It’s been called the article “that wasn’t” and it offers an unexpected insight into the ongoing tensions in South Sudan.
The New York Times published a piece on June 7 with a striking byline, the writers were apparently South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir and First Vice-President Riek Machar – until recently bitter enemies, now working together in a national unity government.
The article argued that the country needed a truth and reconciliation commission, in which those who revealed the truth about abuses committed during the civil war would be exempt from prosecution.
It suggested Western countries, and in particular the US and the UK, should put aside their support for a hybrid international-local court which was mandated by a peace agreement to try those accused of committing the worst abuses.
“Disciplinary justice,” the article argued, “would destabilise efforts to unite our nation by keeping alive anger and hatred among the people of South Sudan.”
There was an immediate backlash in the country, many people felt powerful leaders whose troops were accused of mass atrocities were attempting to escape justice.
As David Deng of the South Sudan Law Society put it, if the hybrid court is bypassed “the governance culture that rewards those who wield violence to achieve their political [or personal] objectives while leaving the victims of those abuses to suffer in silence will continue unabated”.
This is where the story gets more complicated and perhaps more revealing about the state of affairs in South Sudan.
Mr Machar’s office denied that the first vice-president had co-written the article, and said he had no intention of dropping the court.
The New York Times reportedly said it had received the article from government officials, and it should have sought direct confirmation from both camps that the article was written by them.
Suddenly, the picture had changed quite dramatically.
Instead of a rare statement of common purpose by Mr Kiir and Mr Machar, the two old enemies, the article seems to reveal the ongoing distrust between the two men.
Mr Machar’s refusal to endorse it is presumably linked to the strong desire of many of his supporters to see those accused of killing their family members face justice.
In the first few days of the war in December 2013, many people from the Nuer ethnic group were killed in Juba, based on their supposed support for Mr Machar, who is a Nuer.
Nuers all over the country went into rebellion in response to this.
Mr Machar’s supporters want those responsible for the killings to face trial, and it would be politically difficult for Mr Machar to backtrack on his proclaimed support for the court – even if his own troops also carried out a number of massacres, often also on ethnic lines.
Mr Machar has also tried to position himself as a supporter of democracy and the rule of law – even if his enemies accuse him of unbridled ambition and responsibility for widespread atrocities.
So who actually wrote the article?
Juba-based journalist Jason Patinkin has been doing some digging.
His research seems to suggest it came from the office of the president’s press secretary, with some help from foreign consultants.
Did Mr Machar sign off on the letter? His camp says no, but Mr Kiir’s team insists he did.
Someone is lying – and it’s painfully clear that Mr Machar’s return to government does not mean he and the president are on the same page.
South Sudan: The world’s youngest country
- Split from Sudan in July 2011 after an independence referendum
- One of Africa’s least-developed economies. Highly oil-dependent
- Relations with Sudan strained by disputes over oil revenue sharing and borders
- A power struggle brought about civil war in December 2013
- An estimated 2.2 million fled their homes during conflict
- A tentative, internationally mediated, peace agreement signed in August 2015
- Riek Machar sworn in as vice-president in April 2016