Interview with Riek Machar

Feb 6, 2002 (IRIN)

Riek Machar, head of the Sudan People's Defence Force (SPDF), announced on 7 January in a joint statement with John Garang, the leader of Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), the merger of their two southern rebel groups.

Machar initially split away from the SPLM/A in 1991, and subsequently created his own rebel movement, taking many of his Nuer ethnic group with him. Since that time, Machar has led a rebel group in the south, sometimes existing in conflict with the SPLM/A.

In 1996, Machar signed a peace agreement with the Khartoum government, and held the post of assistant to the president until February 2000, when he resigned, alleging that government troops had been fighting his soldiers in southern Wahdah (Unity) State, according to regional analysts.

The merged group has said it now plans to unite in its military struggle against the Sudanese government's armed forces, and also act as a single entity in peace negotiations.

Three separate initiatives to foster peace in Sudan have received most attention in recent months: the nine-year process under the aegis of the regional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD); an initiative proposed jointly by the governments of Egypt and Libya; and the four "confidence-building measures" proposed by the US peace envoy to Sudan, John Danforth. IRIN spoke to Machar on the reasons for the recent merger, and on the prospects for peace in Sudan.

QUESTION: What led to the agreement to merge with the SPLM/A and mend the 10-year split between the two groups.

ANSWER: Well, we have been negotiating since 1991, because we were one movement before. But since then there had been differences. When Dr John Garang and I decided to thrash out the issues that made us defect in 1991, we found that we could agree. So we did agree upon them, because there is now no reason why we should be apart.

Q: What were the issues you differed on?

A: The main issues are as summarised in the objectives of the liberation struggle. We were saying it should be self-determination, now this is adopted by the whole struggle. The other was abuse of human rights. Now both factions are shy to abuse human rights. Third, is democracy within the movement. Now this is accepted. Democratic institutions, dialogue, and debate is accepted in the liberation struggle. Now these three issues - democracy, human rights, and self-determination - were the ones that divided us. We have agreed on them.

Q: How is the merger likely to affect negotiations with the government of Sudan?

A: It will actually give the peace process, under the auspices of IGAD, and the chairmanship of [Kenyan] President Daniel arap Moi, impetus. Issues will be clear. We are now talking with one voice. We think if Khartoum wants to retain Shari'ah [Islamic law], then it must accept a confederal system. If it...[can discard] Shari'ah... a united secular democracy can be realised. In both solutions, we expect an exercise of self-determination to be exercised at the end of an interim period to be agreed upon.

Q: What about the military aspects of the Sudanese problem?

A: Well, you know, in unity we will be strong militarily. We can fight an effective war like before, and even better than before. An example in time is what has happened in western Upper Nile in the oilfields.

Now some of the oil companies are suspending their operations south of Bentiu [capital of Wahdah State], particularly the Lundin of Sweden, Petronas of Malaysia, and ONV of Austria. They have suspended their operations and left [the area] south of Bentiu. So we believe that even the oil which Khartoum is trying to exploit today, or is exploiting, will be closed down by our forces. Therefore, I believe it will be a pressure for Khartoum to negotiate now that we are united.

Q: What in your view will be the first priority issue for the new united force to tackle in the peace process?

A: I believe that if peace talks stalled before, one of the reasons would be our disunity. Now with our unity, finally, we will talk with one voice at the peace table... and I think it is likely that there can be a breakthrough since the agenda is clear now.

Q: Leadership elections for the new united movement are scheduled to take place this year. Do you have a more precise idea when they will occur, and what form the process will take?

A: Yes. Initially, we agreed for May. We have already established committees. And the committees will start work as soon as possible to start discussions, because we need to have structures and codes for the new movement. After that Garang and I will sit to approve this, and after the approval, we go for a national convention, where a new leadership will be elected.

Q: What prompted your breakaway from the Sudan government, with whom you signed a peace agreement in 1996, and a move back to opposition?

A: The government had reneged from the peace agreement. It violated it, it abrogated many articles of the agreement, and I joined the government because of the agreement. Once the agreement failed, I had no choice but to go back to the bush and fight.

Q: What is your view on the current United States government-led peace initiative in Sudan, and especially the cease-fire in the Nuba Mountains, successfully negotiated by the US peace envoy to Sudan, John Danforth?

A: I am hoping that this initiative will be developed to have a political content. With the cease-fire, the cause of the people of the Nuba Mountains is highlighted - it now has an international posture. Secondly, the cease-fire will ensure that there will be peace for a period of six months. Third, the humanitarian relief exercise would be availed to the people of Nuba.

But it needs to be developed to have a political content. And for that to happen, it must encompass the south and the southern Blue Nile. Because a political solution to the cause of Nuba Mountains alone would not hold as long as the war in the south and in southern Blue Nile continued.

Q: What do you think of the current status of the IGAD peace process? Do you think it is being overshadowed by other parallel initiatives?

A: IGAD should exploit the situation, particularly the recent push made by the Americans in the Nuba Mountains. The aftermath of 11 September can also be exploited. There is also an ongoing coordination [effort] for the Egyptians and Libyans, who were a distraction from the peace process, to join IGAD. Above all, the unity between the two movements, SPDF and SPLM/A. I think all these factors should be made use of so that the IGAD peace process can have an impetus.

Q: How did the joint Libyan-Egyptian initiative become a distraction from the IGAD peace process?

A: The Egyptian-Libyan initiative was really something trying to divert the attention of the international community, the IGAD partners, the IGAD mediators and the conflicting parties from concentrating on the IGAD peace process. So now that they realise that it is not comprehensive, and that it could have linkages with the IGAD peace process, so we can have only one initiative.

Q: Is there a need to harmonise these three initiatives?

A: Definitely yes. Not only that, IGAD is the main peace initiative. What is done by the Americans in the Nuba Mountains is to support the IGAD process. The problem was that the Egyptian-Libyan initiative was more or less a parallel peace initiative. Now that it can be coordinated with the IGAD peace process, I think things should be better. Above that, the Americans are saying that they don't have their own initiative, and are supporting the IGAD process. So I think there is a better atmosphere today.

Q: Do you agree with the Khartoum government that the Nuba Mountains cease-fire agreement is a big step towards lasting peace in Sudan?

A: If the process in the Nuba cease-fire is extended to the liberation struggle in the south and southern Blue Nile, through IGAD, then I believe there can be progress, as long as Khartoum accepts the separation of state and religion and accepts self-determination and also the form of unity under a confederal system.

Q: But the SPLM/A has always insisted on a comprehensive political solution to the Sudanese problem rather than piecemeal cease-fires gradually spreading into other areas.

A: That position is still in place. A comprehensive cease-fire should come after a political agreement. This is what we are hoping will be the case. We need to know that Khartoum is serious to accept new ideas before any cease-fire could be declared.

Q: Do you believe both sides will respect the terms of the agreement up to the end of the six-month period.

A: Up to now we are told it is holding, but we don't trust what Khartoum does, because maybe in a month's time it will not hold. For now they might be respecting the cease-fire because of the American pressure.

Q: What do you think of Kenya's plans to buy oil from Sudan and how this could affect Kenya's current position as a mediator in the Sudanese conflict, and also how this will affect IGAD?

A: You know oil is a conflicting resource. We have heard in the press that Kenya wants to buy oil from Khartoum. We also got a statement that it is the commercial companies and private [companies] that want to buy oil from Sudan. Since we know oil is a conflicting resource, the only thing we will do, through our political and military movement, is stop its flow. Because, if we don't stop it, the Sudan government will arm itself to the teeth and then it will kill the people of the south. In this case, our job is to stop it.