State Department Says South Sudanese Rebel Leader Should No Longer Try to Return to Power

After attacks on Americans, the State Department envoy to South Sudan faced a tough crowd on Capitol Hill.

U.S. special envoy to Sudan and South Sudan Donald Booth (C-L) speaks to reporters following a meeting in Khartoum on September 14, 2013. AFP PHOTO / ASHRAF SHAZLY        (Photo credit should read ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. special envoy to Sudan and South Sudan Donald Booth (C-L) speaks to reporters following a meeting in Khartoum on September 14, 2013. AFP PHOTO / ASHRAF SHAZLY (Photo credit should read ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images)

The United States helped facilitate South Sudanese rebel leader Riek Machar’s return to the capital of Juba last April in a move that, at the time, was expected to kick off a transitional government and finally implement the August 2015 peace agreement between Machar and his rival, President Salva Kiir.

Instead it resulted in chaos, as troops loyal to each of the two men opened fire on each other in July. The violence ultimately killed more than 300 people, displaced thousands more, and prompted Machar to flee South Sudan after government troops bombed his camp in the capital.

Now the State Department says Machar, who under the terms of the peace agreement should have been the country’s first vice president, should no longer bother trying to return to that role in Juba.

“We do not believe it would be wise for Machar to return to his previous position in Juba,” Donald Booth, the State Department’s special envoy to South Sudan said at a House hearing Wednesday.

“That said, this cannot serve as justification for President Kiir to monopolize power and stifle dissenting political voices,” Booth said.

Reath Muoch Tang, who serves as a Washington representative for rebels loyal to Machar, told Foreign Policy after the hearing that Booth’s suggestion for Machar to not return to his role as first vice president is a “very big concern.” Machar’s supporters claim the first vice president’s replacement, Taban Deng Gai, was tapped by Kiir only after he defected from the opposition, and thus cannot be expected to represent them in office.

“The U.S. supports the unraveling of the peace agreement done by Salva Kiir,” Muoch Tang told FP.

Booth’s testimony before the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa came at a particularly tough time for U.S. policy in South Sudan. Despite tremendous American support for the young nation’s 2011 independence from its northern neighbor, a two-and-a-half year civil war that broke out in late 2013 has pushed the country into perpetual turmoil.

There has been renewed American interest in the conflict since August, when an Associated Press report detailed a brutal government attack on an expatriate compound Juba in July. Troops loyal to Kiir raided the apartment complex, singled out Americans, then sexually assaulted, gang raped, and beat them. It took hours for the victims to be rescued, despite repeated phone calls to both the United Nations and the U.S. Embassy in Juba to inform them about the attack and beg for help.

That wasn’t the only time Americans were ambushed that week. On Tuesday, FP chronicled how the State Department downplayed a July incident in which government soldiers shot between 50 and 100 rounds at seven U.S. diplomats who were traveling in armored vehicles through Juba on the evening of July 7. (No one was killed or injured in the incident.)

Under intense pressure from lawmakers — both on the subcommittee and others who attended the hearing out of personal interest — Booth fielded more than an hour of intense questioning. He defended the U.S. embassy’s response to the attack on the expat compound and unleashed skepticism as to whether the South Sudanese soldiers who fired at the diplomats really could have understood they were American.

Booth offered details about the diplomat ambush, saying that it came “very shortly after similar-looking vehicles that were driven by opposition forces” refused to slow down at a checkpoint in Juba, sparking gunfire between the two sides that killed five government troops.

He also said the informal checkpoint where U.S. diplomats came under fire was in a very dark area, and that the vehicles they were traveling in had tinted windows, which may have made it hard for the troops to see that the passengers inside were American.

As for why the soldiers continued to shoot despite the fact that the license plates on the vehicles carried the number 11 to signal that Americans were on board, Booth said it should be taken into account that the army is “primarily illiterate.”

“Even for the brief time they stopped and tried to show identification, it was not at all clear if these soldiers would’ve been able to see it, or even understand the license plate,” he said.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle who were present at the hearing repeatedly expressed frustration with the Obama administration for failing to implement an arms embargo that has been on the table since the beginning of the conflict, which has killed more than 50,000 people since December 2013.

And Booth said it has proven effective to threaten to enact the embargo as a tactic to gain leverage against the government and sway its behavior.

But Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) said it’s time to stop worrying about leverage protect civilians on the ground through an embargo.

“If we make too many idle threats that are not backed up by action then ultimately what happens is the threats become irrelevant,” Rooney said. He raised concerns that the U.S. would not implement the embargo for fear it would be viewed as a foreign policy failure — even though Washington acknowledges South Sudan is overflowing with weapons.

Booth responded by saying the U.S. prefers to support a multilateral arms embargo that has U.N. Security Council backing. But Rooney said “that doesn’t make any sense.”

“Just do it!” he said. “Just use the U.S as the leader of the free world and do it. Who cares if it’s unilateral? That doesn’t make any sense. We’re the No. 1 country in the world. We’re the sole superpower.”

Rooney predicted if Washington moves forward with an embargo, others will follow suit.

Photo credit: ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images

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