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Africa

South Sudan's Riek Machar: rebel, statesman, 'coup leader'

© AFP

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2013-12-25

Vice president, warlord, politician, fighter, collaborator and rebel poster boy who was once married to an attractive British aid-worker, Riek Machar has played a dizzying number of roles in the course of an eventful life.

Now, if the latest allegations by South Sudanese President Salva Kiir are to be believed, the former vice president of the world’s newest nation has earned another title: coup mastermind. 

In a televised speech on Monday, issued the morning after gunfire erupted in the South Sudanese capital of Juba, Kiir said government forces had thwarted a coup engineered by his former vice president.

Abandoning his trademark ten-gallon cowboy hat for military fatigues, Kiir delivered a fiery speech, calling Machar a “prophet of doom” who continued "to persistently pursue his actions of the past".

Machar himself has denied the allegations. But at 60, he's certainly a man with a past – it just depends on which part of his military and political career his admirers and critics choose to focus on.

Dashing rebel marries beautiful Briton

For seasoned Sudan observers and journalists, Machar remains the fighter who married Emma McCune – a stunningly beautiful British woman who arrived in Africa as an aid-worker, but ended up marrying a rebel commander and getting uncomfortably close to the murkier aspects of a brutal conflict.

At that time, Machar was a leading figure in the SPLM (Sudan People’s Liberation Movement) fight against Khartoum for an independent South Sudan.

The couple were married in 1991, two years before a pregnant McCune was killed in a car accident in Kenya. McCune’s unlikely story was documented in the book, “Emma’s War” by US journalist Deborah Scroggins and it remains a study on the follies of Western idealism directed at Africa.

Machar himself moved on after the death of his British wife. He later married Angelina Teny, a prominent South Sudanese politician.

In 2005, when a peace deal was signed, marking the end of the conflict, the rebel commander traded his combat fatigues for a suit.

When South Sudan gained independence in 2011, he was made vice president, a position he held until President Kiir sacked him – and the entire cabinet – in July 2013.

There were widespread rumours of differences between Kiir and Machar as South Sudan moved from the euphoria of independence to the harsh realities of building a nation in an impoverished region awash with arms.

But Machar’s July 2013 dismissal put the split on the international spotlight when the sacked vice president responded by criticising Kiir’s track record and declaring his intention to run for president in the 2015 election.

The latest alleged coup attempt marks a significant development in a dramatic life shaped by the conflict and bloodshed that has haunted this troubled part of Africa.

“He’s obviously a very significant political figure in South Sudan,” said Ahmed Soliman from the London-based Chatham House. “He’s been around a long time and has had significant relationships with leading figures such as [former SPLM leader] John Garang, as well as with Kiir, which has gone through its ups and downs.”

A wanted man

The latest rift between Kiir – who belongs to the majority Dinka ethnic group – and Machar – who hails from the Nuer people – represents a fight for the legacy of the SPLM following the 2005 death of South Sudanese resistance hero, Garang.

“The point is, he [Machar] wants to lead the SPLM. In a sense, he’s fighting for leadership,” said Cedric Barnes, Horn of Africa project director at the International Crisis Group. “The outcome of this is still very much up in the air. It’s still a fluid situation and a very worrying one.”

Machar today is “wanted by the government,” according to senior South Sudanese officials.

On Tuesday, the South Sudanese government announced the arrests of ten people in Juba “in connection with the foiled coup attempt,” according to an official website, which called Machar “the leader” of the plot.

Machar himself has denied the allegations and instead accused Kiir of using the latest clashes as a pretext to consolidate his power.

"What took place in Juba was a misunderstanding between presidential guards within their division, it was not a coup attempt," he told the Paris-based Sudan Tribune website on Wednesday, in his first public remarks since the fighting erupted.

"Kiir wanted to use the alleged coup attempt in order to get rid of us," said Machar, whose whereabouts remain unknown.

A falling out and a controversial turn

A strapping, charismatic man with a distinctive gap between his teeth, Machar was born in the Unity State in the upper Nile region. He studied engineering at the University of Khartoum before moving to the UK to earn a PhD at the University of Bradford in the mid-1980s.

By the end of the decade, Machar was back home and fast becoming a senior figure in the SPLM.

Around the time of his marriage to McCune, Machar made one of the most controversial moves in his military career.

In 1991, Machar staged a failed coup against Garang – who enjoyed a mythical status in SPLM ranks – and some of Garang’s commanders, including Kiir.

Critics accused the ambitious Nuer commander of receiving covert support from the Khartoum government – a charge he denied.

The factional fighting between South Sudanese fighters reached a bloody peak in the mid-1990s, crushing hopes of a unified struggle against President Omar Bashir's government in Khartoum.

Those hopes were dashed in 1997, when Machar signed the Khartoum Peace Agreement, making him an assistant to Bashir in a stunning reversal of loyalties.

In 2002, Machar signed an agreement with Garang and went back to the SPLM fold. Following Garang’s death in a helicopter crash in 2005, Machar rose rapidly up the SPLM ranks.

But his 1991 split with Garang and his 1997 deal with Bashir continues to haunt him.

In his televised speech on Monday, when Kiir accused Machar of “persistently” pursuing “his actions of the past,” the South Sudanese president was making a deliberate jab at Machar’s reputation as an ambitious climber who can cut deals with the enemy to further his power.

Fears of ethnic tensions

Monday’s clashes, which extended into Tuesday, have sent more than 10,000 people fleeing for the safety of the UN compound in Juba. It has also raised fears of ethnic violence in the oil- rich, but impoverished country.

“There does seem to be some ethnic element involved,” said Soliman before warning that “it’s still too early to determine what has happened in the past 48 hours.”

Barnes, however, cautions against viewing the latest violence as a purely Dinka-Nuer clash. “Many Dinkas are being arrested as well. The Dinkas are not unified and there is no strong solidarity within the SPLM politicians,” said Barnes. “It’s being manipulated by all sides and people are instrumentalising ethnic identity to achieve political ends.”

Whatever the outcome of the latest clashes, South Sudanese citizens and international observers will be closely monitoring what the future has in store for Machar.

Date created : 2013-12-17

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