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Unholy Alliance

This is chapter 11 of Robert Young Pelton and Tim Freccia's sprawling 35,000-plus-word epic exploration of the crisis in South Sudan. You can skip ahead and read the full text here or

Photo by Tim Freccia

In September 1983, Riek Machar and his associates discovered a powerful ally: Muammar Qaddafi. Over the course of his rule, Qaddafi, a die-hard nationalist, supported numerous rebel groups across Africa. Earlier that year, President Ronald Reagan of the US had called Qaddafi “the mad dog of the Middle East,” but he was a mad dog with billions in oil revenue to play with. Even the regime-happy Russians were hesitant to get too involved with the quirky leader of Libya.


Qaddafi flew Machar and his tiny Sudan Revolutionary Congress to Addis Ababa to hammer out, among a team of advisers, plans for an organized campaign against the north. Through financial promises and moral encouragement, the gathering persuaded Machar to unite with John Garang. This was the impetus for the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, a nationalist resistance group complete with a military wing. To back them, a strange mix of dark angels assembled: Qaddafi, Ethiopia’s Marxist Mengistu Haile Mariam, representatives of Israel (who wanted to unload tons of weapons captured in its wars against Egypt), and a collection of renegade private investors. This arrangement quickly led to an unspoken purpose: a pan-tribal southern war on Sudan’s Arab rule, with the goal of disrupting and usurping the north’s control of newly discovered central and southern oil reserves.

That same year, before the Addis Ababa meeting, Garang had persuaded his 105th Battalion—a primarily Dinka group of soldiers, based in Bor, under the command of the Sudanese government—to mutiny against the north and organize a rebellion based in Ethiopia. Mutineers took the name Anyanya II and moved to Ethiopia, the home of the original Anyanya fighters during the First Sudanese Civil War. In Ethiopia, Mengistu liked Garang’s Marxist politics and saw him as way to control Nuer aspirations to independence in western Ethiopia, around Gambella. He sheltered Garang and allowed him to base his forces there.


Armed with Russian weapons and trained in Ethiopia, Garang and his men then took the fight back home, moving into eastern Equatoria. The conflict spread from the east into the center of Sudan, with a tactical focus on the oil fields in Nuer territory. As long as the south could control this area, the rebels figured, it had a bargaining chip with Khartoum—and anyone else who coveted black gold.

In 1985, after they joined forces, Garang sent Machar to Gambella to study advanced military tactics. By the end of his training, Machar commanded a force of 3,000 troops. He and his men marched from Gambella through the rugged wilderness of Kordofan, Sudan, with the Nuba tribe in tow. The Nuba were at odds with the Arab Bagga-ra raiders who had infiltrated the area. After his arrival in the region, Machar had quickly earned the Nuba’s trust due to mutual interests: Khartoum had armed the Bagga-ra raiders who were persecuting the Nuba in hopes of stoking a proxy war to thwart the rebels’ advance.

In the meantime, Chevron’s oil discoveries continued to enrich the nation of Sudan. The petroleum juggernaut had set up a large compound not too far from Machar’s hometown of Leer. On February 2, 1984, an Anyanya II battalion attacked Chevron’s base camp in Yoinyang, killing three expatriate workers and injuring others. The company suspended its operations. A month later, after receiving assurances from the Sudanese government that the area was safe, Chevron resumed some of its activities. But the government was very wrong in its assessment. By 1986 Machar had taken control of the oil areas, including Leer, and negotiated a truce with the Bagga-ra militia, effectively preventing Chevron and Khartoum from exploiting the oil.


Desperate, President Gaafar Muhammad al Nimeiry of Sudan recruited Saudi businessman and arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi to revive the abandoned oil exploration. Nimeiry offered him a significant stake if he would set up a national oil company and get things moving. Khashoggi was a famous middleman for the US and Europe, and he eventually led Nimeiry to controversial German-British financier and mining magnate Roland “Tiny” Rowland. Rowland had worked with Khashoggi on deals in Africa and was notorious for wanting a seat at the table with any emerging group, rebel or otherwise.

By this point, Rowland’s résumé included transforming a Rhodesian tobacco company, the London and Rhodesian Mining and Land Company, and the Observer newspaper into a multibillion-dollar empire with investments stretching across Africa. (Also worth nothing is his onetime membership in the Hitler Youth.)

Rowland’s father had arranged for his son’s education in Hampshire, England, and Tiny became a British soldier who ironically spent time in a British POW camp because he’d gone AWOL to free his Dutch and German parents from a British internment camp. Later, he applied to become a spy for MI6 but was turned down. By the time Nimiery came knocking, Rowland was a 70-year-old who had exploited his support of emerging African leaders and rebel forces to great economic advantage.

Rowland, who once referred to Muammar Qaddafi as a “super good friend,” became chums with the Libyan dictator when CIA officers Edwin Wilson and Frank Terpil tapped Rowland’s Tradewinds subsidiary to arm and modernize the Libyan military. Rowland provided Qaddafi entrée to a number of young African revolutionaries—Jomo Kenyatta, Robert Mugabe, and Jonas Savimbi, among others—whom Rowland was bankrolling. Rowland would also get involved in weapons smuggling, regime change, and a host of shadowy political affairs, including the Iran-Contra scandal.


Libyan political and military leader Muammar Qaddafi, who helped organize the campaign against the north. Keystone/Getty Images

No one could argue that Rowland wasn’t pragmatic, tuned in, and switched on. He knew that Sudan, as a simple bottom-line matter, would eventually be forced to resolve local grievances in the oil regions. This would require outside financing. It was, to use more modern business jargon, the ultimate start-up. By getting in on the ground floor by dropping $20,000 in a rebel leader’s pocket, he created opportunities for much bigger payoffs down the road.

At the request of Nimeiry, Rowland tried to persuade Garang to assemble a mercenary army to protect the oil. Nimeiry even asked Rowland to offer Garang the post of vice president if he would halt his war. Garang refused. He and Machar had their own plans, and the SPLM was mobilizing.

Among the rebels, Machar and his wife, Angelina Teny, were young, smart, and eloquent and exuded leadership. Machar provided the calm but fuzzy intellectual balance to Garang’s staunch, bearded Marxism. Although their ideas were too Western for many of the traditional Nuer chiefs, they appealed to the outsider’s view of an Africa desperately in need of transition from tribal warfare and infighting to a more stable, democratic system. And perhaps more important, the new generation of educated southern Sudanese like Machar and Garang were people the West could do business with. Garang had an agriculture degree (his thesis was on the massive Jonglei Canal project), which, combined with Machar’s solid grasp of business principles and engineering, made them the kind of leaders international entrepreneurs wanted to approach.


Machar and Teny made the case for southern independence in various articles, speeches, and meetings. The couple soon attracted the attention of Rowland. Intrigued by Machar, he bankrolled the SPLM with a budget alleged to be anywhere from the tens of thousands to the tens of millions. Rowland simultaneously positioned himself as a neutral peacemaker between the north and the south, offering his personal jet to transport leaders meetings to patch up squabbles.

A great deal of intrigue swirls around Rowland’s connections to rebel groups, Qaddafi, and British and US intelligence agencies; whatever the nature of these relationships, Rowland certainly played a major part in the formation of modern Africa. In addition to his active role in funding rebel groups, it is alleged that he used a number of his conglomerate’s 800 or so companies to execute foreign policy on behalf of foreign governments, his shareholders, and his own agenda.

Rowland was the archetype of what the government of Sudan knew it needed: a man who could navigate boardrooms and battlefields, separating the ugly business of revolution from the uglier business of investment and exploitation. What is not known is whether Rowland was working on behalf of the United States (as he did in providing the training for Qaddafi’s bodyguards, and later, during his involvement with the Iran-Contra affair) or whether he was acting on his own whims. As American journalist Rory Nugent, who knew Rowland, has described his motivation, “Tiny just wanted a seat at every poker game. If it got too rich he folded, but he never wanted to miss a bet.”


But then the careful machinations of Rowland, Qaddafi, Khashoggi, Machar, and Garang to play Khartoum and its oil were destroyed in one fell swoop. In April 1985, while on a visit to the United States, Nimeiry was overthrown by Islamic fundamentalists. The ensuing election was won by religious scholar Al Sadiq al Mahdi, great-grandson of the Mahdi, who had years before ousted George Gordon, Britain’s colonial governor general, and brought Islamic rule and slavery back to the country. (Sadiq’s brother-in-law Hassan al Turabi would later restore Sharia law and Arab dominance in Sudan.)

Wary of the deteriorating political conditions and the growing influence of the National Islamic Front (NIF), by 1988 Chevron had decided to get out of Sudan completely; in the early 90s its assets were reallocated to a Khartoum-based oil company for $23 million. The artful thrust and parry of north against south was replaced with draconian measures. The Sudanese government decided to ethnically cleanse the Nuer from oil-rich regions. Then Ethiopia, the main backer of the SPLM/A, abruptly stopped funding the revolt. In 1989, Sudan also lost the largesse of Saudi Arabia, which, under the guidance of US and UK advisers, was training jihadists for the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The disappearing support put a damper on the relationship between Garang and Machar, who had never really seen eye-to-eye (Garang favored a Khartoum-based federal system; Machar wanted independence). The schisms among the various groups widened, resulting in a seismic shift among the rebels of the south.


Nothing could save Sudan.

June 30, 1989, brought yet another coup backed by the NIF, this one led by Field Marshal Omar al Bashir and Turabi, who overthrew the ineffective Sadiq and his civilian government. International sanctions soon applied pressure for Bashir to come to terms with the south, and he did so in the most authoritative way possible. Under the flag of Islam, his military press-ganged more than 150,000 young men into a new Islamic self-defense militia.

A hodgepodge of rapidly devolving rebel groups controlled most of the south until 1991, with the fall of the Soviet Union and resultant ousting of rebel supporter Mengistu from Ethiopia. The playing field had changed dramatically.

The rebels’ coffers dwindled until they were empty, and it only took a month. By June the north had the upper hand and gained control of the south’s oil-producing areas. Khartoum was winning.

German-British financier and mining magnate Roland “Tiny” Rowland. Frank Tewkesbury/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It was around this time that a dour and tall young Saudi began flying into Khartoum in his Gulfstream jet. The first sightings of this spoiled son of a construction magnate came around 1989. Osama bin Laden was heard taking credit for booting the Soviets from Afghanistan. With Sudan under new leadership, he was invited to Khartoum, along with a number of other violent Islamist groups.


Following his success with the mujahedeen in Afghanistan, Bin Laden had been disowned by the Saudis after they rebuffed his offer of support from his network of fighters and instead aligned with US forces to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait during the Gulf War. Appreciating the new Muslim-led government and the fact that much wasn’t going on there besides chaos and war, he invested in Sudan.

In December 1991, Bin Laden had moved his family, advisers, and security from Pakistan to a pink, three-story house on Al Mashtal Street in Khartoum’s upscale Al Riyadh neighborhood. While his homeland no longer wanted him, Bin Laden, as it turned out, was exactly what the new government in Khartoum was looking for.

The frugal but effective military strategies that the lanky Saudi had developed in Afghanistan relied on conscripting cheap, untrained masses of men willing to fight for an ideology. His business and technical background as one of the sons of a Saudi Arabian mogul was also of interest to Sudan’s leadership. Bin Laden saw lots of potential in his cash-strapped but theologically friendly hosts.

Through a series of donations and political payoffs, the Sudanese provided Bin Laden with passports and safe passage for the stream of Islamist combatants he began importing and training in approximately 20 camps around Khartoum. Bin Laden also got to work building a road from Khartoum to Port Sudan. Things were finally getting done. The Saudi’s investment company employed 400 Sudanese, his construction company employed another 600, and his enterprises soon included a trading company, a bank, and agricultural projects. Estimates put Bin Laden’s total investment in infrastructure at anywhere from $20 to $50 million. The calculating Turabi fostered a cross-pollination between al Qaeda, Abu Nidal, Carlos the Jackal, and Hezbollah, all of whom contributed to Sudan’s reputation as terror central.


After Bin Laden had imported his mujahedeen from Pakistan and Afghanistan, he sent them to the south to fight the Nuer and Dinka. When I was on the battlefields with Nuer fighters in 1996, the ground was still littered with hundreds of bleached skeletons, decorated with Kandahari caps, toothbrushes, and Qur’ans. This concept of using an armed, largely untrained, suicidal rabble bothered the Dinka and Nuer because there was no political discourse, only large-scale bloodshed.

At the time of Bin Laden’s arrival, things were already turning sour between Garang and Machar. The seizure of oil by Khartoum, and the disappearance of Soviet money from backers like Ethiopia, meant the revolution would soon be over if they didn’t find another way to fund it. Garang’s socialist manifesto sounded hollow without the military success to back it up. In a decision that would echo his actions two decades later, Machar decided to strike out on his own.

Adding to Machar’s problems, not long before Bin Laden became a resident of Sudan, Machar had made what may have been one of the biggest mistakes of his career: He took up with Emma McCune, a chain-smoking British art student who had been inspired by the sudden vogue of saving Africa. She had watched the Live Aid videos and concerts of the mid 80s and desperately wanted to get involved in charity work. Working for an NGO, she sought out Machar at a conference in Nairobi in 1990, intending to chastise him for using refugee camps to recruit child soldiers. Instead, somehow, they spent the night together and became inseparable.


And as Machar was falling in love with his exotic white girlfriend, he was falling out of love with Garang. At the time Garang was insisting that the SPLM join with Khartoum and allow the south to become an autonomous, self-governed region. Machar was not going to fight a war to end up taking orders from Arab minders. The problem was a dynamic that once provided the duo with their power: Garang was a military man, and Machar was an academic. The costs of running a war without a backer would plunge both sides into a brutal spree of ethnic killing, and the starvation that McCune had sought to fight would soon be used by her as an ugly weapon in that internecine war.

On August 28, 1991, Machar and two other Nuer commanders published a pamphlet railing against Garang’s leadership. Machar staged a coup using words instead of bullets.

The Nasir Declaration, as it came to be known, accused Garang of being dictatorial and called for self-determination for South Sudan. These sentiments resonated with Nuer leaders, who felt marginalized by Garang’s primarily Dinka cadre. The pamphlet was written in a style that was antithetical to Machar’s usually soft-spoken nature, and rumors began flying that it may have been partly authored by a young white woman who had been living with Machar while he was planning his takeover in Nasir—McCune. Believing that Machar lacked the teeth to realize his threatened coup, Garang made the tactical error of largely ignoring his political posturing. But Garang’s second-in-command and successor, Salva Kiir, was wary and never forgot Machar’s betrayal and stinging statements.


Not getting much traction from the manifesto among the local populace or international media, Machar and two of his loyal commanders realized they needed a PR boost. So they called up the BBC from their headquarters in Nasir to declare that they had taken control of the SPLA. This was news to Garang, who was suddenly forced to take his former ally and his newly formed SPLA-Nasir splinter faction seriously.

Some South Sudanese still blame McCune’s influence on Machar for the surprise split and the bloody events that followed, such as the Bor Massacre, which, according to Amnesty International, resulted in the deaths of some 2,000 Dinka at the hands of Machar’s Nuer loyalists. Others blame Garang’s decision to purge Nuer commanders in the SPLA by assassination. It seemed that McCune had cast such a spell on Machar that Garang’s followers began to describe the split and resulting violence as “Emma’s War.”

Photo by Tim Freccia

The public’s first view of the young McCune was a documentary aired in the UK by ITV Yorkshire. It depicted McCune, wan and sticklike, strolling through the bush in her oversize, floppy Paddington Bear hat and chic Western ensemble. In the shadows lurked “the warlord” Machar, his eyes and white teeth glowing under a red beret. What was once a fierce rebel cause had been reduced to a bizarre fantasy romance. In the background was brewing the worst humanitarian catastrophe in Sudan’s history—a famine of proportions that would dwarf the hunger crises in Somalia and Ethiopia.


In the fall of 1992, Sudan was paralyzed by rampant warfare, ethnic killing, and mass internal displacement. Crops had not been planted earlier in the year, and hundreds of thousands of people were sustaining themselves soley on what was flown in by aid organizations. In total, 8 million Sudanese would be affected by the drought, and more than 150,000 would starve to death. Or at least that was what was guessed—no one really knows how many people died in Sudan.

McCune, who had had come to Africa inspired by Band Aid’s song (which itself was inspired by a BBC report on Ethiopia) and the ensuing social interest in saving Africa, devised a way to get attention on television.

The term “CNN Effect” was in vogue at the time—the idea being that a simple story broadcast repeatedly on TV would incite government action, much like the documentary on Ethiopia that had inspired Bob Geldof almost a decade earlier. The media’s coverage of Somalia had been effective, with the US government threatening to send troops to Mogadishu to confront bickering warlords and get aid into the most remote and hapless areas. So when McCune learned that CNN was flying in a correspondent to Waat to cover the conflict that she’d helped stir, she hatched a plan. She would tell the emaciated locals that the plane carried food. She would get her media moment. Or at least she thought so, despite her actions being the epitome of hypocrisy, given her reasons for coming to Africa in the first place.


In the end, despite her cruelly tricking the locals, the CNN report made little impact.

In the spring of 1993, Garang’s forces went on a mission to hunt down Machar and kill him, believing that his SPLA-Nasir faction would crumble in his absence. Still smarting from Machar’s Nuer-led slaughter of Dinka in Bor in 1991, Garang’s Dinka forces murdered, burned, looted, and killed the Nuer indiscriminately.

One journalist who decided to enter southern Sudan at this time was Rory Nugent. Nugent saw a one-inch item in the New York Times on the bottom of page 13: “85,000 dead in the last two months in southern Sudan.” Nugent was perplexed: “The UN could accurately estimate deaths in Somalia,” he said, “but they barely could figure out what was happening in Sudan.”
During dinner in New York, a friend suggested he look up Emma McCune. No number, no address.

In Nairobi he tracked her down and was surprised to learn she was the official press secretary for the faction. “Nobody had written about her then,” he told me. “Here is this white plantation daughter who marries a warlord with a big cock and says, ‘The sex is great.’” Yet McCune asked him not to write about her. Nugent agreed. “She wasn’t part of the story. That was too easy.”
Nugent said she was “passionate about the cause. Half romantic, half pragmatic. She was a girl from convent caught up in the fervor of the times.” And she had been barred from taking UN flights because she was caught smuggling guns.


“When I went to Nairobi I found out that hacks didn’t go to Sudan because you had to pay for a plane,” he recalled. Nugent persuaded six other journalists to charter a plane for two grand, and he put down a $500 deposit. “It crashed, we were told. They had to leave it in southern Sudan.” He found out that the Cessna Caravan was being delivered to a new owner and the pilot was going to pocket the money.

In Sudan, Nugent had found the apocalypse. “It was a totally fucked-up scene. Forget uniforms. Half the army didn’t have clothes. Naked Nuer with giant dicks wearing only bandoliers of ammo. Holy fuck, I thought.”

Soon after he got in, the UN security chief told the journalists to leave. Nugent refused and stayed for six weeks. His timing was perfect: Garang had ordered Kiir to launch an attack on Machar the day before.

At that time, Nugent said, Garang was throwing back a bottle of whiskey a day. The Dinka leader had become paranoid and isolated. The Nuer held a conference at Kongor to convince the Dinka to abandon Kiir and Garang and join Machar. They declared Machar’s faction the official SPLA.

Enraged by the media attention Machar was receiving, Garang put a price on the “American journalist.” Nugent recalled, “I was worth about 25 bucks. Machar was worth ten times more.”

SPLA soldiers pose with artillery on November 13, 1993, in southern Sudan. Photo by Scott Peterson/Liaison

By the summer of 1993, McCune was pregnant with Machar’s child, and the danger became too great. She was told to move to Nairobi to a house that Rowland had rented. Then, on November 24, at the age of 29, she was broadsided in her Land Rover by a speeding matatu bus. She and her unborn baby died in the hospital, and her body was buried in Machar’s home village of Leer.

It was during this dark period in southern Sudan’s history that Machar harnessed the violent Nuer mob known as the Jiech-Mabor, or White Army. The disorderly and largely decentralized White Army, christened as such for their practice of smearing white ash on their bodies to repel insects, was formed (a term used graciously here) around 1991 with the ostensible purpose of fighting off cattle raids from the Dinka and Murlee. Instead Machar used the White Army to sweep through Dinka-controlled areas and indiscriminately kill women and children, the elderly and the infirm.

Machar’s empty promises of democracy and human rights had been negated by the trail of bloated corpses he’d left to rot in the sun. Like Bin Laden, his strategy was one of manipulating large mobs of uneducated armed volunteers to fight a war that did nothing to advance anyone’s cause but his own. And like Bin Laden and his Islamic mujahedeen, Machar had done this by exploiting the religious fears and beliefs of the populace.

Once their dirty work was done, the White Army disappeared, disavowed by Machar and his sympathizers as being a separate, self-directed, civilian-led force that had been wholly unrelated to the more organized SPLM-Nasir. In the background, Machar was allegedly negotiating the sharing of future oil revenues with Khartoum in exchange for his unchallenged control over the region.

At the behest of the Khartoum government, Rowland reentered the picture in the fall in an attempt to broker peace between Garang and Machar. Rowland even publicly declared his long-standing membership in the SPLM. He flew on DIY diplomatic missions between Tehran, London, Nairobi, Khartoum, southern Sudan, Nigeria, and Libya, doing his best to get all sides to agree to a framework for peace in the greater region. Eventually things got so bad that the US, which was now fully embroiled and overextended in its Somalia mission, invited Machar to Atlanta, but it was unsuccessful in forging an agreement.

Machar was losing. Kiir kept pushing until Machar was up against the Ethiopian border in Akobo. “That’s when things changed,” Nugent said. “In late April of 1993 planes would arrive and supplies would appear. Trucks from Malakal sent from Khartoum began running.”

Running out of money and options, Machar was forced to either surrender to Garang or side with Khartoum. The Second Sudanese Civil had dragged on for ten years. Machar had lost Garang, McCune, their unborn baby, the moral high ground, and any control over his country. Even the Ethiopians sent a brigade to prevent Machar’s rebels from crossing the border. Two million Sudanese had died, and there was little hope for the future. His back against the wall, in Akobo, Machar secretly cut a deal with Khartoum to secure money, weapons, and training for his Nuer faction. Within days supplies began to flow from the Sudanese Army garrison in Malakal.

For Westerners, events in southern Sudan were eclipsed by the 1993 disaster of the downed Black Hawk helicopter in Somalia, but the region delivered some of the most brutally devastating images of starvation and horror ever captured on film. In March 1993, South African photographer Kevin Carter took arguably the single most iconic picture of famine in history. He and a group of photographers were brought into southern Sudan on a UN relief plane that was to drop food to starving families. They landed in Ayod, Jonglei, and were given 30 minutes to photograph the surroundings—the time it would take for relief workers to hand out the food—and Carter’s resulting shot of a young boy collapsed facedown at a feeding center while a vulture stalks him in the background was printed in publications around the world.

Deeply haunted by his time in southern Sudan, Carter committed suicide in July 1994, three months after the photo won the Pulitzer Prize. There was no concert or hit song—or retribution—for the estimated 300,000 civilians who had died that year in southern Sudan, just this photo and others like it.

Carter’s suicide note, in part, read: “I’m really, really sorry. The pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist… depressed… I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain… of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners.”

Nugent remembers those times: “The war was brutal. I personally saw 20,000 people die. Garang attacked the UN compound in Ayot, burning it to the ground… with screaming Nuer refugees inside. The smell of 3,500 of burning bodies sticks with you.”

I thought, This is horror.

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