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A Grain of Truth

This is chapter 18 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 <a href...

by Robert Young Pelton
Jun 9 2014, 12:00pm

An abandoned SPLA tank from the last Sudanese civil war is used as both a toilet and a jungle gym. Photo by Tim Freccia

Machar and I spend another day chatting in the shade. It’s difficult to contemplate conspiracies and the kind of nefarious bureaucracy that results in failed statehood while sitting under a tree, watching herons stalking food along the river. But I still haven’t gotten a clear answer on what, in Machar’s view, lies at the core of his troubled relationship with President Kiir. And I’m determined to get there.

“Salva Kiir fought in two wars,” he says after I delicately mosey into the subject with some softball questions. “He only has a primary education. He went to a military college. Me… I went to university; I have a degree in strategic planning. I have eight children and four grandchildren. I used to work more than 16 hours a day.”

The implication is that Machar is, at heart, a family man, a bureaucrat, and an intellectual while Kiir is just a simple bush soldier—a man used to making sudden, violent decisions. Someone who was always Number Two, a sidekick elevated to president only because of his mentor’s sudden death.

But this isn’t the truth, at least not all of it. Machar has also been fighting in the bush since the mid 80s, a measured man who has made a number of sudden, violent decisions in his own career. He made one in 1991 that caused the deaths of tens of thousands. Now, in 2014, he appears to be working on a bigger sequel.

Whom does Machar admire?

“People who move their countries from warfare to peace. One is Mandela, a man who bore the hardship of prison to bring peace to his country.”

Machar’s view of his removal from office seems sanguine and dubious on an analytic level. Why?

“On July 23, [Kiir] surprised me by dismissing me and dissolving the whole government. Many came to me angry. I said we have a constitution that says we can remove him. I accepted his decree. I had served as vice president for eight years, and I was happy to move on.

“On the bright side,” Machar says, “it got us debating the future of the country, so we continued discussing the issues. One was corruption. The country will be branded as a corrupt country. Two, the country is degenerating into tribalism. Some ministries would only hire their kinsmen. [At the time there were] only four Nuer ambassadors out of 70.

“I said that Parliament was in bad shape. Our party was nonexistent at the grassroots level. I talked about the isolation we were getting because of those issues and Kiir’s attitude. There was insecurity in our country. When I raised those issues it created a big concern.” 

He’s referring to a topic that has dogged Kiir’s administration since he came into power—corruption, an endemic disease that Kiir insists his presidency has been vigorous in combatting and one that Machar accuses him of causing.

“We brought evidence of corruption from the World Bank. They conducted a forensic investigation. It was obvious that those close to him were taking money… $4.2 billion was missing.”

To get a sense of scale, I ask what sort of salaries he and Kiir were receiving before the ouster. “The president’s salary is 15,000 South Sudanese pounds [about $5,080] a month,” he says. “Mine was 12,000 [about $4,070]. Kiir has houses in several towns. Everybody knows. When we wanted to investigate he dissolved parliament.”

As we sit talking in the shade, we spot an eagle high up in a tree near the river. Tall, scabby-necked Marabou storks hop in the grass fields. It seems odd discussing $4.2 billion of stolen funds in a place that has never been touched by money.

I ask the reverse, whether Kiir believes that Machar is corrupt.

“He knows my bank accounts; I have no money.”

Asked for specifics, Machar explains his concerns regarding the delivery of grain from Uganda for South Sudan’s strategic reserves. It wasn’t until last year, when Machar had started to dig around the finances involving the large grain-reserve purchases, that Kiir boasted his government would “spend billions” on a strategy to thwart famine.

“There were many forms of corruption in the process. There were those who did a legal contract; there were those who were paid and delivered. You will not be sure there is no corruption in that, because the price would be inflated. Some also delivered and did not get paid. There were those who had contracts for the goods and got paid but delivered nothing.”

Buying grain to hedge against starvation didn’t seem to be a problem until Auditor General Steven Wondu revealed that more than $4 billion in oil revenues and various expenditures had magically vanished over the two years.

Outraged, Ethiopian American presidential adviser Ted Dagne drafted a private letter signed by Kiir. It was sent on May 5, 2012, to 75 ministers and officials as notification that the missing funds should be returned to a Kenyan bank account overseen by the Government of South Sudan in exchange for some level of amnesty.

Dagne was appointed to Kiir’s cabinet because he had spent 22 years as an advocate for South Sudan and worked as an Africa specialist for the Congressional Research Service. It was Dagne and his colleagues’ research that persuaded George W. Bush to back South Sudan in its quest for independence.

The leak of Kiir and Dagne’s letter to the media in June 2012 was the match that lit the tinderbox. Dagne was forced to flee the country as soon as the leak surfaced, fearing for his life. Machar, via his press secretary, James Gatdet Dak, said the $4 billion figure was bunk. “It was this guy, Ted Dagne,” Gatdet Dak said. “There was no other source.” As for Kiir’s signature? None of his ministers had advised him to approve it, which, according to logic, made it as good as forged.

Machar insists that Kiir is at the heart of the corruption.

“These are South Sudanese working with Ugandans,” Machar says. “The producers are in Uganda. The day before I was dismissed, I asked the World Bank to investigate the road contracts. An auditing group was en route. They were suspicious.”

Machar tells me that infrastructure is another good place to hide money. South Sudan is famous for its vast, flat countryside and for having no paved roads. “Roads” here are simply meandering dirt paths that erode during the wet season and then explode into hundreds of confusing tire tracks as people try to avoid the remaining mud holes.

“One kilometer of road in the Upper Nile costs about $1.2 million. In Equatoria it is about $1 million. Road contracts are expensive. The companies are supposed to have machinery, but some were given contracts with no machinery.” These contracts, Machar says, linked to Kiir through tribal and business relationships.

Machar delves into this topic just as he did with the grain reserves, detailing his alleged findings of how the $1.7 billion spent so far on building roads in South Sudan has produced only 45 miles of them. Most of his blame, of course, falls squarely on Kiir.

“They were not competitive contracts,” he says. “The tenders should be open to everyone, and the profits should be transparent.”

What about various internal measures against this sort of corruption? Wasn’t anyone monitoring the contracts?

“There is the oil commission; it didn’t function. There should be a bidding process, but there was manipulation. The institution would be used, but the president had an upper hand. I know the rules of how contracts work; it is in my training as an engineer. I know how bidding is done. So I wouldn’t play games with contracts.”

Machar wants to change the subject. He looks around at our spot by the river and takes a different tack.

“This is a good place; it’s cool. You are lucky there was no generator to power our phones so the communication between me and the commanders in the field is dead.”

He wants Kiir to be viewed as corrupt and himself to be viewed as a savior. He tells me he is worried about the new era of fear, one in which tens of thousands of Dinka and Nuer are forced to hide out in overcrowded UN refugee camps.

“I wish that the fear would be lifted. They need a normal life. Those in Akobo, if they feel hungry, they can cross the border. But for those in the towns—Juba, Bor, Malakal, and Bentiu—it’s a serious matter.

“I was planning to run for office in 2015. I was hoping to win the election and set up a system that would run without interference. Then, after that, I’d write books about self-determination.”

Does he have outside support?

“Some of the relief agencies in this area bring medicines and food items and contribute to the education system,” he answers, before going off on another diatribe about relief organizations playing sides and starving people in the process.

I tell him I meant military support. After all, if he’s claiming to be corruption-free and utterly broke, someone has to back the war.

“Well, most important is the bullets. We have what we captured and what we had initially. The diaspora cannot buy bullets—too expensive. They are not rich. Many of them are lowly paid workers in America and Australia. But they can send scratch cards to those who have Thuraya phones.”

This is a strange statement considering the hundreds if not thousands of rounds I have watched haphazardly shot into the air.

“Our experience in the war of liberation—we get bullets from the enemy or get supplied by our international solidarity,” Machar elaborates, but only slightly. “From countries that support the ideas we had.”

I ask whether Sudan is supporting him, but he won’t say.

I press him, but he won’t even acknowledge the appearance of the new weapons and ammunition my companions and I have witnessed in the camps around us. He did admit, however, to recruiting “volunteers,” some of whom are still being trained. “We can give them training and maybe a gun.” 

Who pays them?

“We offer them nothing. Maybe, in the end, a rifle.”

I ask where they are training. Machar waves his hand.

“Somewhere,” he smiles, flashing that famous gap-toothed grin.

What Machar is not telling me is that, as we speak, Sudan is busy airdropping weapons. Khartoum is sending trained troops south to link up across the Nile as Machar and his generals prepare for a big offensive ahead of the rainy season.

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