In the end the peace deal couldn’t come soon enough for Riek Machar and his fighters. Whilst fighters loyal to the former South Sudan deputy president continue to hold some towns in the country’s oil-producing states, Dr Machar has found himself at a military disadvantage and isolated diplomatically.
The gunfight between rival factions of the presidential guard that started on the night of December 15 in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, was an extension of a long-running political contest between President Salva Kiir and Dr Machar whom he fired from the cabinet last July.
Yet the domestic, in-party contest soon spread across half the country, fuelled along the way by deep-seated grievances and confrontations between the president’s Dinka tribesmen and Dr Machar’s Nuer. At the height of his power, forces loyal to Dr Machar controlled the strategic towns of Bentiu, Malakal close to the oil-producing areas, and Bor, only 190 kilometres north of Juba. Dr Machar’s initiative did not last long, however. First an assessment by Sudanese intelligence informed the policy wonks in Khartoum that Dr Machar’s forces did not have the resupply lines and the local support to hold the territory. Thus although President Omar el Bashir had a history of cooperating with Dr Machar, he visited Juba and assured President Kiir that Khartoum would not support the rebels but urged him to end the uprising quickly and without disrupting the oil which is produced in the south and transported by pipeline to refineries in the north.
Dr Machar’s second misfortune was the entry of the Uganda People’s Defence Forces into the conflict. Ugandan intelligence – and in particular President Museveni – have never forgiven or forgotten Dr Machar’s ties with Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army. President Kiir was quick to remind his counterpart of the fact when Mr Museveni visited Juba in late December.
Ugandan intelligence reports to President Museveni also warned of a resurgence of the LRA if Dr Machar took power in South Sudan or established a zone of military control. Rebecca Nyandeng, wife of South Sudan’s founding father the late John Garang, visited Uganda and tried, unsuccessfully, to convince Mr Museveni that not only was Dr Machar a changed man, he also represented the progressive and reformist wing of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement.
The Ugandan army had been deployed in South Sudan within the first two days of the conflict at the request of President Kiir and under a military pact signed earlier to allow it fight the LRA beyond the border. Although initially used to secure key facilities such as the airport and allow the evacuation of foreign nationals, that mandate was quietly extended to allow the UPDF fight alongside the SPLA force, particularly in the battle for Bor. SPLA spokesperson Col Philip Aguer confirmed that the Ugandan army – and in particular its helicopter gunships – had played a critical role in helping government troops retake Bor. That victory tipped the dominoes in Kiir’s favour as Dr Machar’s forces retreated north.
Dr Machar could have turned the deployment of Ugandan troops into a diplomatic crisis but he also found himself with few friends and allies in the country (his key political allies remain in custody) and even fewer in the region willing to speak out for him. Asked whether Dr Machar has any friendly leaders in the region, a member of his delegation in Addis Ababa shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe Raila Odinga,” he said after a moment of reflection, referring to the former Kenyan Prime Minister. “They used to be friends.”
In the meantime, and in response to growing concerns from Ethiopia and Sudan, Uganda lobbied to have the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, the eight-nation regional body mediating the talks, agree to give legal and diplomatic cover to its troops fighting alongside Kiir’s.