South Sudan's President Salva Kiir is received by Chief of General Staff of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) Paul Malong Awan at the airport in Juba. REUTERS/Jok Solomun

Johannesburg - Riek Machar, who is leading the fight against President Salva Kiir’s government in South Sudan’s 19-month-long civil war, is happy with the decisions made by the African Union (AU) at its summit in Sandton last week, to try to end the conflict.

He hopes that the decisions will lead to Kiir standing down in favour of a multiparty “caretaker” government to lead the country into elections which are effectively overdue already as Kiir’s mandate expires on July 9.

Machar particularly welcomed the summit’s decision to expand the regional mediation effort by adding several more African and international countries. He was also pleased with the AU’s decision to discuss – and therefore, he believes, publish – the report of an AU commission of inquiry into human rights violations in the war.

Machar believes that though the report will blame both sides, it will finger Kiir personally, but not him.

He believes that the so-called “IGAD-Plus” peace mechanism which the AU agreed to at the summit stands a much better chance of brokering a peace deal than the IGAD only peace effort which broke down in March.

He also made it clear that he was fully committed to a parallel peace process being led by the ANC and Tanzania’s ruling CCM party, to mend the splits in South Sudan’s ruling SPLM party, which precipitated the civil war. Machar was Vice President until he was fired by Kiir a few months before the war erupted in December 2013.

Machar was in South Africa last week to lobby AU leaders at the summit and also to meet South African government officials.

He said in an interview in Pretoria that the IGAD mediation effort, which broke down in March, had failed because the member countries of IGAD – the Intergovernmental Authority on Development – were neighbours of South Sudan and therefore had too many national interests at stake in the country to be neutral and objective brokers.

He cited, in particular, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni who had intervened on Kiir’s side in the first three days of the war which erupted on December 15, 2013, “with all his airforce, ground troops, tanks”.

Museveni, he said, had many, “personal, oil, trade” interests in South Sudan.

The new IGAD-Plus peace mechanism has added five AU member states, South Africa, Chad, Nigeria, Algeria and Rwanda, representing the AU’s five regions, as well as the troika of international countries supporting the peace process – the US, UK and Norway – and several other major players including China, the European Union and the UN.

“The Plus, they have interests, but from a distance. They would rather prefer a peaceful South Sudan that is politically stable and democratic.”

“You know the IGAD had no leverage to tell the President you’d better stand down.”

Whereas the IGAD-Plus could have that leverage, Machar said. He believes Kiir must resign as his five-year presidential mandate will run out on July 9th, precipitating a constitutional crisis.

By March 9 ,Kiir should have dissolved Parliament and the state assemblies and governorships to allow the constitutionally-stipulated 90-day interval to elapse before elections by July 9. But he had refused to do so, instead extending his term in office by three years because he said the war had made elections impossible.

By doing so Kiir had made himself part of the wider problem of African presidents extending their terms in power unconstitutionally, which the AU summit had discussed, Machar said.

Kiir should hand over power to a caretaker government comprising all the political factions which would perform the essential government services while the peace talks continued.

Once agreement and a ceasefire had been agreed upon, elections, supervised by the UN, would be held and the new government that was elected would implement the peace agreement.

Machar also clarified his attitude towards the inter-party negotiations which have been running since last year to try to reunify the SPLM. The ANC and Tanzania’s CCM are conducting these talks and national and ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa has been representing President Jacob Zuma in them, as his Special Envoy.

Machar had initially refused to participate in these talks, leaving Ramaphosa to talk only to Kiir’s government and a third SPLM faction, the so-called G10-Plus or Former Detainees, who had also been part of the government, some in the cabinet, until the war broke out. Kiir detained ten of them. This faction had not gone to war against Kiir, as Machar had after he narrowly escaped from his home in Juba before it was attacked by Kiir’s forces on December 14.

Machar said that he had at first stayed out of the interparty talks because 11 of his key allies in the SPLM had been in detention.

“I told him (Ramaphosa) …it would be absurd for me to discuss party issues when there are top members of the party in detention. I want those members of the party to be released first.”

Also he, as the party’s first deputy chairperson, and some of the eleven, had been dismissed from key party positions. After the 11 were released, Machar had joined Kiir in signing a SPLM reunification agreement on January 21 in Arusha, Tanzania, in the presence of Ramaphosa and several regional leaders. The agreement set out what had to be done to fix the broken SPLM, including reinstating him and the others to their official party positions.

Machar said that Kiir had only recently done that, at least on paper. But the most important aim of the inter-party talks was to fix the party structures, he said. That included writing a party constitution, as well as other key documents such as a code of ethics, internal regulations and a party manifesto and expanding key institutions such as the politburo and central committee to make them more representative.

Until now the party’s leadership had been appointed by Kiir alone, he said. This had been the main cause of the split which sparked the war.

Machar said he believed there would be another meeting between him and Kiir in Arusha on June 26, though the date had not been confirmed, to give impetus to the party reunification efforts. It would also be attended by Presidents Jacob Zuma, Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, as well as Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.

“Then after that we can concentrate on the national crisis that brought about the war,” Machar said, adding that there were many issues still to be agreed on there, such as what system of government South Sudan should have, on security reforms, on new security arrangements, on judicial reforms and on public service reforms.

He dismissed criticism from Kiir’s camp that he was the main stumbling block to resolving these differences because he refused to participate in a unity government. He said a unity government had to have a programme which would be derived from the peace agreement. But there was no peace agreement yet and the mandate of Kiir’s government was about to expire, which was why a caretaker government was necessary, to run the country for nine months while the peace talks were completed.

Machar said he had also lobbied AU leaders to publish Obasanjo’s report on human rights violations during the war and was pleased they had agreed to consider it next month.

Even though it evidently blames both sides?

“We will see what happens. I am told he accuses both sides, But it’s best to publish it. Because it boils down to an individual. It’s the first time Africa has commissioned a report like this. They shouldn’t hide it. They should publish it. It’s good for transparency, accountability. And even reconciliation and healing once the report is done. “

His reference to the report boiling down to an individual evidently refers to his belief that the report will cite Kiir as personally responsible for human rights violations but not him.

And even though he acknowledges some abuses by his fighters, he insists these pale by comparison with the government’s crimes. “It is mostly the government that is committing war crimes and crimes against humanity.

“We had a few violations but we managed to control that. Because in the first three months, people were fighting as independent groups. We had to bring them together. Now we have a better organised force. Now the government is out killing people, massacring.”

Kiir is a member of the Dinka group and Machar accuses Kiir’s forces of targeting members of his Nuer group as such. But he denies Nuer have conversely targeted Dinka.

“Where the war is raging is predominantly Nuer country. How would they commit atrocities in their own areas? This balanced blame is very common.”

But now the war is spreading to non-Nuer areas.

“It’s taken on a national character, the whole country is in a single war.”

ANA