January 16, 2014 (SSNA) — Whether the detained politicians in South Sudan are rebels by guilt or association is a question that takes one down a trip of memory lane to unending local, regional and international requests of their unconditional release. The eleven prisoners were detained in connection with what the government insists on as a coup attempt, but one stoutly countered by armed-bearing rebels and their international backers as a concocted incident to crackdown on political rivals by president Kiir and his government. The claims and counter-claims of what really brought the country to where it is at the moment are difficult to verify, but an underlying truth stands out understandably clear: these detainees may not be firing at anyone, but their actions before the war and their status as prisoners are part of a puzzle of violence presently ensnaring the nation. What do we know about the prisoners in question?
The prisoners were people who roamed the political and military scenery of South Sudan for years, and could best be linked to events and positions they have shone in, in order to understand their merits. Here is what we know about them: they were all members of the ruling party, many were high ranking members of the political bureau and national liberation council of the ruling party, many were illustrious military officers before independence, some held ambassadorial positions while others held ministerial positions in the government until July 2013, during the time they were part of the government many have acquired significant friends with international powers, many were suspects of a massive corruption that once prompted the president to meekly send out imploring letters to return four billion dollars into the national treasury; prior to December 15th, they were actively behind the former vice president, Riek Machar, pushing for reforms within the party; and above all, they made it clear to the nation in more than one occasions that their party has lost vision and direction.
After their dismissal from the government, they became staunch critics of the government; a critical moment that ushered in the war. In custody, they are: Deng Alor, former minister of cabinet affairs, Pagan Amum, former SPLM secretary general, Cirino Iteng, former minister of culture, Madut Biar Yel, former minister for telecommunication and postal services, Oyai Deng Ajak, former minister for national security in the office of the president, Majak D’ Agoot, former deputy minister of defence, Chol Tong Magay, former governor of Lakes state, Ezekiel Gatkuoth Lul, former ambassador to the United States, John Luk Jok, former justice minister, Kosti Manibe, former minister of finance and Gier Chuang Aluong, former minister of roads and bridges. They are all accused of plotting an abortive coup against an elected government.
Those conversant with South Sudanese liberation history could see why their arrest or release is as thorny, but important. They wield a significant influence in the country’s power dynamics. Their arrest or possible partaking in the ongoing rebellion is a better recipe convincing the region and the world that the SPLM had treacherously fought for the creation of the nation, and correspondingly demolishing it dangerously. Technically, from the list above, the SPLM is wholly in custody or back in the bush, with remnants heading the government.
Since their detention, and subsequent outbreak of violence, call it with a proper name as war, the talks to divert the country away from another protracted war have hovered over nothing but their release, by the rebels or scrutiny by a court of law, according to the government. Having, thus, stolen the process toward the resolution of the conflict, their weight in South Sudanese politics and ongoing conflict – duped as ethnic conflict – cannot be ignored. What is important to ask is whether these detainees are really rebels, or are being verbally bailed out from detention to join the rebellion? Behind the walls of their cells, can we ask if they really hold the key to the killings, or got the mechanisms to ending it? The truth, to these questions, will be known in future but rather too late. Likewise, the truth will reveal if the rebels are using their detention case to implicate them in a comprehensive mess for a comprehensive solution.
What is obvious is that the government is determined not to release these detainees unconditionally, for the action will definitely qualify the counter-argument that what actually took place on the night of December 15th in Juba was not a coup but a political fiasco. The government sees itself losing legitimacy in the eyes of many and would rather maintain its consistency with the claim of a coup attempt. This, therefore, begs further questions if the guns are buzzing because of these prisoners, and if those demanding their release are asking for peace through more rebellion, that is, swelling up the rebels’ ranks for better prospects for peace. It is a call that needs to be tested for its genuine peace desire for the people of South Sudan.
With negotiations currently enduring in Addis Ababa between the South Sudanese government and the rebels, led by Dr. Riek Machar, a former Vice president dismissed by president Kiir in an across-the-board presidential cabinet dissolution in July, 2013, hints are that rebels have no interest in a ceasefire if the detained politicians are not released as a precursor to serious and realistic negotiations on cession of hostilities. Many international voices have too ringed out, starting from the UN, The USA, and East African region, urging but most of the times, demanding unconditional release of the prisoners. But then the condition of their initial arrest is the one that never fully gets addressed. Why were they arrested? It is significant to factor in that the conditions of their arrest preceded circumstances so violent such that the situation demanding their release at present is tantamount to the situation of their initial arrest. Following through carefully, the government sees no difference between the gun-wielding rebels and the detained politicians. Michael Makuei Lueth, South Sudan’s Minister for Information had once said the detainees would only be released if the court of law of the land determined it so. And that if found guilty ‘they will be hang be the neck until they are dead.’ The fact that the prisoners are gathering international sympathy drives the government crazy while it inherently impacts on the peace process and halting of armed conflict. This is the confusing prevailing condition for those attempting to make peace for South Sudan through talks in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Is there any reason why Dr. Riek Machar claims the detainees? This question allows us to look back at the minute before the disaster. Their boycott, together with Riek Machar, of the final sitting of the National Liberation Council confirms his reason to own them. When the spasm of war binge ultimately birthed out in Juba on December 15th, these detainees and Riek Machar were the immediate targets for arrest by the government. Machar circumvented arrest as a cardinal suspect of controversy: coup d’état versus armed rebellion, the former being the charge for which the detainees are in custody for. Riek Machar mysteriously slipped out of Juba (with US embassy and UNMISS having questions to answer), and headed straight to the state of Jonglei where he officially raised the voice of armed rebellion by the military, denounced the coup, and as a substitute, announced illegitimacy of South Sudanese president. In another twist to be regretted later or might have already been, he called for the toppling of government through armed insurrection, and pledged solidarity with the arrested colleagues. He is currently believed to be based somewhere in the marshlands of Nasir, the seat of his 1991 gorilla base, or in Akobo, where he directs the marching battles of the White Army (a horde of armed youth with faces dappled with white ashes from a burnt out cow dung) in Bor, capital of Jonglei, and other front-lines in Greater Upper Nile region. ‘Forced to’ yet again make painful decisions in the wake of a rebellion-cum-coup d’état, a seasoned warrior like Riek Machar gathers no blame for jumping into the woods rather than staying put in the capital. He quickly assessed the deteriorating political and security situations in Juba and came to an impulsive conclusion that, should it implicate him, as it came to be, he would face severe charges of treason with consequences he knew literally well might cost him an ultimate price. Hence bush and bullets were, to him, the only options to make strategic meaning out of the chaos.
In essence, Machar is well known for his rebellious past than his personality. Upon setting foot in Jonglei, he effectively became the head of a ‘second liberation’ – as he declared to the BBC some days after he left Juba – against what he believed was a ‘dictatorship’ being surreptitiously nurtured by president Kiir through manipulations of SPLM (Sudan People’s Liberation Movement) party processes. It is to be recalled that when he first segregated from the SPLM/A in 1991, his first grievance among several reforms he wished for, was a chronic dictatorial nature of John Garang who then headed the liberation movement. Next in his list was the challenge to a one-way ideology of the New Sudan which, to his dissatisfaction, deprived southern Sudan a chance for self-determination exercise in any events of peace deals with Khartoum. The SPLM and its army wing later in 1994 made the reforms through a National Convention and deliberately failed to acknowledge the pressure behind such reforms. Riek Machar came back in 2002 with the drop of the slogan, ‘Garang Must Go.’ It was shelved for another period. That period came with his departure from Juba in December 2013. Thereafter, he said ‘Kiir is no longer our president, he has to go.’
Although Riek Machar joined the list of South Sudan post independent rebels – many of whom were lured back into peace through numerous presidential pardons – he made it limpid in an interview to the BBC that he ‘never thought’ he would consider becoming a rebel again ‘in his life time.’ As was the case in 1991, Dr. Riek goes with a huge following when he leaves. In the present conflict, he is seen carrying under his arm what was the SPLM Mainstream or Torit Faction, in which the current president of South Sudan was an important leader, and his designed and recycled SPLM Nasir Faction back to the bush, or precisely, back to Nasir. Those that remained behind are the current leaders in detention. They are yet to make their decisions upon release whether they are for Riek Machar’s armed conflict or not. But one thing is unmistakable; the detainees were, and might as well be, his SPLM’s arch enemies, better equipped to disagree with him than president Kiir himself. It will be a great disclosure later if it became perceptible that they too share in his wisdom of democratic change through violence or drip away namby-pamby.
Some of the SPLM politicians such as the late Dr. Garang’s wife, Rebecca Nyandeng (guided by the spirit of John Garang as an esteemed mother of the incumbent government and the rebels alike), and Pagan Amum, now jailed, were vying for the highest office prior to turmoil that has now costed the country the lives of about 10, 000 people, according to Brussels based International Crisis Group, and displaced thousands.
A critical look through the ruling party SPLM before violence showed a cluster of politicians playing the game of using each other. Riek Machar was using other party colleagues to oust president Kiir, while behind him; the party was using Riek to pressure reforms in the SPLM, after which he himself would be clandestinely ousted when the democratic elections for the party chief take place. In turn, and maintaining the government’s position of a botched coup d’état, Riek Machar seemed to have dressed all the plans up in the form of a coup. This, to prisoners, would be a surprise if indeed they were immune.
The war in which everyone is desperate and reeling wild in search of the solution has become the war to release the prisoners. ‘Cease hostilities and release the detainees’ appears to be the catch-phrase for South Sudan’s overtly denied but covertly accepted ethnic conflict. Other voices are, however, needed to pressure the government to speed up the due process of law in order to set the stage for their release. When the tides settle back on the negotiations table, whether or not in the events of detainees’ ultimate release, achieving ceasefire to stop bloodshed would be the only thing to count on because, to wrongly rephrase John Garang’s view of peace in the Sudans, ‘there is no peace per se, even the grave yard is peaceful.’
Martin Garang is a South Sudanese living in Australia. He can be reached at [email protected]