The Government announced that Riek Machar is in Khartoum. Have you heard this?
Yes, Riek is in Khartoum for health reasons. I was formally notified of that.
Did you meet him?
No. I did not meet him during my visit to Khartoum.
There are many stories about the events in South Sudan and the outbreak of war inside the presidential palace in Juba in July?
Riek went with a limited number of guards and while he was there, his wife sent 300 armed men.
As head of the armed opposition delegation, I was not part of the presidential palace meetings and related events. Riek Machar had large troops in the presidential palace. On July 7, Machar’s forces attacked SPLA troops killing five soldiers. The following day, a meeting was agreed at the presidential palace. I heard that Riek went with a limited number of guards and while he was there, his wife sent 300 armed men, which caused tension and the fighting broke out.
I did not hear sounds of heavy weapons, only machine guns. I thought the police were attacking some looters in the market, given the current economic crisis. At 9:00 pm, a number of ministers called me and said they were trying to bring Riek to the Crowne Hotel, where I was. I was surprised. Why isn’t Riek at the presidential palace, which is more luxurious than the hotel? He would have helped build confidence and deliver a message to the people that the situation is under control.
What did you do after that?
Later I managed to meet the president who told me that the attack was on Machar’s instructions. Later, I learned that Machar had contacted Salva Kiir and told him that he had failed to control his forces. Riek asked me to mediate and I said the war must be stopped, but he said he would continue it. That was the last conversation between us.
What are the real reasons behind the violence?
Riek Machar did not comply with my advice when he arrived Juba. After he was sworn in, he chose to locate behind Jebel Kujur and continued the same practices that led to the outbreak of the last war in 2013. He is not aware of the things that might anger and please the president, which could influence the relationship between them. Choosing this isolated place after coming back sent the wrong message, suggesting that he was preparing a parallel army.
But the situation was tense in Juba?
Yes. With the approach of Riek’s arrival, it was rumoured that the Head of the SPLA Intelligence Agency Paul Malong was arranging a military coup. As head of the opposition delegation, I presented some written points to Riek, as I was fully aware that he was too busy with that story.
What did the paper contain?
I told him that he should feel free and the rumours in Juba were unfounded, that Salva Kiir controls the situation as the actual commander of the army. I also requested that he should tell the president that he was ready to open a new page and would be a first vice president loyal to him and to the state. I advised him to ask Kiir to restore trust in him and charge him with protecting the national unity government.
You said Machar is a shadow president. What do you mean?
Opposition ministers were in a state of holding constant meetings to the point that he was described as a parallel president, or president from behind the mountain. He did not attend to his office because he performed his duties from his office behind the mountain.
Is it not necessary and normal for the SPLM ministers to meet the opposition president?
No, it is not necessary.
You said he recruited a large number of young people. Why did they not protect him?
He recruited a large number of young people who were in the camps, but they lacked adequate training.
What is about the investigation committee on the presidential palace incident?
Salva Kiir formed an investigation committee to find out the reasons that led to the incident, but it has not commenced its work yet. The committee is comprised of all parties to the National Unity Government.
You are directly accused of involvement in a plot to assassinate Riek Machar during the presidential palace confrontations as well as the ongoing attempts to uncover his disappearance?
We did not try to assassinate Riek.
We did not try to assassinate Riek. If I wanted to do so, I would have withdrawn his guards. He moved with a great force, which led to a clash between the parties. In my opinion, Riek planned to kill Salva Kiir because he moves with great guard force and Salva Kiir wanted to kill him. All his guards died and Salva Kiir assumed responsibility for returning Riek to his house and was concerned with this matter. He asked an officer named Marial to give him a ride to his house and told him literally, “I do not want Riek to be hurt”.
Was there any communication between you and Riek Machar?
Yes, Riek called me, as well as a number of ministers.
What did you discuss during the call?
His message was clear: The agreement has collapsed. He asked me to request protection from the United Nations and to allow others to travel between Addis Ababa and Nairobi.
What was your response?
I told him that I refuse to leave Juba because Salva Kiir’s government protects us in the national unity government. During another call, he asked me again to negotiate with the government a cessation of hostilities and a rapid intervention forces. We refused the intervention or protection forces during the Addis Ababa negotiation. How can we accept now? I said it is possible to negotiate on a cessation of hostilities, but not a rapid intervention forces.
You accused Angelina Teny, the wife of Riek Machar, of fabricating the war?
The events of July 7 and 8, upon which Machar left Juba, were planned by Angelina.
Angelina’s ambition to be the first lady led him to this situation. Machar has not looked back since 1991, when many people were killed. In 1997, he signed an agreement with al-Bashir and was not able to implement it, which led to splitting the Nuer into small groups fighting each other. There are problems with Machar’s behaviour – he did not learn a lesson from the previous events, especially with regard to Angelina’s ambition. I am sure the events of July 7 and 8, upon which Machar left Juba, were planned by Angelina who gives orders and says she is the defence minister.
Is it possible to describe the presidential palace events as Angelina’s war?
Yes, it is the Angelina Teny war.
Wasn’t Angelina the main negotiator on the security arrangements in Addis Ababa?
Yes, but negotiating is different from holding the position of a defence minister.
Some question the legal procedures under which you succeeded Machar as First Vice President and head of the opposition?
There was a vacuum and Salva Kiir’s government said that no one can implement the agreement. We told them that all the leaders are present.
Some people say you made a deal with President Kiir, where you would recognise the 28 states and reject the idea of the two armies, and he would appoint you as First Vice President. Is that true?
These accusations are not true.
If your interpretation of Riek Machar’s inability to undertake his work as leader of the SPLM-IO and First Vice President are true, why was Alfred Ladu Gore overstepped?
Regional balance is necessary. The movement representative in the opposition, the first vice president and the council president cannot be all from Equatoria or from Bahr el-Ghazal, since Dhieu Mathok and President Salva Kiir are from Bahr el-Ghazal. Therefore, I was the right choice. I am a prominent figure in the SPLM and when we left Juba, Riek and I were the only members of the Political Bureau. Even Ladu Gore, who was chosen as Riek’s deputy in the opposition, was selected only for tribal balance.
After you were selected as Machar’s successor, you made a press statements expressing your willingness to step down if Machar returns to Juba. How can this happen while the government, in which you currently occupy the second top position, considers him a rebel and is currently fighting him?
I am willing to step down if this brings peace to South Sudan, but how can Riek arrive? Will his wife Angelina, rushing to be the first lady, bring him? You should know that the Riek of yesterday is not the Riek of today.
What progress have you made in implementing the peace agreement, in which Machar failed?
I achieved in one month what Riek failed to do in several months.
What did you achieve?
The resumption of the national parliament work and the national unity government meetings.
When you became First Vice President, you said that you don’t recognise two armies?
Yes, there are two armies and I aspire to merge them.
How will you deal with relations with Sudan given the current complexities?
I have a vision and strategy to resolve all outstanding issues between the two countries, especially the concerns of Khartoum.
Every time, the same issues are discussed in your talks with Khartoum. What can you offer Sudan?
I am aware of all the details and concerns of Khartoum and I am able to address them, particularly with regard to the SPLM-North and Darfur movements. It is necessary to reach peace and I will mediate.
I hope that the two countries will be stable and the two parties to the National Congress will reach peace with Darfur movements and the SPLM-North, which will reflect on South Sudan.
The Niles Maha Eltelb spoke with Taban Deng Gai in Khartoum on Monday, August 22, 2016. The interview was originally carried out in Arabic and translated to English.