Riek Machar, South Sudan’s exiled former first vice president, said the guarantors of the August 2015 peace deal signed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, have to call for an urgent meeting of South Sudanese political parties to address the political instability in the country.
Machar, leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition (SPLM-IO), told VOA in an exclusive interview Thursday that his forces were not willing to fight President Salva Kiir’s government. He said his priority was to implement the peace deal.
He said that if he had a plan to fight in Juba, he would have waited until his nearly 3,000 troops were there. “But I did not wait for that because I wanted the implementation of the peace agreement to be done first.” Machar said.
Escape to DRC
The former vice president fled from Juba, the capital, in July following a battle between his forces and the South Sudan army.
He said 70 of his fighters were killed as he fled to neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Machar said, “When we were pushed out, I withdrew the troops. We moved to South Baria, then we moved to Lainy area, then from there to the areas of Mundri, from Mundri to Maridi, and then moved south to the Congo border. That [journey] took exactly 37 days, and [when] we add the three days of fighting [in Juba], we were under fire for over 40 days.”
Machar said that throughout his journey to DRC, he was constantly contacting Kiir in a bid to end the fighting, which erupted at the presidential palace and later engulfed Juba town. He said he could not continue communicating with Kiir while being pursued by members of the South Sudan air force and infantry.
“I decided to withdraw to a country [where] I will be secured in and then find a way of having that meeting with President Salva,” he said.
After Machar fled the capital, U.N. aid agencies reported fighting in Western Equatoria state, where thousands of families were displaced from their homes. Local chiefs in the area told VOA reporters that the South Sudan army ransacked villages, beating whomever they found in the villages around Mundri and Amadi.
Machar said the South Sudan army “had ground forces pursuing us, they had the helicopter gunships, Mi-24s. They had four of them, and they also had one drone and two surveillance planes that were daily on our heads, locating where we were marching. And then the helicopter gunship will follow, bombard us.”
He said he was being attacked despite the fact he was the country’s first vice president.
Machar and about 750 of his fighters were evacuated in July from the South Sudan border by the U.N. Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) to an unknown DRC location. He and a few of his soldiers were then flown to Khartoum, Sudan, for medical treatment in August.
Government, SPLM-IO narratives
Following the fighting in Juba, Kiir told a Kenyan journalist that Machar wanted to topple his government. In an exclusive interview with Kenya Television Network in August in Juba, Kiir said Machar had a pistol during the July meeting at the South Sudanese presidential palace. Kiir said Machar wanted to kill him and overthrow the Transitional Government of National Unity.
The government claims that fighting at the presidential palace was kindled by Machar’s spokesman in Nairobi through a Facebook message posted July 8, saying that Kiir had arrested Machar in the palace and that Kiir’s men were planning to kill Machar.
Members of Machar’s party dismissed the government’s version of the cause of the fighting.
Machar said Kiir lied to the Kenyan journalist: “Oh, my God, this is a big lie. I, Riek Machar, do not carry a pistol or pistols or guns since 1991, when I began to lead either a party or troops. I don’t carry a pistol. He [Kiir] knows that very well. Why would I carry a pistol when he has called me for a meeting?”
He said his associates and colleagues in the government have known him for not carrying weapons.
The leader of the SPLM-IO met in September with his party officials in Khartoum and issued a statement declaring war on the Transitional Government of National Unity.
“The new government is not a transitional government of national unity. They should not delude the international community of this. The current government is a new regime, but it is not implementing the agreement. The reason why they [made the] attempt on my life in J1 [the presidential palace] was the rejection of the agreement,” he said.
He said he was discussing pending issues when fighting suddenly erupted outside the presidential palace. He said that until the issues such as cantonment areas for his troops, Kiir’s controversial declaration of 28 states and reforms in government institutions were resolved, there will be no peace in South Sudan.
Kiir appointed Taban Deng Gai as the country’s first vice president after Machar fled Juba in July. Machar said the appointment of Taban would not bring peace to the country. He called Taban an accomplice.
“The fact that President Salva appointed Taban, who is a conspirator with him [Kiir], as first vice president doesn’t stop the war,” he said. “The SPLA-IO [Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Opposition] has been there, and the SPLA [South Sudan army] has been fighting the SPLA-IO. They all know that. If I, as the first vice president would be pursued by ground forces and by air, what is the intentions?”
Machar said Taban was angry because he did not get the position of minister of petroleum in the Transitional Government of National Unity. Instead, Machar said, he appointed Taban as minister of mining.
“Taban was the minister of mining,” Machar said. “He didn’t like it. He did not hide it. He decided immediately to resign from being chief negotiator, from being a member of JMEC [Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission]. I tried to persuade him not to resign. He refused and started plotting because he wanted to be minister of petroleum.”
After the July fighting in Juba, Machar said, he consulted members of the SPLM-IO and fired Taban from the party. Machar said he wrote a letter to Kiir informing him of Taban’s dismissal.
No return to Juba
Machar said he would not return to Juba if there were no efforts to end the political impasse in the country.
“If I go to Juba, we need to discuss it. There must be a political dialogue to discuss what happened, what were our differences in Juba,” he said.