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Riek Machar's End-Game: What is it?

Eric Reeves, 28 December 2013

Riek Machar, former Vice-President of South Sudan and current leader of rebel forces in the country, knows as well as anyone that every day that passes without a halt to the fighting-every hour-makes more likely the explosive spread of violence that has already taken on a clear ethnic character. Riek knows as well that as long as this violence continues it will be impossible for most humanitarian organizations to operate outside Juba, putting many hundreds of thousands of civilians at risk-most without any political identity, but inevitably an ethnic identity. The number of those displaced was put at 121,000 several days ago by the UN, but it was only a mechanical estimate. Toby Lanzer, head of humanitarian operations in South Sudan, declared on December 22 that, "'As we go to bed tonight, there are hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese who've fled into the bush or back to their villages to get out of harm's way'" (BBC, December 22, 2013). There is dismayingly little reporting presence in most of South Sudan, especially in Jonglei, Unity State, and Upper Nile-those areas that have seen the most fighting and in which the forces of Riek Machar are strongest.

Bor (Jonglei) and Malakal (Upper Nile) have been recaptured by the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA, the army of South Sudan); however, these major towns may yet be the sites of more fighting. Indeed, Associated Press reports today (Nairobi, December 28, 2013) that 25,000 (Lou) Nuer youth are within 30 miles of Bor and that fighting could resume at any time (this figure is likely an overstatement, but perhaps not by much). This would put a tremendous number of civilians at acute risk. Of this Lou Nuer "White Army" Associated Press also reports:

The White Army has threatened the central government in recent past. In 2011 the army said that the Nuer youths would fight until all the Murle-another tribe [in Jonglei]-had been killed.

An unconfirmed report from the ground has the forces of Peter Gadet, who defected to Riek, even closer-at only a few kilometers north of Bor, possibly awaiting the arrival of the "White Army." Gadet has a well-deserved reputation as a fearsome and brutal warrior.

Two of the states involved in recent fighting-Unity and Upper Nile-are the primary oil producing regions of South Sudan. Machar's allies control Bentiu, capital of Unity State, and defecting SPLA division commander General James Koang Chuol has declared that the oil fields of Unity have been completely shut down. It is quite unclear whether the shutdown occurred with anything approaching the necessary technical care for such an operation; and given the wholesale exodus of Chinese, Malaysian, and Indian oil workers-including those with technical expertise-it is certain that in the relatively near term, in the absence of maintenance, major damage will be done to the oil infrastructure; moreover, re-starting the flow of oil may be an extended operation. This denies revenues to both Khartoum as well as Juba, given the transit fee arrangements and the significant amount of oil that lies in reserves north of the current North/South border. Oil from the reserves of both South Sudan and Sudan in the Unity/South Kordofan areas use the same pipeline and infrastructure, and are equally affected by any threat to professional maintenance of this system. Riek is also well aware of this.

So why has Riek refused to respond to offers from the Government of South Sudan (GOSS)? These include talks "without preconditions" (December 19), the announced release of most of the detainees Riek has demanded be freed (December 27), and the offer of an "immediate ceasefire" (in a Twitter feed of December 27, the GOSS declared: "We have agreed in principle to a ceasefire to begin immediately, but our forces are prepared to defend themselves if attacked." Riek's response? In an interview on December 27, speaking to the BBC by satellite phone, he said "any cease-fire had to be negotiated by delegations from both sides and must be 'credible,' must 'include a way to monitor compliance,' and 'must have [established] mechanisms for monitoring.'" But all this will take a good deal of time at a critical moment; and if these requirements are true for a full and final cease-fire agreement, it is not true for an immediate military stand-down. The government in Juba has declared that it will hold off on its offensive designed to re-take Bentiu: this halting, easily monitored, will provide a clear measure of whether the GOSS and the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) are acting in good faith, provided that Riek responds in kind. Instead, there are reliable reports of a resumed assault by Riek's forces on Bor, and my contact in Malakal indicates the SPLA there expects renewed attack.

We could have in effect something very much like the "Agreement on the Cessation of Offensive Hostilities" declared by Khartoum and the SPLA in October 2002-the event that marked the rapid de-escalation of fighting in the civil war, then in its twentieth year. To be sure, fighting continued (as I witnessed myself in January 2003), but the de-escalation continued, leading to a more formalized cease-fire in February 2003. It was this that enabled progress in negotiating the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.

[ Troublingly, it must be said, comments by Juba's military spokesman, Philip Aguer, are indicative of either a lack of communication or confusion on the part of Juba. Associated Press reports Aguer as saying that, "'We have not seen any sign of a cease-fire. There is no cease-fire agreed by the two sides,' an indication the planned assault on Bentiu could still take place" (Nairobi, December 27, 2013). This ambiguity or contradiction or lack of internal communication should be addressed immediately. ]

Machar also declared to the BBC on December 27 that conditions for a truce were not yet in place. But if not now, when? Fighting, violence, and ethnic animosities increase every day, every hour: how can these facts, these "conditions," not dictate that whatever form of truce or cease-fire is possible be declared now?

What is Riek's "end game"? How does he see an end to the human destruction that threatens to become utterly catastrophic? How does he see his own future?

Politically he has no apparent allies in the international community, and it is clear from the language of the recent statement by IGAD (a consortium of East African nations, led in this case by Kenya) that there is strong support for Juba:

Addressing a special summit of the Inter Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an east African regional body, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta urged Kiir and Machar to seize "the small window of opportunity" and start peace talks. "Let it be known that we in IGAD will not accept the unconstitutional overthrow of a duly and democratically elected government in South Sudan.

Kenyatta continued:

"The present crisis, if not contained, will produce millions of internally displaced persons and refugees and set back this region immeasurably," Kenyatta told the regional leaders. (Reuters [Juba/Nairobi], December 27, 2013)

The scenario outlined by Kenyatta is terrifyingly plausible. For its part, the African Union is taking its cues from IGAD and the UN has likely done all it can or will do by sending a very substantial new contingent of peacekeeping forces to South Sudan. But even after secession, South Sudan remained one of Africa's largest countries-the size of France. It will be extremely difficult to control even present violence; to respond to the needs of displaced persons and to provide security for the humanitarian organizations that are desperate to get back into the South is beyond daunting.

Mistrust of Riek by a great many Southerners has always been high, and not only because of his role in the slaughter of Dinka in his 1991 rampage toward Bor, where thousands of civilians were killed. His signing of a wholly unworkable, expedient, and personally enriching peace agreement with the Khartoum regime in 1997 has not been forgotten, and for many that agreement defines him still as a politician. They regard the "Khartoum Peace Agreement" of 1997 (also signed by Lam Akol) as a touchstone event, especially in light of the ensuing massive assault on civilians in the oil regions of what was then Western Upper Nile (which included what is today Unity State). Many more, having had personal contact with Riek, have expressed a distinct uneasiness, a lack of confidence in the man's trustworthiness.

And yet in an interview with Al Jazeera (December 24) Riek repeatedly declared that he was speaking "for the people of South Sudan," that he wished for a "palace revolution" that would depose President Salva Kiir, and that his efforts were the start of a "second liberation" of South Sudan. But what form will this "second liberation" take? Riek denied in the interview that he was complicit in any of the terrible atrocities that have been committed, but so long as he refuses to accept an immediate cease-fire, this claim will be impossible to credit.

A Role for Khartoum?

Again, the inevitable question is whether Riek has an "end game" amidst the present violence-or is he simply improvising, counting on a military stand-off that will compel the international community to accord him the place he wants at the negotiating table, and with such military and diplomatic equities as will enable him to strike a deal he finds acceptable?

Unfortunately, the arrangement(s) most recently suggested by Riek (see below) necessarily require Khartoum's assistance; and in rendering such help, by declaring-with Riek-that the Government of South Sudan is illegitimate, Khartoum would make even wider war all too distinct a possibility. Khartoum's assisting Riek would be a disaster; nothing could be more destructive of the chances for negotiating the critical outstanding issues between Juba and Khartoum, most notably Abyei, which lies adjacent to Unity State (as well as Warrap and Northern Bahr el-Ghazal). Boundary issues elsewhere would also be impossible to resolve unless Khartoum accepts the GOSS as its sole negotiating partner. The North/South peace would be in extreme danger if any version of such collusion were to become evident.

There are as yet no clear answers or telling insights here about Riek's intentions; but the march of many thousands of Nuer youth on Bor, in the form of the infamous "White Army," suggests that Riek is willing to let his forces continue to extend the fighting. Having "let slip the dogs of war," he has no evident intent to leash them-and "havoc" there will be. Malakal, although retaken by the SPLA, may also be the site of a counter-attack by Riek's forces, many of them former regular members of the SPLA and a formidable military force.

What is most concerning is Riek's extraordinary statement about his sequestering of oil revenues (see below). For this raises a deeply troubling possibility: that Riek been in serious communication, even negotiations with the regime in Khartoum, which looks with horror at the shutdown of the Unity State oil fields, with critical infrastructure left unattended by professionals in oil extraction and pumping. The defecting commander of the SPLA 4th Division in Bentiu, General James Koang Chuol, declared on December 26 that "oil production from fields in his [Unity] state had to be halted due to lack of staff remaining at the oil field" (Sudan Tribune). Several days earlier Malaysian oil workers reported that three well sites had already been closed, even before evacuation of all Chinese, Indian, as well as Malaysian workers. The prolonged shutdown of Unity State oil production would be yet another severe revenue shock to an economy in the north that is already rapidly imploding. Last week there were long lines for gasoline in Khartoum, in fear of the oil shutdown. Two weeks before that there were long lines for bread because of an acute shortage, brought on by the inability of the Khartoum regime to purchase wheat from abroad-this for lack of foreign exchange currency (Forex); indeed, according to IMF predictions of last fall, all Khartoum's Forex reserves will be exhausted by the end of this year. To the extent that oil and transit fees for oil from the South helped to cushion Khartoum from the full effects of its gross mismanagement of the northern economy, their precipitous loss of such revenues may simply be too much to sustain.

Understanding this point full well, Riek and his lieutenants have floated the idea of sequestering oil revenues so that they do not reach Juba; in turn, Khartoum would presumably enjoy the same revenues as before under such an arrangement, and would thus make the regime an ally of Riek and his forces, either de facto or by formal agreement. As Riek himself declared in an interview with Sudan Tribune (London, December 23, 2013):

South Sudan's former vice-president, Riek Machar, says forces under his command will divert oil revenues accrued from the country's oil wells, days after his troops seized control of much of the new nation’s oilfields. In an exclusive interview with Sudan Tribune on Monday, Machar revealed a plan to halt oil revenue remittances to Juba. He said no money would go to the government in Juba, explaining that his group plans to divert oil revenues and deal directly with Sudan in implementing the September 2012 cooperation agreements, as they are in control of the concerned states.

In understanding why Khartoum might agree to such a dangerous arrangement we must remember just how desperate the economic situation is in (northern) Sudan, which now rightly fears for its very survival. With inflation poised to skyrocket even further (the real, as opposed to "official," rate is already well above 50 percent), high unemployment and under-employment, a national currency in free-fall, conspicuous and widespread corruption, and too many sons coming back in body bags, the angry demonstrations of September and October could reappear at any time, as economic hardships only grow. A "solution"-one that might well appeal to those elements in the regime that continue to think the CPA gave away too much to the South-would be a military intervention on Riek's behalf in Unity State. The point would be to seize the most productive oil regions in northern Unity, in a military alliance with Riek's forces, and subsequently make a deal on governance and revenue-sharing.

Riek will certainly feel free to make a better offer than Khartoum now receives from Juba. His forces are probably strongest in Unity, where his own Nuer people are the largest ethnic group. But Machar clearly includes Upper Nile (as well as Jonglei) in his plans. And what are the assurances that this revenue will not simply be appropriated by Riek in his return to the existence of a pampered, excessively remunerated warlord? "'We will establish an extra account to which the oil revenues will be remitted for the economic interest of the people of South Sudan'" (Sudan Tribune, December 23). This is simply preposterous.

In assessing what Khartoum makes of this overture-and it may be this deliberation that prevents Riek from committing to a ceasefire-it is important to realize that the most militaristic and "anti-South" elements predominate in the regime, especially on decisions about war and peace (it was this security cabal that demanded President Omar al-Bashir renege on the agreement of June 2011 to negotiate a peace in South Kordofan, an agreement signed by senior regime official Nafie Ali Nafie). Regard for international opinion among these brutal men is minimal.

So even as we may be sure that the international community will vehemently condemn the regime if it should make an arrangement with Riek in order to secure continued oil revenues (under cover of providing "regional protection"), this is not likely to make much difference. The regime has endured decades of opprobrium without appropriate consequences for its war-making and massive atrocity crimes. These génocidaires believe there is nothing to worry about so long as they retain a monopoly on national wealth and power, both of which are threatened by an economic collapse whose scale they seem not fully to comprehend.

Perhaps Riek's confidence that an agreement with Khartoum could somehow be fashioned is wholly factitious. But such a scheme does represent a way that Riek might survive long enough to watch as fighting continues in South Sudan, weakening the country sufficiently that his political and military equities become adequate to make him a "peace broker," thereby ensuring himself a central role in any new government replacing that of Salva Kiir.

This is all hypothetical at the moment. What is not hypothetical is that there is no clear reason for Riek's failure to respond to Salva's offer of "unconditional talks" (Riek simply proceeded to declare his own "condition," the release of all political detainees arrested in the wake of events of December 15). What is not hypothetical is that Riek's explanation of why he won't commit to a truce is expedient, and deliberately ignores the ways in which the first steps towards a cease-fire might be taken immediately. The consequence of this failure to commit except in the vaguest terms to a cease-fire makes it likely that the SPLA offensive against Bentiu may soon resume-and it will be a terribly bloody confrontation, for both soldiers and civilians (see IRIN assessment of humanitarian prospects for South Sudan, December 27 - link). Judging by what we have seen of the aftermath of the first round of fighting in Bor, fighting in Bentiu will be even more terribly destructive, and many tens of thousands will be killed or displaced (Agence France-Presse [Juba/Bor], December 25, 2013) (Reuters [Juba], December 28). Toby Lanzer, the senior UN humanitarian coordinator for South, declared on December 24 that:

"I think it's undeniable at this stage that there must have been thousands of people who have lost their lives. When I've looked at the hospitals in key towns and I've looked at the hospitals in the capital itself, the range of injuries, this is no longer a situation where we can merely say it's hundreds of people who've lost their lives." Mr Lanzer also said that the number of people seeking shelter from the fighting was "tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands." (BBC, December 24, 2013) (all emphases in quotations have been added)

The official UN count of displaced persons-"more than 120,000"-almost certainly understates, quite significantly, the number of people who have been forced from their homes by violence. Again, on December 22 the UN's Lanzer declared that, "'As we go to bed tonight, there are hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese who've fled into the bush or back to their villages to get out of harm's way'" (BBC, December 22, 2013). Daniel Howden, writing in The Guardian (December 23, 2013) reports:

A veteran aid worker, who has been assessing the scale and nature of the killings from sources nationwide, said the real figure was "in the tens of thousands." On Monday, Machar claimed his forces had gained control of all the major oil fields in Unity and Upper Nile states.

What is all too real is Riek's declaration that he "represents the people of South Sudan," and that they would be best served by a "palace revolution" that removes Salva Kiir.

But there is no military solution to the rapidly growing human catastrophe in South Sudan; only a military stand-down will create the possibility of halting the spread of ethnic violence, and it may already be too late. The longer the fighting continues, the more difficult peace becomes and the more catastrophic the consequences for civilians of all ethnicities. To be sure, we simply don't know enough about conditions in too many locations, especially in Jonglei, Upper Nile, and Unity-the three states in which Riek's forces are strongest. But surmising from what has already occurred at Bor, Akobo, and Malakal, we should assume the worst.

What is your "end game," Riek Machar? How do you plan to stop the military violence? Why won't you commit to a cessation of offensive hostilities agreement? Why are you speaking of the sequestering of oil revenues? And instead of putting a condition on negotiations, with perhaps other to follow, why won't you accept Salva Kiir's offer of immediate and "unconditional" negotiations? Why won't you acknowledge the significance of the GOSS announcement that it is releasing eight of the eleven detainees? Why won't you work urgently to halt the advance of the "White Army" on Bor, an advance that promises to issue in extremely bloody fighting and guarantees subsequent fighting in Bentiu?

If there are no answers soon, South Sudan may well disintegrate, humanitarians will be unable to assist civilians in need, and ongoing ethnic violence may define whole regions of what is now South Sudan.

[NB: This analysis does not presume to assess the performance of Salva Kiir as president of the GOSS or the nature of political dissatisfaction within the Sudan People's Liberation Movement. The focus here is squarely on the very recent actions and statements of Riek Machar and their likely consequences for South Sudan. A subsequent analysis will attempt to move back in time in an attempt to survey political discontent in this very new country. The Brookings Institution offers a very useful time-line ("A Timeline of Brookings Expert Commentary on South Sudan," December 27, 2013

Eric Reeves
Smith College
Northampton, MA 01063


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