South Sudan VP Blames Former Rebel Leader for Unrest

Riek Machar's replacement in the transitional government claims the former rebel leader never accepted his subordinate role, and tried to play "parallel president."

KHARTOUM, SUDAN - AUGUST 22: Vice President of South Sudan Taban Deng Gai (R) holds a press conference after his meeting with President of Sudan Omar al-Bashir (not seen) at Presidential Palace in Khartoum, Sudan on August 22, 2016. (Photo by Ebrahim Hamid/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
KHARTOUM, SUDAN - AUGUST 22: Vice President of South Sudan Taban Deng Gai (R) holds a press conference after his meeting with President of Sudan Omar al-Bashir (not seen) at Presidential Palace in Khartoum, Sudan on August 22, 2016. (Photo by Ebrahim Hamid/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

In July, former South Sudanese rebel leader and one-time vice president Riek Machar fled the capital city of Juba, saying he feared for his life if he remained. Fighting had broken out between Machar’s troops and those loyal to his longtime rival, President Salva Kiir.

Now, one of Machar’s former allies, who controversially replaced him as first vice president in South Sudan’s government, says Machar is perpetuating the country’s internecine conflict from afar. Taban Deng Gai, the chief opposition negotiator for the August 2015 peace deal, says that Machar and his associates are encouraging displaced people to stay in United Nations camps in South Sudan instead of returning home, where they could help rebuild the shattered state.

“He is encouraging them to remain in those places,” Deng told Foreign Policy in an interview at the Atlantic Council in Washington on Wednesday. “Those people are not afraid to leave; they are told to stay.” Deng suggested that a “Riek Machar mafia” is holding displaced people at the camps, which he said ends up prolonging the civil war that has plagued South Sudan since 2013.

In all, some 2 million South Sudanese are now displaced, including more than a million who have fled the country as refugees. Some 200,000 South Sudanese civilians are crowded into the U.N. camps across the country, which lack basic amenities including food, clean water, and health care. Civilians began flocking to the U.N. in late 2013, seeking protection as the infighting between Machar and Kiir escalated into full-fledged ethnic violence in the capital, then quickly spread across the country. Since then, more than 50,000 people have been killed, and violence raged on for months even after Kiir and Machar signed the peace deal in Ethiopia in 2015. The civil war followed a two-decade struggle with Sudan, which culminated with independence in 2011.

When Machar finally returned to the capital in April, Juba was relatively calm. But the tenuous unity government, a marriage of the president and a rebel, blew up in July as forces loyal to the two men clashed. Kiir’s camp says Machar attempted a coup; Machar’s side claims Kiir tried to kill him. The result was an outburst of violence in the capital that killed hundreds of military personnel and civilians and drove many more to seek protection in the U.N. camps.

Deng insists that the 40,000 people in the Juba camp should return home to help rebuild South Sudan, but that many of them are hesitant to do so because of a network of Machar supporters who he says are intimidating civilians from leaving.

“The mafia can work in a prison, even in America,” he said. “That’s what is happening in those protection sites. The ‘Riek Machar mafia’ is operational there.”

Machar’s aides dismiss those charges and say there’s a simple reason people remain in the camps. Par Koul, a Machar aide who is leading an opposition delegation to Washington this week, told FP Juba “is the most dangerous place to live.” He also dismissed reports that Machar called his troops to arms this weekend, saying that he only has called for defending themselves in the wake of attacks. 

“The raping, killing, and all the atrocities you have seen were committed by the government,” he said. “Our people took refuge in that camp to seek protection from the government. How do you go back to the government from whom you’re being protected?”

And Deng is truly part of that government, Kuol says, since he had already defected from the opposition by the time he assumed the vice presidency. “He has crossed to the other side,” Kuol said.

An American expert on South Sudan who participated in a closed-door meeting with Deng earlier in the day told FP that the claim civilians are staying in the camps for any reason other than protection is “disingenuous.”

“All empirical evidence points to people being there as an option of last resort,” he said.

Although both Machar and Kiir’s troops have been accused of committing atrocities including looting, pillaging, mass rape, and murder, the government forces have been accused of carrying out those crimes on a much larger scale. In July, government troops stationed at a checkpoint in Juba fired at American diplomatic vehicles. In a separate incident, troops who witnesses say belonged to Kiir’s presidential guard invaded an expatriate compound, singled out Americans, and raped and beat them for hours on end.

As vice president working alongside Kiir, Deng has to live with those atrocities. He said he wants to launch the hybrid court, as outlined in the peace agreement, to hold those accountable who have attacked civilians and carried out other war crimes.

U.S. officials have pressed for the speedy establishment of the court to hold accountable those responsible for atrocities. But Deng said the court’s establishment is not urgent because “it will just divide people more.” First, he said, South Sudan needs a national healing and reconciliation effort.

“The dust must settle,” he said, adding that to remove political leaders from power and bring them to trial would disrupt the reunification process. “Is it simple that you bring Salva Kiir to court today? Then how do you lead the country? Let Salva Kiir be given a chance, let him fix it.”

But the American who attended the closed door meeting with Deng earlier in the day said that delaying the establishment of a hybrid court is just the government’s latest demonstration “that they’re not interested in implementing any aspect of the peace agreement in good faith.”

“He’s been completely co-opted by Kiir, and all we heard this morning was a complete denial of the security and humanitarian catastrophe that unfolded in South Sudan in large part due to the actions and policies of Kiir and his inner circle,” he said.

For people close to Machar, Deng’s transition from one-time ally to sidekick of the current president threatens to reignite the violence that has rocked the young country practically since independence. Government forces, Kuol said, bombed Machar’s camp in Juba in July, destroying his home and office and essentially chasing him away. “The whole thing is a mockery,” he said.

Deng denied defecting from the opposition and blamed Machar for the unrest. When the former rebel did join the unity government in April, Deng said, Machar refused to accept his subordinate role, and acted as a “parallel president” to Kiir, which he said is ultimately what destabilized the country. 

Insisting that he has no presidential ambitions of his own, Deng said his goals are simple: to move on from the conflict and the controversy over Machar’s seat, to encourage reconciliation, to send displaced people home, and to jump-start the economy so that Juba can one day be the new Dubai.

“If my working with the president can stop the killing, can stop the suffering, can stop the rapes, can stop the manslaughter, I think this will be the noble job I should do for my people and my country,” he said.

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