By Joe Odaby
On the night of 15 December 2013, former South Sudan Vice President Riek Machar and his supporters attempted a military coup in Juba. The security forces quickly rallied in support of the acting President Salva Kiir Mayardit and his legitimate government and put down the coup after few brief clashes in the capital. By mid-day Juba was quiet and a shaken government was back operating.
The Fashoda Institute, a leading African think-tank, has published an in-depth analysis of the events leading to a failed coup. It unveils that Machar and his colleagues were relying on Nuer troops from Machar’s tribe against the national authorities and armed forces, while the government’s forces were comprised mainly of soldiers from all backgrounds.
“Hence, the coup was a milestone that cannot be ignored. After a decade-long concentrated effort (in the last phase of the war, during autonomy, and since independence) to bring together the country’s diverse population into an all-inclusive joint national effort to build the state and nation – Machar, a power-hungry leading politician, attempted to reverse the trend and base his lust for power on reawakening separatist demons”, concludes the analysis.
Fashoda Institute points out that during the War of Independence Machar’s predominantly Nuer forces fought on both sides – for and against the SPLA – at times directly fighting SPLA troops under Kiir’s command on behalf of Khartoum. The main reason for the frequent switching of sides has been the Nuer’s struggle for power against what Machar and his allies called “Dinka dominance.” The fight got very bitter.
For example, Machar’s Nuer troops were responsible for the 1991 brutal massacre in the ethnic Dinka town of Bor. After independence, President Kiir nominated Machar as his Vice-President in order to draw the Nuer – the country’s second largest tribe – into the nation building effort. However, Machar has manipulated the national reconciliation effort and any other political initiative possible in order to empower himself, his coterie and the Nuer (in this order) at the expense of the national interest. At the same time, Machar revived his lines of communication with the uppermost leadership in Khartoum in order, in the words of his loyalists in London, to keep “all his options open.”
In June 2013 the Islamist government of Khartoum cut the oil pipeline delivering South Sudanese oil to the markets. This breach of all contracts and peace agreements was designed by Sudanese President al-Bashir to strangulate the young, Christian democracy of South Sudan.
Machar, then the Vice President, was dispatched to Khartoum to negotiate the resumption of oil flow. Instead he started his private back door dealings with Khartoum. As his allies and confidants explained, “a renewed oil cutoff could bring South Sudan to its knees, triggering a wider governmental collapse” which Machar “can capitalize on to force [Kiir] out and then rise to power.”
This observation of Machar’s plans by his own allies and confidants shed a sinister and significant light on Machar’s own conduct of the negotiations in Khartoum.
“Little wonder that Machar was fired soon afterwards as part of South Sudan’s President Kiir’s revamping of the entire government. Now in opposition, Machar and his supporters, including Pagan Amum then Secretary-General of the ruling party – the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) – launched a series of drives to subvert the party’s institutions from within in order to topple President Kiir and declare Machar the SPLM’s uncontested candidate for presidency for the 2015 elections”, asserts the Fashoda Institute. “No matter how convoluted these efforts were - they did not work. They did, however, compel President Kiir and his stalwarts to purge some of the SPLM’s elite in order to prevent chaos.”
“Cornered and nearly out of options, Machar reached out to his allies in Khartoum”, continues the analysis. “In early December, Machar sent emissaries to Khartoum in order to ask Hassan Al-Turabi, the Islamist luminary and leader of Sudan,s opposition Popular Congress Party (PCP), “to mediate the current political crisis” in South Sudan. Turabi was specifically asked by Machar’s emissaries and in Machar’s name “to intercede” with President Kiir in order to reverse the dismissal of “senior figures from the ruling SPLM and the government,” as well as subdue the “atmosphere of tensions” in Juba by permitting Mchar and his coterie to assume leading positions of power. Machar’s reaching out to Turabi – the main ideologue of Jihad – is not surprising given Machar’s long relations with Khartoum going back to the war of independence”.
Meanwhile, in early December, Juba was going through a political crisis in the SPLM as Amum kept manipulating procedures and planned events in order to empower Machar and his camp on the road to the 2015 elections. On 15 December, President Kiir harshly criticized Secretary-General Amum during a speech at a meeting of the SPLM’s council. The vast majority of the SPLM’s activists and rank and file strongly support the policies of President Kiir and his government.
“This was made clear by the reaction to Amum’s accusations and President Kiir’s response”, concludes the Fashoda Institute. “Hence, having realized that their efforts to subvert the SPLM from within in order to topple President Kiir and the majority support he enjoys came to naught – Machar and his coterie immediately launched the attempted coup in Juba. To the great fortune of the people of South Sudan, the sectarian coup has failed and the nation has preserved its unity”.