to Juba. At the time, Machar referred to the capital as a “killing ground.”
“You know we were friends? We know one another well,” Machar said about Rice during our May meeting, recalling how “furious” he was the last time he was in Washington. “So I was disappointed. You see how friends can get disappointed.”
A State Department official speaking on condition of anonymity told Foreign Policy that since returning to Juba, Machar has met with Molly Phee, the American ambassador to South Sudan, and that moving forward, she will be his primary point of contact within the United States government. He also said that organizing for troops to return from the bush is primarily the responsibility of the warring South Sudanese parties.
Machar is now closely following the upcoming presidential election in the United States and wondering what it will mean for his own country’s future. Many of his followers believe Machar to be the descendant of an ancient Nuer prophet, so maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he claims to have predicted months ago that Trump would take an easy lead in the Republican primary.
“Somebody that free discusses anything. People like it. The American people like it!” he said between laughs, telling me he is angry he can’t get CNN in his new camp in Juba and that his advisers didn’t initially believe him when he said Trump would likely be the Republican nominee. “Now I’m telling them ‘Prepare yourselves! Trump might win!’”
But whether Trump is prepared to help South Sudan? Well, that’s another question.
“We are a small country in Africa,” Machar said. “I don’t know whether somebody who came out of business has taken interest in South Sudan, although we would want him to take interest in us.”
Besides his repeated complaints about the United States, Machar stayed surprisingly even-keeled during the conversation, even when discussing his shaky relationship with Kiir. When I asked about the government’s purchase of amphibious tanks, which were reportedly used by Kiir’s forces to hunt down civilians and armed rebels in the country’s massive and treacherous swamplands, Machar said he believes buying and using them amounts to war crimes as well as crimes against humanity.
“You use proportional power,” he said. “When you fight your enemy you’re restraining because you don’t want to eliminate, you want to disable. But when you use amphibious tanks against the civilian population, that’s a serious matter.”
The African Union, the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International have accused both sides of committing atrocities, ranging from ethnically targeted murders to mass rape. Machar said that the last time he was aware of any human rights violations carried out by troops loyal to him was in early 2014, before they had an organized central command, but that if he was called to appear before the International Criminal Court, he would show up. “I’m not intimidated by the ICC,” he said. A spokesman for Kiir’s government did not respond to any of my phone calls or emails.
The rebel leader, who spent decades leading the push for South Sudan’s independence from Sudan, was born in Unity State, where some of the conflict’s worst violence took place. The night the most recent conflict broke out more than two years ago, Machar said government forces killed 34 people in his house alone, and claimed in our conversation that the conflict took him by such surprise that he ran away in his pajamas. “If it was a planned war I would have been in military fatigues,” he said.
Much of Machar’s refusal to return to Juba for so many months after the signing of the peace deal last August had to do with his fear he would risk his own life if he went back to where the conflict began. But when I asked whether he felt safe in Juba, he hesitated. “I’m here,” he said, adding that while the capital is still “not fully demilitarized,” he himself feels safe.
And as for what’s next? Machar already has his eyes set on South Sudan’s 2018 presidential election, when citizens are slated to go to the polls in a national vote for their leaders for the first time since independence. He said he will run for president only if his party “says so,” and that the priority for now is making sure conflict doesn’t break out again. He is convinced that in addition to improving security, getting displaced people back home, and beginning the process of reconciliation, the world’s youngest country needs to build roads and improve the economy, which has been in free-fall throughout the conflict, in order to ensure peace.
One of the only other ingredients is making things work with Kiir — at least until 2018 when they won’t have to sit side-by-side anymore.
“We must forget about personal animosity if we’re going to implement the agreement,” he said. “Or else you would condemn the country to perpetual war.”
Photo credit: Michael Habtemariam/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images