Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsatvia satellite phone from somewhere within the rebel-held territory of South Sudan, former vice-president Riek Machar laid the blame for the ongoing civil war firmly on the shoulders of embattled president Salva Kiir.
Clashes between Kiir and Machar forces in Bor and Unity State continued unabated on Thursday even as rival delegations arrived in Addis Ababa for peace talks. The political struggle between the two leaders of Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) has taken on ethnic dimensions, with the fighting primarily taking place between Dinka supporters of Kiir and Nuer supporters of Machar, who is accused by Kiir of seeking to carry out a military coup.
More than 1,000 people have been killed in the conflict and at least 190,000 South Sudanese have been displaced by the violence which began in Mid-December, with the World Health Organization warning of a looming humanitarian crisis.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Why have you launched this war against your own country, which only became independent two years ago?
Riek Machar: It is not true that we launched the war. Salva Kiir, the current president, is responsible for dragging us into war. He fabricated the lie of the coup which no one believed. He is primary responsible for what is happening now.
Q: Are you prepared to continue this war?
The Americans and Ethiopians called me and said they had reached an agreement with Kiir for him to release the detained members of the SPLM. They said Kiir told them he would release eight of the eleven detainees while he took legal measures against the remaining three, namely SPLM Secretary-General Pagan Amum, politburo member Deng Alor, and leading SPLM figure Kosti Manibe. He said that these three would be released after the measures were met. However, Kiir did not make good on his promise, and the three detainees have yet to be released. Kiir is the one who wants to continue the war, as these three figures will be leading our delegation at the Addis Ababa talks.
Q: But President Kiir did release two SPLM detainees, including Peter Adwok Nyaba.
Kiir is going to put the rest of the detainees on trial. In other words, he wants to order the execution of these leading figures by holding a kangaroo court. Therefore, the international community, which is exerting pressures on us, should instead work to put an end to Kiir’s actions because he is seeking to carry out a new massacre of SPLM leaders.
Q: Are you seeking to take power through the use of force?
There have been massacres committed in [the capital] Juba. If we had intentions of toppling the regime, which is under the umbrella of the SPLM and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), we would have opposed the ruling party. On the contrary, Kiir is the one who turned against the SPLM and the country’s constitution though his security crackdown.
We want the people of South Sudan to live in peace and we respect the international community’s opinion that opposes coming to power by the use of force. However, the people will not put up with Kiir for another year. The fighting has now spread to all parts of the country and this is all because the people now oppose Kiir.
Q: What is your response to accusations that you are waging a tribal war in South Sudan, particularly since you hail from the country’s second largest tribe, the Nuer?
It is not true that I am fighting a tribal war. Rather, Kiir is the one who is adopting a tribal agenda. When we took control of the city of Bor in Jonglei State, I issued clear instructions to avoid harassing any unarmed individuals on a tribal basis. My group and I, who belong to the southern tribes, are against tribalism, but Kiir is the one who wants to provoke a tribal war. Kiir carried out tribal massacres in Juba on December 15, and the days that followed, until today.
Q: You have made claims about government corruption, but aren’t you also implicating yourself in this, particularly as you were the vice-president in this same government?
We were not corrupt. A large number of SPLM figures, myself included, were very outspoken about corruption. However, Kiir is the one covering up corruption and does not want to fight it. What we are doing now is waging a war on those who are corrupt, and on corruption.
Q: What issues will you discuss in the negotiations with Kiir? Has your delegation arrived in Addis Ababa?
Firstly, Kiir has to release all of the detained SPLM figures. The international community and the countries in the region have exerted great pressures on us, saying we first have to begin negotiations and then propose the issue of releasing prisoners. The negotiations will discuss whether there has been a military coup, or whether it is just a lie Kiir and his aides have made up. Also among the issues that will be discussed are the massacre in Juba and who is responsible for it, issues of democracy within the ruling SPLM, governance in the country, corruption and favoritism, as well as security breaches across the country, and development issues. After that, we will agree to a ceasefire and the details of the process.
Q: But President Kiir said he would not share power with you.
And why should Salva Kiir refuse to discuss power-sharing? There are major defects in this government and this is something that we have been talking about for years, both publicly and privately. These defects led to the deterioration of the government and the SPLM. Therefore, this issue cannot be overlooked because a lack of good governance is at the root of our problems in the country. Kiir’s friends in the international community know our position and we have spoken to them on several occasions. Therefore, we will discuss issues of governance not only on the level of the ruling party but also on the level of the other political forces in the country.
Q: Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni threatened to pursue you and your supporters in the event that you reject dialogue and ceasefire. What is your response to this?
In fact, Uganda has intervened since the start of the war via its warplanes. Museveni made these statements to cover up his crimes of intervention in South Sudan’s domestic affairs. There has not been any agreement between us and the Intergovernmental Authority of Development (IGAD). These are allegations made by Museveni. He claimed IGAD would intervene, yet he is the one who has actually intervened in the country, with his troops roaming Juba and his warplanes taking off from the capital’s airports. This is part of a plot by Museveni and Kiir.
Q: Will you turn to the Khartoum government for support in the face of what you describe as foreign intervention?
On the contrary, the Khartoum government is closer to Kiir. In any case, Omar Al-Bashir’s government is not close to us, and we welcome anyone who wants to support us in our just cause, particularly as we are facing foreign intervention. It is well-known that the recent IGAD summit praised cooperation between Khartoum and Juba, and the so-called “honeymoon” between the two countries.
Q: Khartoum has fears about the halting of South Sudanese oil exports, particularly given the fact that your forces are in control of many oil fields, at least in Unity state. Are such fears rational?
We have asked oil companies and workers to continue their work and have made it clear to them that we will secure their facilities. We confirmed that oil production and export would continue and that we would pay Khartoum its dues according to the cooperation agreement between the two countries. We have also arranged for South Sudan’s revenues to be deposited in a special account until the war ends. However, the Khartoum regime does not want to cooperate.
Q: Who will represent you in the talks, given that the head of the delegation, Amum and others, are yet to be released?
The delegation will include the former governor of the Unity state Taban Deng Gai, SPLM spokesman Yen Mathew, SPLM politburo member Peter Adwok Nyaba who was banned from travel on Monday, the widow of John Garang, Rebecca Garang, deputy governor of Jonglei Hussein Maar Nyuot. We are waiting for the release of Amum and the others.
Q: Are you adamant about staying in the SPLM? Or will you form a new party?
We firmly adhere to the party as well as its vision and plans, which were developed in 2008. It is because of this position that Kiir and his group wanted to eliminate us.