A Retraction: Concerning Riek Machar and a possible coup in Juba

 

Eric Reeves | July 14, 2016

I am herewith retracting my brief Web posting of July 10, 2016, specifically the claim that there was sufficient evidence in my possession to characterize the situation in Juba and elsewhere in Sudan reflecting an incipient coup, led by Riek Machar. The evidence as I had and have it is insufficient to justify such a characterization, and I deeply regret posting without fuller evidence in hand (http://wp.me/p45rOG-1Uu/). It was irresponsible, and I accept that characterization.

For most readers, this retraction notice is all that is likely to be of interest or note.

Context

I will say further, however, that not all of what was contained in my two posts (July 10 and July 11) came from the single source whose intelligence was the basis foe my characterization of events as signaling or precipitated by or reflective of a coup effort led my Riek Machar. A great deal of what I referred to was information coming from sources on the ground in Juba, particularly the nature and specifics of the violence that engulfed the city. My reference to SPLA-IO Commander Peter Gadet, and his previous efforts to secure weapons and supplies from the Khartoum regime, is based primarily on the evidence of the past several years-last year in particular, during which Gadet attempted to divert Khartoum's military aid to himself and SPLA-IO Commander Simon Gatwech Dual (and away from Riek Machar). I wrote in June 2015 about a letter that went from Gadet directly to President al-Bashir, a letter confirmed as authentic by a figure within the SPLA-IO.

That Khartoum was more than willing to assist the SPLA-IO in its military efforts is clear in a lengthy set of leaked minutes from a meeting of senior military and security officials on August 31, 2014 (Arabic original and English translation). The authenticity of the minutes is beyond reasonable doubt (see http://wp.me/p45rOG-1w5/). That the international community did nothing to halt this flagrant violation of the CPA is consistent with the indifference shown by the world, including UNMIS/S, when Khartoum continued to assist "Other Armed Groups" (OAG) in South Sudan during the Interim Period (between the signing of the CPA in January 2005 and Southern independence in July 2011), as well as subsequently. Beneficiaries of this lack of insistence that the CPA be respected in full, including the halting of all military aid to OAGs, included Peter Gadet, Johnson Olony, David Yau Yau, and a number of other known militia commanders.

It is unclear from evidence available to me whether the SPLA-IO commander I instanced in my dispatch-James Koang Chuol-is active presently or where precisely he is. There are alarming reports from the ground in Juba, by those working with humanitarian operations, indicating that Leer in Unity State (stronghold of Peter Gadet) has seen a sharp deterioration in security, with significant armed clashes between the SPLA-IO and SPLA.

By the same token, there is much uncertainty about the whereabouts and activities of SPLA General Chief of Staff Paul Malong, who in at least one version of events is the most likely mastermind of a coup or larger organization of violent events in South Sudan ("Who's behind South Sudan's return to fighting?" African Arguments, Clémence PinaudJuly 11, 2016/).

[I would note in passing that Ms. Pinaud's widely praised article includes a good deal of language such as: "reportedly..." "many claim that..." "many believe that..." "there are rumors that..." Additionally, there are hopelessly vague passive constructions ("it is understood that..."). Much of the article is speculation ("it is difficult to imagine the SPLA could have..."). There are claims already (fortunately) in need of qualification: "Whoever wins Juba will inflict reprisals on civilians" (emphasis added). There is a problematic reliance on rumor: "amidst rumours of alcoholism" (referring to a reason for Salva Kiir's loss of power), as well as characterizations that have so far (again fortunately) not been borne out: "the heavy fighting on 10 July suggests that the situation might be even worse than when civil war began in December 2013..."

Such locutions are at times inevitable in writing about South Sudan, but there are too many examples of what I would characterize as a tendentious prose style, put in service of Ms. Pinaud's thesis about Paul Malong-which thesis, in the main, may well be right.]

What Matters Most

I concluded my original (July 10) dispatch with grim words of warning that have now been borne out all too fully:

Humanitarians from some non-African countries have begun to be evacuated; more are likely to be evacuated in the very near future, and total humanitarian evacuation now seems a possibility.

The stakes for the people of South Sudan could not be higher. The international community must urgently reinforce and re-configure the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) to function as a civilian protection force, including protection of all humanitarian workers.

As a great as the present catastrophe in South Sudan is, it has the potential to become much, much worse.

What I Said the Following Day (July 11, 2016) | http://wp.me/p45rOG-1Uv

I did realize that my claim about a Riek Machar-led coup would be controversial, even as I now accept that it was irresponsible to have made the claim without more evidence than is presently at hand, and which may not exist or may not come to me. I wrote a contextualizing follow-up dispatch, included below in its entirety, with a link to the original post of July 10, 2016). The July 11 posting received not a small fraction of the readership of the preceding 300-word commentary, so I presume to include it here, accepting that it does not constitute a retraction of the sort I am offering here.

July 11, 2016:

I have received substantial criticism-including from the spokesman for the SPLA-IO-for my web posting of yesterday ("A Coup in the Making in South Sudan-led by Riek Machar" | http://wp.me/p45rOG-1Uu/). Some of this criticism seems guided by the assumption that I have only a single source for my understanding of the current situation in Juba; this is inaccurate. For obvious reasons, other confidential sources of intelligence who are on the ground in Juba or elsewhere in South Sudan cannot be identified or even characterized. But they are several and extremely well placed. I have also kept abreast of news reporting by Sudan Tribune, Radio Tamazuj, Jason Patinkin, Peter Martell, and other reliable journalists on the ground. (For an excellent and recent overview of the current crisis and its history, see Patinkin's piece in Foreign PolicyJuly 8, 2016; I say this well aware of the severe criticism of me tweeted by Patinkin).

My claim about Riek Machar's role in the current-and intensifying-fighting comes from a source who has spent a tremendous amount of time in Juba in recent years and who has been a key interlocutor in negotiations involving the most senior members of the SPLA and SPLA/IO, including Salva Kiir and Riek Machar. That my source was in Addis Ababa rather than Juba at this particular moment is simply circumstance, and in no way diminishes his first-hand understanding of unfolding events in Juba.

Insufficiently noted by my critics was my conclusion, which now seems to me indisputable and indeed has been echoed by a number of commentators and news reports:

Humanitarians from some non-African countries have begun to be evacuated; more are likely to be evacuated in the very near future, and total humanitarian evacuation now seems a possibility.

The stakes for the people of South Sudan could not be higher. The international community must urgently reinforce and re-configure the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) to function as a civilian protection force, including protection of all humanitarian workers.

As a great as the present catastrophe in South Sudan is, it has the potential to become much, much worse.

This is what I find of greatest concern, and it is this concern that animated my larger assessment of the military situation.

I certainly am not denying the chaotic nature of a tremendous amount of the violence in and around Juba. The degree to which Riek Machar and Salva Kiir actually control their forces is a legitimate question, and the loss of command-and-control, as well as general control, is undoubtedly substantial. The wisdom of bringing two belligerent military forces, with hostility still raw, to the capital city seems increasingly dubious. The degree to which the SPLA/M, particularly "hard liners" around Salva Kiir, have attempted to marginalize Riek Machar as First Vice President of the Government of South Sudan is also a legitimate question.

Troublingly, we are hearing very little at present from the rest of South Sudan, although reports from Torit (Easter Equatoria) are ominous and violence in Wau (Western Bahr el-Ghazal) has been of deep concern in recent weeks. A headline from "Jane's Intelligence Weekly" captures a critical issue: "Fighting in Juba likely to trigger retaliatory attacks across South Sudan, intensifying fighting in three-month outlook," | IHS Jane's Intelligence Weekly | 11 July 2016. The ability of a cease-fire negotiated in Juba to halt fighting in areas hard hit by the previous violence would seem to be limited. Forces such as the Nuer "White Army" were never truly under Riek Machar's control and are even less so in light of what has occurred in Juba, whoever bears greater responsibility.

But the heavy violence reported today in and around Juba marks a significant escalation in the fighting and is consistent with (although not definitive proof of) my assertion yesterday that:

... a full-scale assault by General James Koang Chuol is expected to begin early tomorrow. This will be in addition to the extremely intense fighting that descended upon Juba again today (Sunday, July 10, 2016).

Notably, extremely heavy shelling has been authoritatively reported by several sources this morning near the Juba airport. While there are several possible explanations for this shelling, it is ominous in the extreme, both for efforts to get people out of South Sudan and to bring into South Sudan military forces from African nations called for by the UN:

The Council expressed its support for UNMISS and its readiness to consider enhancing the Mission to better ensure that the UNMISS and the international community can prevent and respond to violence in South Sudan, the [Council] President said.

"The members of the Security Council encouraged States in the region to prepare to provide additional troops in the event the Council so decides. In the interim, [the Council] stressed the need for UNMISS to make full use of its authority to use all necessary means to protect civilians," he concluded. (UN News Centre, July 10, 2016)

Given the UN record on South Sudan, this is likely to be much too little and much too late. One humanitarian organization with a long and distinguished presence in South Sudan has evacuated all its expatriate relief workers and reports: "Our analysis is that the SPLA/IO will move militarily to attack the Juba airport to stop helicopter operations." European expatriate relief workers have been evacuated in large numbers, and wholesale evacuation is now a distinct possibility.

IGAD minister are meeting today, representing the countries that might most easily provide military protection for civilians and humanitarians caught up in the violent chaos. If, however, the airport has been shut down by heavy shelling, the delay in any deployment could be very considerable.

[One account from the ground suggests that forces very recently defecting from the SPLA to the SPLA-IO sought to take over the Juba airport; this predictably resulted in a very substantial deployment of SPLA troops. This in turn provides contest for the reports of heavy shelling at the airport.]

My source stands vigorously by his high-level intelligence concerning the motivations behind the military actions of the SPLA-IO. If, however, violence continues to accelerate at the present catastrophic rate, there will be less and less point in assigning responsibility-and ever greater urgency for civilian protection and restoration of rapidly disintegrating humanitarian capacity.

A cease-fire has just been reported to me from Juba (noon EDT); we must fervently hope that it is meaningful and that it holds-and that there is a true stand-down from hostilities by all parties. History is not encouraging. Riek Machar has not been heard from for a number of hours, even as the presidential spokesman for the Government of South Sudan has spoken of opening many checkpoints, resuming commercial air travel, and permitting freedom of movement. What does silence on the part of Riek Machar at this critical moment mean? [end]

Personal regret

Having worked in the cause of a just peace for both Sudan and South Sudan for almost 18 years, it is excruciatingly painful to have to offer this retraction, the first time I've been obliged to do so. I have cultivated a vast range of sources in this period, and depend on them entirely; in the aftermath of a 13-year battle with leukemia and its variously awful treatments, I have not been able to return to Sudan since 2003. I have tried to be scrupulous in the use of sources, since distance is for me an intractable problem. But I have erred in the present effort.

I have a tremendous number of friends and acquaintances in the Sudanese and South Sudanese diaspora (as well as in-country), and my regret in having to publish this retraction is primarily the pain of disappointing these friends. I can only hope that the larger context of a career in which I have archived well over 2 million words of publications, analysis, and reporting will, to some degree, extenuate my present error in judgment.

-- 

Eric Reeves, Senior Fellow at Harvard University's François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights

 

ereeves@smith.edu

www.sudanreeves.org

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About Eric Reeves: http://sudanreeves.org/about-eric-reeves