By Dr. Bior Kwer Bior, PhD
The tale of what transpired in the Presidential Palace (J1) in Juba has been told numerously with varying degrees of accuracy and political twirl. To place the J1 event firmly within the context of the ongoing civil unrest in the nascent Republic of South Sudan, it serves us better to revisit the short but yet tumultuous history of the raging conflict in the country. In this regard, therefore, the world’s attention is drawn to the December, 2013 event in which Dr. Riek Machar, leading a weird amalgam of political conspirators and saboteur, mounted an attempted coup to usurp the people’s power. When such a desperate attempt was thwarted by the national army, the SPLA, Dr. Machar slipped out of Juba and earnestly started to mobilize his tribesmen, the Nuer, against the state.
Dr. Riek Machar’s mobilization message was simple but lethal. Riding on ethnic sentiments, it was crafted around the idea that the Jieng/Dinka were using state power to settle age-old scores with the Nuer, and that the Nuer, as a matter of self-defense, had to confront the Dinka government violently. The Nuer youth, known as the White Army, in response to this message, organized in thousands and placed themselves at Dr.Riek Machar’s megalomaniacal disposal.
Earnestly, Dr. Riek Machar instructed the White Army (WA) to target South Sudanese citizens of Dinka origins in Akobo, Malakal and Bentiu. The militiamen were also ordered to storm Bor Town, the capital of the now defunct Jonglei state, in January, 2014, where they committed hideous crimes such as the killing women, children, and elderly in the churches, schools, hospitals, and throughout the villages of Bor County. Consequently, as the government forces tried feverishly to combat the fast-spreading insurgency, civilians were inadvertently caught in the crossfire as they fled the violence.
As the violence escalated, thousands were killed or injured, while thousands more were forced to flee to the IDPs and refugees camps.
By the time this author, who was the medical chief of Bor State hospital, Jonglei state, returned from the hiding, the scene in the hospital resembled the gruesome scenes in the Nazis-run concentration camps after the allied forces’ victory during WW2, with corpses of murdered patients littering the hospital’s compound. One woman, whose sick teenage daughter was raped and killed in the same hospital, was visibly mad by the time she was rescued. She couldn’t remember her name and where she was. She simply became a victim of a quarrel she didn’t partake in.
Gravely concerned with the outbreak of violence in the nascent republic, the region and international community responded swiftly with a call for the cessation of hostilities (CoHs) and for dialogues to resolve the crisis to commence earnestly. The government on its part quickly accepted the calls to find an amicable solution to the conflict. While the road to peaceful settlements of the conflict was bumpy, the government made compromises in an effort to restore peace in the country. These efforts culminated in the signing of the IGAD-Plus-brokered Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan (ARCISS) in which Dr. Riek Machar’s rebels’ movement, the Sudan’s People Liberation Movement/Army in Opposition (SPLM/A-IO) was conceded the seat of the First Vice President (FVP) of the republic among other shares of power nationally and in the states’ governments.
With a plethora of reform agenda packaged into the agreement, the agreement was hailed both domestically, regionally, and internationally as a step in right direction that would yank the young country off the path of fragility and self-mutilation. Although many murmuring voices were still questioning Dr. Riek Machar’s true intention with respect to the full implementation of the agreement, those voices were minority and were drowned out. The need for peace in the country was simply too overwhelming for anybody to give the doubting Thomas any listening ear.
But when the implementation of the peace agreement was at the verge of kicking off, it apparently became unambiguously clear that things weren’t going to be too cozy after all between the two leaders as initially hoped for. While President Salva Kiir Mayardit was waiting eagerly for his partner in peace to return to the nation’s capital, it wasn’t easy for Dr. Riek Machar to stick to the timeline put forth in the peace agreement. After he allowed his advanced team to come to Juba to prepare for his arrival, he began to come up with conditions after conditions. This threatened to derail the implementation of the peace agreement at its infancy. But thanks to the region, domestic political forces and the international community, pressures were brought to bear on the SPLM/A-IO leadership and Dr. Riek Machar begrudgingly returned to Juba. On his return to Juba, Dr. Riek refused to be accommodated in his previous residence and instead demanded that he be accommodated with his soldiers at the outskirts of the city of Juba, near the UN camp in Jebel. This raised the first red flag, but in the interest of peace, he was given the benefit of the doubt.
While the other peace partners were busy trying to put in place modalities for the implementation of the peace agreement, Dr. Riek Machar and cohorts were busying themselves, preparing for the next showdown in J1 as prophesied by Ngundeng Bong, the legendary Nuer “Kujur” whose prophecies fuel Dr. Riek’s relentless thirst for power. In his camp, Dr. Riek Machar held numerous meetings with the Nuer community leaders, including those at the UN Protection of Civilian Sites (POC), urging them strongly to remain under the UN protection as he was planning to seize power militarily. These preparations were hinted at by Mabior Garang De Mabior, while addressing a gathering in his mother’s house, when he boasted that “they didn’t come for peace but they came to take the big seat.” Although these arrogant and irresponsible utterances were dismissed by lay-people as talks of an idle drugs addict, they were nonetheless noted down.
To swell the ranks of his small army of suicidal youth, Dr. Riek Machar embarked on an intensive covert recruitment campaign to lure unsuspecting young people, especially those from the Greater Equatoria, into his army. The young men, who were unemployed misfits on the street of Juba, were promised with ranks and other goodies that would come their way once the “Dinka government” was violently overthrown. These promises were enticing and the youth began to clandestinely flock out of Juba into makeshift training camps in the thick jungle of Equatoria were they were hastily given survival and murdering skills.
Once trained and armed, the youth were indoctrinated that their target was “Dinka” and the “Dinka government,” the two things that had become hardly separable in the minds of many equatorian youth. To hasten the fall of the “Dinka government,” Dr. Riek Machar also employed instigation tactics that would tarnish the image of the government. One of these tactics was the organization of death squads infamously known as “Unknown gunmen” in Juba. These death squads have been causing insecurity in Juba particularly at night as well as obstructing trade through road ambushes along major roads from and out of Juba. Similar incidences have been reported in other major towns across the country. Convoys travelling into or out of Juba were waylaid and searched for sign of Dinka.
Once found, they were dragged off the vehicles and murdered in the bushes. Their crime? They are MTN, which is a derogatory word used to describe Dinka who are everywhere, like an MTN network, a mobile network operating in South Sudan with extensive coverage. Many innocent Dinka women and children have met their end through those road ambushes simply because of their ethnicity. Every time these murders happen, people are told to mourn with restrain because there is a bigger picture to keep an eye on. Relatives of the innocents killed are told that if they take laws into their own hands, there is a great chance that a country that has taken many lives could easily slide into mayhem. But instead of relenting, Dr. Machar and cohorts continued to agitate for more violent confrontation with the security forces.
Before J1 event, two critical incidences brought the two forces close to direct confrontation. One incident involved the killing of two SPLM/A-IO officers in Juba while they were on their subversive mission at night in one of the Juba’s neighborhoods. The two officers were probably mistaken for SPLA soldiers by the SPLM/A-IO-sponsored “Unknown gunmen” and were gunned down. Upon hearing about this, Dr. Riek Machar hastily called a meeting in his camp and ordered his soldiers to avenge the death of their comrades. The SPLA command dismissed as baseless such accusations, but that didn’t convince the blood thirsty SPLM/A-IO soldiers. They vowed vengeance and more bloodbaths, without pausing to reflect on the fact that in Juba, they were outnumbered, outgunned, and outsmarted. But in Dr. Riek Machar’s murderous circle, insanity and thuggery abound. They pressed on with their pre-planned suicidal mission.
On the 7th, July, 2016, the SPLM/A-IO death squad left their camp in search of SPLA soldiers, whom they found manning a checkpoint routinely near Gudele. Without hesitating, the SPLM/A-IO soldiers opened fire on the unsuspecting SPLA soldiers, cutting down cold-bloodedly five innocent government soldiers. In the ensuing battle, an innocent civilian doctor who was driving home from work was murdered. After the feat, the SPLM/A-IO soldiers rushed to their camp, tactically to make it look like it was the government’s soldiers who stormed their barrack if they were followed.
However, the SPLA command ordered the soldiers to restrain so that the political leadership could take measures to address such unhealthy provocation from Dr. Riek Machar’s forces. Feeling victorious and invincible, Dr. Riek murderous thugs raised the tension even higher by planning to eliminate the entire cabinet of the Transitional Government of National Unity (TGoNU).
This murderous conspiracy was timely discovered by the security operatives and the relevant authorities were henceforth informed of the plot. To avert the catastrophe, the President postponed the cabinet meeting and instead called for an urgent meeting of the Presidency and the National Security Council (NSC) ostensibly to explore ways in which measures could be devised to diffuse the tense security situation in the country which was threatening to derail the smooth implementation of the peace agreement.
To reduce any chance of confrontation between the two forces, the President and the First Vice President (FVP) were both advised to drastically reduce the number of their bodyguards guarding the meeting. The President complied with the security advice and came to the meeting with only fifty (50) bodyguards. Dr. Riek initially also came with roughly the same number of bodyguards. However, after Dr. Riek Machar came, another force, comprised roughly of three hundred and fifty (350) men strong, including Dr. Riek’s son, Gatwang Riek Machar, followed earnestly. They came and rapidly deployed around the wall fence of J1 palace. This triggered similar deployment from the President’s guards as their initial force was outnumbered and outgunned.
After finishing his deployment around J1, the SPLM/A-IO officer, a certain Lt. Col. called Gatluak, who was commanding the SPLM/A-IO forces asked his officers in Nuer language whether their guns were cocked and ready, and as he was giving those instructions, he forcefully tried to push his way into the state house, but he was being resisted by the President’s guards. When he realized that he wasn’t being allowed to get through the gate while the meeting was in session, he pulled out a pistol and murdered one of the President’s guards. Immediately he was shot at a pointblank range and the fighting erupted with an earth-shaking thunder.
Inside and outside the wall fence of J1 palace, what would later be dubbed as “a dog fight” ensued as each force fought to gain the control the state house. Although they were outnumbered, the “Tiger commandos” stood their ground and brought the fight to the assassins in a manner that was close and personal. As Dr. Riek’s assassins fell effortlessly, it was becoming clear to them that they had taken on some of the most battle-hardened and fearsome fighting machines ever trained by the SPLA. The tide of the battle was rapidly turning against Dr. Riek’s ill-trained mercenaries.
Inside the meeting hall where the President was meeting with his two deputies, Dr. Riek Machar, the First Vice President (FVP), and Cde. James Wani Igga, the Vice President (VP), a rather bizarre chain of events was rapidly unfolding. When the fighting commenced outside the walls of the state house compound, the President’s inside security team asked everyone in the meeting hall, including the press personnel, to take cover, and immediately took the President and his deputies to a more secure room. While there, they were supposed to sit in protocol, with the FVP sitting to the right of the President, and the VP to the left. However, for reason known to him, Dr. Riek refused this sitting arrangement and instead took a place to the President’s left.
It later became apparent that there was a window facing where he chose to sit and he probably wanted to see who had prevailed outside between his forces and those of the President. Also, because of his keen eyes as a security officer, Cde. Mamur Mete, H.E. the Minister of National Security (NSS), discovered that Dr. Riek Machar was armed with a loaded pistol, which was concealed inside his jacket. The minster hastily disarmed him as he (Riek) feigned not being aware of the weapon on him. It remains unclear what he wanted to do with the weapon. Hopefully when he emerges from hiding he will satisfy the nation as to what exactly was cruising through his murderous mind. But at any rate, he was disarmed without being manhandled.
After the assassins outside were dealt with comprehensively, the report was brought to the President that the attackers were cleared off the premise. Upon hearing this, Dr. Riek Machar began to panic and pleaded for his life. From what the eye witnesses observed, Dr. Riek Machar put on a bizarre show of a man caught in the act. Upon hearing the report that his guys were beaten witless, he sank into his chair motionlessly. Every breath he took pushed his protruding belly rising skyward, like an abandoned Ngundeng Bong’s Bieh. With his eye darting about the room, he looked like a little homeless boy caught in the act of stealing in Wau. It is also said that the FVP lost control of his bodily regulatory mechanisms and as a result soiled his pants before the bewildered members of the press and the security team inside the room.
When the President realized that the man was visibly shaken, he assured him of his safety. To assure a traumatized nation, the President asked his deputies to join him in a press conference to let the nation know that they were unharmed and were still committed to the implementation of the peace agreement as the only basis upon which peace and stability could be restored in the country. The President made sure that the FVP was unharmed as there were a few individuals who were visibly annoyed by Dr. Riek Machar’s unquenchable thirst to drive the country into the abyss.
Literally, the President shielded him (Riek) with his body as they moved to the podium to give statements to the press. After the fiasco, the President made sure the two deputies were brought to their homes safe and sound. For Dr. Riek Machar, the President gave him his personal bulletproof vehicle and a few trusted high-ranking military officers to escort him to his camp in Jebel. The President had to go out of his way this far to make sure that the people of South Sudan never again had to go through the traumatic experience of the just-concluded fratricidal war.
But being a man with dark soul, a man hell bent on usurping the people’s power even at the expense of his own life, or that of his only Gatwang, Dr. Riek Machar had other sinister and darker plans. He simply played fool to get away with the crime so that he could plot more.
To continue the discussions which were disrupted by the fighting at J1, the President asked Dr. Machar to meet again at J1 the following morning so that measures could be put in place to avoid further confrontations between the two forces. However, Dr. Riek decided not to come back for the meeting of the Presidency as agreed, claiming that he was unwell. Meanwhile he called a meeting of his military high command to decide on their next move and in that meeting, Dr. Riek’s commanders rejected the call for calm and instead decided that they were going to capture Juba and make Riek Machar President.
Therefore, on Saturday night, July 9th, 2016, Dr. Riek Machar’s soldiers attacked SPLA positions at checkpoint in Jebel at the outskirt of Juba on the way to Yei. There, Riek Machar forces outnumbered a small contingent of SPLA forces, started advancing towards the National Security and Juba town. After they had taken the checkpoint area and Rock City neighborhood, the SPLM/A-IO committed some of the hideous crimes against the civil population behind their line.
They raped women and young girls, and killed any youth who was hesitant to join their new madness. People of Dinka ethnic group were rounded up and executed. For a few hours as the army regrouped, they brought hell and mayhem to the neighborhoods. After the SPLA had regrouped, an organized SPLA fighting machinery was brought to bear on the rebels and they were pushed back before they could make their way into the heart of the town.
On the 10th of July, 2016, Dr. Riek Machar’s forces launched yet another large scale assault on the capital with heavy artillery and machine guns. Again, the national army, the SPLA, fought them back until they were dislodged from their bases on July 11th, 2016. After being beaten witless, they fled into the bushes in clusters of disorganized fighting units. That evening, the President declared a unilateral ceasefire and ordered the soldiers to henceforth return to the barracks. In his place of hiding “outside Juba,” Dr. Riek Machar reciprocated the President’s call for ceasefire, but refused to return to the capital. Since then, the Transitional Government of National Unity (TGoNU) has been trying futilely to communicate with Dr. Riek Machar.
All the pleas for him not to escalate the crisis have fallen on deaf ears as Dr. Riek Machar is reported to be actively mobilizing Equatoria youth against the government ostensibly to topple it. Although the SPLA is respecting the ceasefire which was ordered by the President, the army remains vigilant and has vowed to obliterate Dr. Riek’s rebellion if he tries again in Equatoria. While Dr. Riek is roaming the bush, the ARCISS implementation is on course, TGoNU is busy with its programs, and the lives of the people of South Sudan continue uninterrupted. In these twisted South Sudanese political machinations, one thing is unambiguously clear: Dr. Riek Machar and the peace agreement (ARCISS) are not one and the same.
Whether or not Dr. Riek Machar has made it safely out of the thick equatoria jungle is one of those conspiracy theories-provoking questions like, “Was there a second shooter in Kennedy assassination?”, “Was the moon landing a hoax?”, “Is 2PAC still alive?”, “Who let the dog out?” Whatever your conjectures are, remember, nobody can be really dead certain about anything. Life continues!
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this essay are solely those of the author. Dr. Bior Kwer Bior, PhD is a South Sudanese national who resides in Juba, South Sudan. Dr. Bior is the director of Clinical Research and Molecular Diagnostics at the National Public Health Laboratory/ National Blood Transfusion Center in the Republic of South Sudan. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org