A year ago, Riek Machar was vice-president of South Sudan. Now the rebel leader is a de facto prisoner in a farmhouse outside of Johannesburg. Far from home and isolated from his friends and family, he is also being frozen out of South Sudan’s peace process – and the future of his country.
Even his wife, Angelina Teny, can’t speak to him regularly. “It’s very difficult to stay in touch,” she said, speaking from Washington DC in a telephone interview with the Mail & Guardian.
“Even though the South Africans continue to deny it, it is definitely like a house arrest. Dr Machar is in a situation where he cannot meet anybody at will, he cannot go anywhere at will, he cannot go outside the country at will. His only contacts with the South African authorities is through a couple of individuals. Up to date as we speak he has not met any of the South African leaders since he [arrived]. It is a confinement. He’s not free,” she said.
It is a staggering fall from grace for a man who has long dominated South Sudanese politics. Machar was an instrumental figure in South Sudan’s fight for independence from Sudan, and has served as vice-president twice in the very short history of the world’s newest nation. It became independent in 2011.
He was an architect of South Sudan’s creation, but also of its downfall. Among other factors, tensions between him and President Salva Kiir sparked the bloody civil war that began in 2013 and rages on today, leaving the country devastated in its wake.
A new outbreak of fighting in July 2016 destroyed a tentative peace deal that had restored Machar to his government post, and forced him to flee the country. With limited options, Machar ended up in South Africa, where he thought he had friends in high places.
But, instead of supporting Machar’s claim to power, the South African government has placed Machar under what amounts to house arrest. Now he can’t even make a phone call without permission.
A few months ago, the Mail & Guardian reached him on a South African number. “I can’t talk. I have to ask South Africa first,” said the usually loquacious Machar, before hanging up. His cellphone number now goes straight to voicemail.
Machar’s family and close associates report similar difficulties getting in touch. “He’s not being allowed to leave South Africa. We can’t speak to him directly. It’s difficult to contact him directly on his phone,” said Lam Paul Gabriel, a Uganda-based spokesperson for Machar’s party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition (SPLM-IO).
“Sometimes over the internet he sends small messages. Those are the only things that we will get from him. He doesn’t know why he is being held hostage. If he has done something wrong, it should go to the courts.”
International relations spokesperson Clayson Monyela said: “He’s a guest of the government. That’s his status. He’s not under house arrest. He is living under secure conditions, because he has concerns about his own safety.”
A spokesperson for Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is also the special envoy for South Sudan, echoed this sentiment almost verbatim.
Sources confirmed to the M&G that Machar’s passport was confiscated by the South African government, and has subsequently been revoked by South Sudan, in effect leaving him stateless; and that he is allowed only irregular access to a telephone and medical attention.
Even some representatives from international organisations involved in mediation in South Sudan have been denied access.
Desperate to make contact with his party, on one occasion Machar allegedly faked a medical issue so he could meet an associate at a doctor’s practice.
In his only public comment on his situation, in a statement released in May, Machar urged the United Nations to “end the international policy of isolating the SPLM-IO including my release from confinement and detention so as to enable our full engagement in finding a peaceful resolution to this conflict”.
But even if Machar were allowed to leave South Africa, would anyone else take him? An attempt to go to Nigeria in November last year ended in failure after Nigeria made it clear that he was not welcome.
Ethiopia said the same.
Machar has now been almost completely sidelined from the various attempts to broker a peace deal for South Sudan. Ramaphosa, the South Sudan envoy, has not met Machar in the 11 months he has been in South Africa.
“I don’t know if he will ever go home,” said one high-profile South African politician involved in mediation efforts, speaking anonymously.
Machar’s treatment by South African authorities is in stark contrast to the red carpet rolled out for Kiir, who was warmly welcomed by Ramaphosa and President Jacob Zuma during a visit to Pretoria in December last year. This visit fuelled perceptions that the South African government has taken Kiir’s side in the conflict.
Machar’s enforced exile has serious implications for South Sudan’s peace process, which has ground to a halt. There is little agreement among the international community on how to move forward, even as violence increases and the humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate.
Various arbiters, including Uganda, South Africa and the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (Igad), are pursuing parallel negotiation tracks. It seems that none is interested in having Machar around for these talks.
South Sudan’s ambassador to South Africa, Philip Jada Natana, said: “The only thing I know about [Machar’s] presence here is that the countries of Igad have said that they didn’t want him to be in the region, because his presence in the region would be detrimental to the implementation of the peace process. That is when South Africa decided to host him.”
There is little doubt that the situation in South Sudan has worsened in Machar’s absence.
“It’s causing a lot of confusion back at home, because he’s our commander-in-chief. This is prolonging the war. The presence of Machar in South Africa is causing a lot of suffering in South Sudan at the moment,” said the SPLM-IO’s Gabriel.
A century ago, a Nuer prophet foretold that Sudan would split in two, and then a bearded man would relinquish power to a left-handed man.
In the modern telling, the bearded man is Kiir. Machar is the left-handed man. Many of his supporters believe that Machar is destined to take power in South Sudan, but it is looking less likely than ever that he will fulfil the prophecy.
Machar is still nominally in charge of his rebel army, but it’s impossible to maintain control in the absence of regular communication. And without control, the rebel movement – never a wholly unified force anyway – is fracturing into ever smaller groups. According to one study, there are now 53 rebel groups operating in South Sudan, up from just four in July last year, when Machar was forced to flee.
Remember Miamingi, an analyst based at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Human Rights, said Machar’s exclusion from peace talks has made these talks much less likely to succeed.
“If the exclusion of Machar was to allow for a reduction in the armed conflict, and therefore … create a better working relationship in [the capital] Juba that will make the central government a viable partner for peace, it has failed on a scale that is monumental. Its impact on obtaining a sustainable peace is disastrous. The question now is: Will the region and the international community be humble enough to say, ‘We’ve made a mistake’?”
South African civil society groups have urged the government to be more transparent about its intentions for both Machar and South Sudan.
“We call on the government to openly and transparently explain the terms and conditions of SPLM-IO leader Riek Machar’s long-term stay and status in South Africa, which remains shrouded in mystery, and fuels confusion among actors who are actively working to promote peace in South Sudan,” said Friederike Bubenzer, a senior project leader at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.