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Kill Them with Fire

This is chapter 13 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

By 1995 the Sudanese government could not guarantee the safety of the oil fields. Garang was going nuts, and Machar wasn’t much saner. Machar’s decision in 1991 to create his own weak Nuer faction, funded by Tiny Rowland and Khartoum, had plunged southern Sudan into chaos.

In December 1995 Machar had run out of money, supporters, and options. Khartoum had appointed Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony as the governor of Jonglei, and starvation, malaria, and violence ruled southern Sudan. NGOs called it the “Death Triangle.” So Machar fled to Ethiopia, but instead of being welcomed as a comrade, he was told to leave immediately. When he refused, he was thrown in jail.


In April 1996, spurred on by promises of support from China and desperate to increase production, Sudan signed a vaguely worded agreement called the Political Charter with Machar to end his rebels’ attacks on the oil fields. This was an historic act of conciliation, as Garang and the rebel groups had been telling the oil companies to leave for years. Their logic was simple: Money from oil bypassed the south and went directly to Khartoum, funding the capital’s war on the south.

This temporary peace deal allowed Arakis—the oil company that had taken over explorations after Chevron bailed—to solicit the investment of outside oil companies, which agreed to fund a pipeline going north to Port Sudan. They created the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company, with Arakis claiming a 25 percent stake, China National Petroleum Corporation landing a 40 percent share, Malaysia’s Petronas taking 30 percent, and Sudan’s Sudapet left with only 5 percent.

After this deal, Sudan began trading cotton to China, its new oil partner, for $400 million in weapons, including Scud missiles. Eventually China flew laborers, troops, and advisers into the country to work with northern Sudanese in the southern oil areas. No southern Sudanese were employed. Human rights groups estimated that China had exported 7,000 prisoners to augment the 20,000 it had already sent there. Meanwhile, Khartoum’s funding of various splinter factions, including Machar’s, to fight one another had destroyed any sense of unity in the oil-rich Unity state.


Sudan’s strategy of “aqtul abid bil abid,” or “kill a slave with a slave,” was working. As Machar and Garang battled each other, their strength ebbed and their political aspirations devolved into intertribal murder. To intensify the chaos, Khartoum employed armies of Arab raiders called the Baggāra, Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, and a long list of independent Nuer and Dinka warlords whose sole mission was to wreak havoc and push civilians out of the oil fields and into oblivion.

It wasn’t coincidental that in December 1996, amid Khartoum’s campaign of destruction and ethnic cleansing, Arakis announced that it had discovered more oil and would spend some $1 billion to exploit this find and build a pipeline to move the oil away from the south to the north’s Port Sudan.

Baggāra mercenaries in Darfur and Kordofan were then dispatched to attack, murder, and disperse the Dinka, and the remnants of Bin Laden’s largely unsuccessful mujahedeen initiative were moved into Bentiu to guard the oil fields.

Khartoum’s policy of sheltering dubious characters such as Bin Laden, Carlos the Jackal, and other international fugitives had resulted in strict sanctions from the US. On November 3, 1997, President Bill Clinton issued Executive Order 13067, finding that “the policies and actions of the Government of Sudan, including continued support for international terrorism, ongoing efforts to destabilize neighboring governments, and the prevalence of human rights violations, including slavery and the denial of religious freedom, constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”


While this wouldn’t save the people of southern Sudan—who had endured another decade of starvation, displacement, and unmeasured suffering—the rebels were about to experience a change of fortune. In 1995, as the Sudanese government focused its military efforts on the oil fields, some elements of the SPLA began to capture garrisons staffed with poorly trained conscripts. By 1997 the southern insurgents had captured almost all of Bahr al Ghazal, the western part of what is now South Sudan.

These rebel factions did not include Garang and his Dinka army, however. Nor did Machar command much military power at the time. But Hasan al Turabi argued that Machar should be the rebels’ lead negotiator with the government, which instantly led to further arguments and defections from the peace process.

Many in the south viewed 1997’s Khartoum Peace Agreement as a thinly veiled surrender with no teeth and no clear path to implementation. Yet whatever its weaknesses, the accord did lay the groundwork for an independence referendum, something Khartoum had assumed would never happen.

The only major rebel leader who held out from siding with Khartoum was Garang. Despite boasting that he would take Juba, he was unable to hold any strategic towns, positions, or borders whatsoever.

Since the government had signed the accord to assure the continued production of oil, it installed Machar and the men currently under his control—the anti-SPLA South Sudan Defense Force—to provide security for the Sudanese Armed Forces in the oil fields. The flawed peace agreement also allowed the government and the Chinese to begin building the pipeline, which would syphon the south’s oil through a 957-mile conduit to Port Sudan.


John Garang celebrates the signing of the 2005 peace agreement that ended 22 years of civil war in Sudan. Photo by SIMON MAINA/AFP/Getty Images

By 1999 the pipeline began loading the oil onto tankers, generating much-needed income for Khartoum. Over the next year, the government spent more than $250 million, nearly half of its oil revenue, just to cover the costs of its army and hired militias in the field.

It was in 2000 that Machar, frustrated by the lack of any real implementation of the now three-year-old agreement, decided to abandon the support of Khartoum and create yet another rebel movement. And in an odd sense of déjà vu, he took another wife: American Becky Lynn Hagmann from Minnesota. They were married in 2000. Although not much has been reported about her, Hagmann, now in her late 50s, was like Machar’s other wives—his personal adviser.

Hagmann is a devout Christian who was formerly married to the pastor of a local church and has three children from that marriage. As Becky Machar-Teny she ran the Center for Africa, and following that she became involved in state building in Juba. Her Christian efforts included trying to set up boarding schools and other projects. After South Sudan gained its independence, she lived in a small guesthouse in Juba and helped Machar with various political projects.

His decision to split from the government also seemed to mirror his time with Emma McCune. Machar’s goal was to get a stronger grip at the never-ending peace talks, but his strategy ended up destroying southern unity and playing into the hands of Khartoum’s divide-and-conquer game. Khartoum was now able to send northern troops into the south on newly built roads leading to the oil fields. This stage of the war included attacking naked pastoralists using Arabs on horseback and bombing them using aircraft. Looting, murder, burning, rape, and kidnapping were the tools of terror.


Even though Machar had thelargest number of soldiers and was the best-known rebel leader, he was losing because the south couldn’t marshal its divided and meager resources. He fled with his commanders to Nairobi in March 2000, after a disastrous dry season in the country, and tried to persuade the US embassy to support him against Khartoum. The US turned him down, insisting that he and the government work out their differences. Although there were efforts in the US to position Garang as the next Yoweri Museveni of Uganda or Paul Kagame of Rwanda, US-imposed sanctions prevented the delivery of overt aid or support. Tiny Rowland had died in 1998, and Khartoum was essentially bankrupt; oil was pretty much the only potential source of revenue.

By 2004 more than 90 percent of Sudan’s oil was being extracted by non-Sudanese enterprises. Greater Sudan was producing 304,000 barrels a day in 2004, and 80,000 barrels of refined product. A second pipeline was built to meet increased refining capacity in Khartoum. Big oil money was predicted for Sudan.

By the early 2000s, the potential of shared oil wealth began to sink in, overshadowing the long-standing ethnic grievances. It was clear to the north and the south that this endless war would never allow Sudan or even the ethnic groups in the south to experience peace or prosperity. Human rights groups and the media also began to make it clear that something very dark and evil was happening in the oil areas of Sudan.


In January 2002 Machar and Garang put their personal vendettas aside and reconciled, merging their long-warring factions. Other rebel groups also began to see the benefit of peace rather than war.

In January 2005 Garang and Ali Osman Taha signed the Comprehensive Peace Accord. The Second Sudanese Civil War had officially ended, the terms of ceasefire agreed on after three years of negotiations. After years of failed attempts, backstabbing and infighting, and outright disaster, it seemed as though this US-backed, Bush-endorsed peace deal would stick. The treaty integrated many of the carefully crafted points made by Machar and others in the 1997 Khartoum Peace Agreement, and that toothless accord suddenly had teeth. There would be a vote, and the people would decide if they would be independent or stay with Khartoum.

Garang would never live to see an independent South Sudan. On July 30, 2005, he died in a helicopter crash on a visit to meet with Museveni in Uganda. Salva Kiir, the military man and his second-in-command, would take over the role of leading the country’s largest ethnic group, the Dinka.

After Garang’s death, the ethnic dominance of the Dinka ensured that Kiir would be elected president. The Nuer, the second-largest ethnic group, were represented by Machar, who became vice president of the Government of Southern Sudan and SPLM co-chair of the Joint Executive Political Committee. The men’s public appearances may have looked pleasant and refined, but the years’ worth of bad blood between them never disappeared.

Despite Garang’s death, the peace held. The world rejoiced as a framework to create the country of South Sudan was born. The future oil revenue was carved up to compensate Khartoum and to generate funds to build the new country. A good slice of it was pledged directly to Machar’s home region.

This coming together of former ethnic opponents, not to mention the north and the south, served as proof that good intentions, money, and some diplomatic arm-twisting could bring positive change and peace to Africa. It seemed the world had finally saved South Sudan.

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