By Samuel Atabi,
In her November 15, 2017 remarks at the Holocaust Museum, the US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, said two things which gave me both hope and caused me despair on the war in South Sudan.
When she repeated the words of Elie Wiesel (a holocaust survivor and a Nobel Laureate) that “We must always choose side” in the face of extreme human sufferings, I became truly hopeful that this time round the US government will side with the people of South Sudan vis-à-vis their leaders.
But when she spoke of “….South Sudanese government is engaged in a brutal protracted military campaign against a FRAGMENTED (my emphasis) opposition,” I despaired.
We South Sudanese who have philosophically ‘taken side’ with the opposition forces are extremely dismayed by the divisive and fragmented activities of the group.
In any conflict, such as that which is taking place among the South Sudanese opposition, positive, unifying and magnanimous overtures are expected from those who wield the most power.
In this case, the majority of the suffering South Sudanese expects Dr Riek Machar, the leader of the largest and most powerful of the armed opposition, the SPLM-IO, to take the first initiative to unite the opposition.
However, information now available in the public domain unequivocally indicates that Machar and his outfit are the source of the internecine fighting within and the fragmentation of opposition to which the ambassador referred.
The consequence of this internal division is the weakening of the opposition forces which are now ranged against the brutal and tribal regime in Juba.
A recent report by John Young (Isolation and Endurance: Riek Machar and the SPLM-IO 2016-17) brings into the open what many have been suspecting about the true character of Dr Machar.
According to the report, Machar is opposed to the unity of all groups fighting the government in Juba; instead, he prefers to absorb all of them in his SPLM-IO, where he will remain dominant.
He has contrived to make SPLM-IO weak by resisting institutionalization of the movement and formalization of its policy.
This weakness can then ensure his grip on the power and therefore, marginalization of potential opponents.
Most of SPLM-IO nominees to the parliament in Juba, following the August 2015 agreement, are young and political novices; again this is contrived to ensure his monopoly of power.
Prior to the report, many people suspected that Machar was …politically and intellectually insecure;
…that he was distrustful of his peers and colleagues, even those from his own Nuer tribe (several Nuer Generals and leaders have abandoned him);
…that he was a control freak who took advantage of the politically inexperienced youth to enhance his dominance;
…that he disdained the advice of his colleagues and peers (a harsh and close associate describes him ‘as obdurate as a donkey’);
…and that he was militarily careless about the lives of his colleagues and those of his young followers.
The last point is abundantly proven by the death of thousands of Nuer and other South Sudanese soldiers who were his followers at different military confrontations.
In 1991, when Machar separated from the Garang-led SPLA, thousands of his followers were killed on his account.
When he changed his mind and left his erstwhile allies in Khartoum, again the man abandoned thousands of his soldiers at the mercy of the Arabs.
Prior to 2013 pogrom, during which thousands of Nuer and other South Sudanese civilians were literally slaughtered, Machar failed to recognize the risks when Kiir, Malong and others were recruiting private militias to carry out this slaughter; he criminally failed to plan countervailing measures against the impending genocide.
When he fled Juba in 2013, he gain abandoned his own body guards to the guns of the Jieng militias.
Following his return to Juba in 2016, as a consequence of the August, 2015 peace agreement, he again acted to type: he led hundreds of his own body guards to death traps when they accompanied him to the July 8, 2016 night meeting at J1.
As if that was not enough, it is now clear that Machar had no plan for his forces for orderly withdrawal from Juba in case of military confrontations; these confrontations were expected even by non-military observers.
In the disorderly withdrawal, which later took him to DR Congo, hundreds of his body guards perished. Among the dead was a senior general from Equatoria, Lt Gen Martin Kenyi.
This litany of military disasters clearly amounts to accusations of incompetence and extreme dereliction of duty and responsibility for which any military general deserves to be court marshalled.
In October (16-18) 2017, six of the South Sudanese groups that are opposed to the Kiir government met in the town of Nyahururu in central Kenya to consult on how to work together in their effort to liberate the people of South Sudan.
Unsurprisingly, the leadership of the SPLM-IO declined to send a delegation to the meeting.
The outcome of this consultative meeting is the ‘Nyahururu Declaration’ in which the parties, SPLM-FD, FDP, NDM, SSNMC, NAS, and NAM, have agreed to form a broad alliance to achieve their objectives; they have also agreed to respect the autonomy of each group to exist separately but as a part of the alliance.
Again, the suffering South Sudanese can only view with consternation the absence of the SPLM-IO, which they expect to have given leadership to the emerging alliance.
Ultimately, Riek Machar, in the wake of new political and diplomatic reality on the issue of South Sudan, will have to make up his mind as to his own future and that of his organization.
He has two main choices:
1- he can lead his group into the fold of the new opposition alliance and constructively contribute to the freedom of South Sudanese;
2- he can continue with the present, lonely, destructive and divisive trajectory and become politically irrelevant in the politics of South Sudan, both in the short and long term; unless, of course, he capitulates to Taban Deng Gai and rejoins the JCE-controlled regime in Juba.
The choice is his.