London, Asharq Al-Awsat—The recent violence in South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, has brought a third of its 12 million citizens to the brink of starvation, according to the UN. With the country at a standstill in the wake of the fighting between the followers of President Salva Kiir and his former deputy and rival, Riek Machar, the people of South Sudan and its neighbors await the outcome of the (so far) inconclusive talks between the two leaders.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Machar in the midst of a regional tour following his recent brief meeting with Kiir in Addis Ababa about the shaky ceasefire in South Sudan, and about the next steps in the country’s ongoing peace talks.
Asharq Al-Awsat: What is the nature of your tour of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) countries? What are the preliminary results of your visits?
Riek Machar: I undertook the tour on the initiative of the IGAD in order to meet presidents of the member states. On [May 28] I had a fruitful and successful meeting with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta during which I explained to him our position and the circumstances surrounding the conflict that began on December 25, 2013. I also encouraged the Kenyan president to exert more efforts to make the peace talks work, [talks] which, according to intermediaries, will resume in Addis Ababa next week. We were met with understanding on the part of Kenyatta and his aides. We reaffirm our commitment to the May Agreement and express our determination to arrive at a political solution to end the conflict.
Q: Are you visiting non-African countries?
Yes, I will visit the Nile Basin countries, Nigeria and South Africa. These countries are important for us and are supportive of the IGAD intermediary efforts. We also maintain good relations with these countries. We will also visit other countries which we will announce later. This tour is highly significant for us because we want to explain to the world what happened. It is also important for the future of our country once the negotiation process has succeeded and a peace agreement has been reached.
Q: It has been reported that you will visit Sudan. But there have been rumours that Khartoum has some reservations about your visit. Have you been informed by Sudan about any such reservations?
Khartoum has not expressed any reservations but we have heard reports that Sudan’s President Omar Al-Bashir has undergone surgery and needs some time to recover. We wish him a quick recovery. Once his recuperation is over I will visit Khartoum.
Q: Is there a date set for your visit to Khartoum? Or will it be up to the Sudanese government to decide?
Of course the visit will not be this week or the one after, and we will go whenever the Sudanese government says it is ready to receive us. As you know, Sudan is a member of IGAD and has a representative in the intermediary team sponsoring the negotiations between us and Salva Kiir’s government. We want to explain our position clearly to the leaders of the IGAD countries.
Q: Juba still claims that you staged a military coup in December. How would you explain this to the IGAD countries?
The whole world, not just the countries of IGAD, knows that we did not attempt a military coup on December 15. And we are past this point now. But what we wish to explain is the random acts of murder and racial cleansing that took place in Juba. That is why the IGAD has decided to give us a chance to meet with the presidents of its member states.
Q: Your forces are also accused of committing atrocities in Bentiu, including the murder of civilians
This is not true at all! We have not committed crimes in Bentiu. In fact, there were fighters from the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) of Minni Minnawi and Abdul Wahid Al-Nur in the city. While they claimed to have been cleaning the city, these two groups were in fact fighting alongside forces loyal to Kiir. And there is abundant evidence for this.
We have requested an independent investigation to be launched with the participation of the UN. We have to wait and see what will come out of these investigations. We support transparent investigations to uncover the truth. Reports that our forces have committed atrocities, whether in Bentiu or Bor, the capital of Jonglei, are absolutely wrong. In fact, government forces and militias are the ones that committed these terrible crimes.
Q: What of the agreement you signed with Kiir on May 9?
We have signed a roadmap agreement which begins with a ceasefire between both sides. It also addresses many other issues, most prominently the cessation of hostilities and allowing humanitarian aid to reach government-held areas and the ones we have taken control of, through Juba and neighboring countries such as Ethiopia. The roadmap also tackles political issues relating to systems of governance.
Q: Does the roadmap include an article on the formation of a transitional government?
The roadmap clearly states that we should discuss the roots of the conflict in order to end the crisis. Because we have not signed a framework agreement leading to a peaceful solution, it is still early to talk about the transitional government. This is because the roadmap and the framework agreement will lead to an agreement on a comprehensive solution, including the formation of a transitional government.
Q: What about the accusations that your forces broke the ceasefire?
The other side mobilized its forces to strike our bases after signing the agreement. It is not our forces that started [the fighting]. We still have doubts about the other side’s intentions, particularly since Kiir, after returning to Juba, told the media that he signed the roadmap agreement under pressure. We doubt Kiir will adhere to the agreement. What is required from [him] is to renew his commitment to the agreement. Otherwise, we will consider him as [having reneged on] it.
Q: Would you accept an agreement that stipulated neither you nor Kiir could take part in a new government?
I do not want to discuss the transitional government before a thorough peace agreement that establishes new system of governance and legislation in the country has been reached. Once these foundations have been laid, we can discuss transitional government. Now is not the right time to talk about [it].
As for your question about my participation in the transitional government, let me explain this to you: First, Kiir has had his share of power. He ruled the southern part of Sudan since 2005 during the transitional period. And after South Sudan became independent three years ago he remained in power. During this period, Kiir has carried out atrocities in the country and people have lost their confidence in him. Therefore, you cannot compare me to him, or put us on an equal footing.
Q: Do you rule out a reconciliation with Kiir?
Reconciliation with Kiir can be achieved after reaching a conclusive, peaceful solution and peace agreement. Such an agreement would of course lead to national reconciliation. Only then can we reconcile, though this is not a personal conflict. It is a political conflict between [people with] different visions. Therefore, if a political agreement is reached, we will move towards reconciliation.
Q: The Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General in South Sudan, Hilde Johnson, said she will resign from her post in June after Juba accused her of taking your side. What do you make of this?
Johnson is entirely innocent of these charges. She did not provide us with any support at all. Rather, she has been neutral during the crisis. We respect her for the role she played in South Sudan even before independence. I believe there are other reasons behind her resignation.
Q: What dealings have you had with the 11 Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) figures who were released by Kiir earlier this year?
During the SPLM congress in April, we welcomed the 11 SPLM figures and told them they are free to undertake peaceful struggle or join us. Of course, we do not have any political disputes with this group. Our means of struggle are different: we chose armed struggle while they chose a peaceful one.