Dr. Riek Machar: Revisiting 1991 Coup and Massacre

By Mayom Bul Atem, Toronto, Ontario.
September 27, 2007
Posted to the web on August 27, 2007

The occurrence of 1991 failed coup, its subsequent Bor Massacre and their aftermath have generated political debate among Southern Sudanese. Whereas ethnic leaning is apparent among the proponents and opponents of Dr. Riek Machar, the man who orchestrated and championed the defection and civilian extermination, there is no doubt that Dr. Machar stands no legal grounds whatsoever.

Riek Machar

Although some quarters are trying very hard to glorify the infamous 1991 coup that degenerated into the killing of Bor, Panruu and Atar Dinka civilians and the subsequent NIF induced hunger, facts speak otherwise.
In spite of the fact that some changes in the SPLA/M could, to some extent, be attributed to Riek’s failed coup attempt, it is utterly unacceptable to give the man all the credits on this regard. Dr. Riek’s inability to find ways of effecting the changes he envisioned from within SPLM/A and the ensuing repercussions, that is, the killing and chaos of his defection had marred the entire gesture.

It is also an insult to Southerners’ intellect to allude that Dr. Riek defected simply because he wanted to champion Southerners’ cause that Dr. Garang did not care about. If anything, his defection became the worst nightmare Southern Sudanese have ever experienced. It created a tense division that the entire Upper Nile Region is yet to recover from. Examples abound such as the Dinka-Nuer conflict where the Bor and Panruu Dinka as well as those from Atar were viciously attacked. This conflict also expanded to parts of Bahr el Ghazal adjacent to Nuer areas. The chaos culminated into mass exodus of refugees and internally displaced persons. Southerners call those moments “the dark days.”
At the time when SPLA had confined government forces to major southern cities of Malakal, Wau and Juba, the latter of which it was posed to capture, Riek’s departure from SPLA mainstream left it vulnerable. The SPLA liberated areas that fell under the Nasir faction were overrun by government troops without resistance. SPLA mainstream became thinly stretched making the enemy recapture town after town.

Dr. Riek’s men became part of government’s instrument as is evidenced by the fact that the two Dinka men, Telar and Dengtiel, who were in Dr. Riek’s team left London in protest of Riek’s quest to collaborate with the enemy to obtain weapons and ammunitions from the enemy to, in their own words, “kill our mothers.”

What southerners had worked hard for was taken back to square one by Dr. Riek. Yet some Southerners have the guts to ignore this predicament and instead call Dr. Riek the man who wanted to fight for Southern cause?
Dr. Riek’s human rights violation record speaks for itself. Southerners have the right to vilify SPLM/A for human rights violations but we have to remind ourselves that Dr. Riek was not a better devil. The Nuer indiscriminate killing of the Dinka civilians from Bor, Panruu and Atar are a living testimony to Dr. Riek’s handling of his human rights records.

In Dr. Adwok Nyaba’s review of Dr. Lam’s book, "The SPLM/SPLA – The Nasir Declaration," he stated the following and I quote “Dr. Lam Akol lectures us about the liberation movement, Garang’s one-man no system rule, the need for democratization and building of institutions and respect for human rights. It is real cynicism. The truth is that neither the SPLM/A-Nasir faction [1991-1993] nor its later versions: SPLM/SPLA-United under Riek Machar or under Lam Akol after the change of the name to SSIM/A, exercised democracy or respect for human rights. The people of Bor and Kongor are witnesses of this including some of them who were lynched in Nasir and Leer in the wake of the coup announcement.”

It is to be recounted - for those who do not know - that Dr. Adwok was an insider to what transpired to be the Nasir-Declaration and how the faction conducted its internal and external activities. The same killing became the norm of the day among the Nuer themselves.

Dr. Garang rebuffed Dr. Riek’s claim of being a pro-democracy by saying: “Democracy has been so much bitten up these days that even the devil can come and say he is a democrat, people would listen to him.” Yes, before we could buy the claim that Dr. Riek defected because of lack of democracy in the SPLM/A, those privy to Nasir faction should first tell us the make-up of Dr. Riek’s administration and whether or not any elections were conducted after his defection.

Would we be surprised if we discover that his administration was predominantly made up of one ethnic group or one region? It is no secret that human rights abuses by the Nasir faction generated fury from human rights groups and international community. 
In all of its negotiations with successive Khartoum regimes, SPLM has always maintained that it is advocating for a free, secular, democratic and united Sudan. And should this fail to materialize, Southerners must be given the option to secede. The message being that SPLM’s first objective is to have a united Sudan while its second objective is to vie for an independent Southern Sudan.

Although the call for a united Sudan was, and still is, unpopular among Southerners, SPLM had made it very clear what it went to the bush for. The late Dr. Garang in his own words stated the following: “The objective of the movement is a united, democratic, secular Sudan that will have been based on the free will of the people, and hence the necessity of self-determination. That [self-determination] is the second objective of the movement, for the people of South Sudan and other marginalized areas to freely express their wish in a referendum, whether they chose to belong to the kind of Sudan which we aim to establish or wish to establish a state of their own” (Reuters, November 15, 1998).

It therefore beats logic for some Southerners to insinuate that Southerners did not know what they were fighting for under SPLM. If anything, they should ask Dr. Riek and Lam, why they left their factions that had outlined “visions” and returned to a visionless movement (SPLM)?
It is actually an overstatement for me to give the Nasir faction or its subsequent splinter groups the credit of having clear objectives. Dr. Adwok Nyaba who was privy to these organizations disputes the claim that Riek’s faction had a vision when he said and I quote: “Yes, the split in the SPLM/SPLA became a reality because the bone of contention was not democracy, building institutions, self-determination for the people of Southern Sudan and all the thrash peddled by Dr. Lam in his ‘Towards organizing the SPLM’.

The split became a reality because of the greed and ambition for power. There was no credible objective on the part of the Nasir conspirators for which Dr. John Garang could have willingly or unwillingly given up the leadership of the SPLM/SPLA.

In their own court, the Nasir plotters had nothing new to offer the people except tribal and sectional divisions and feuds…” There we go. Dr. Riek and Lam had nothing new that SPLM failed to offer and this is manifested by the way the Nasir faction became immersed in tribal conflicts as well as its tendency to fight alongside NIF forces against Southerners.
Riek Machar’s self-aggrandizing remarks such as “Garang today has no troops. If he had troops we would have been fighting here. Most of his troops are wiped out in Bor. And anybody else who wants to fight knows that his fate might be the same with those who were wiped out in Bor,” makes Southerners wonder what was in his mind when he uttered those words.

Being part of the highest echelon of SPLM/A movement prior to his defection, he knew very well that the entire SPLM High Command was grounded in Torit, Eastern Equatoria, while majority of SPLA soldiers were busy shelling government strongholds in Juba. The only people who were in Bor when the coup was announced were unarmed and innocent civilians. And Dr. Riek knew this. Therefore, it must be true that those who were “wiped out,” to borrow Riek’s own words, were civilians.
Thus, Southerners do not need rocket scientists to state with absolute certainty that Dr. Riek’s defection greatly weakened SPLA’s military might and decreased Southerners (reads SPLM) negotiation power in Abuja I and II and IGAD prior to 2002. Maybe the only good thing about Dr. Riek was the toothless Khartoum Peace Agreement he signed.

But, to his chagrin, the NIF made him come to a bitter realization that they were not interested in the implementation of any bit of the agreement, leave alone the self-determination clause. This prompted him to unceremoniously leave Khartoum in 2000, swallowed his pride and joined the man he accused of autocracy in 2002.

Militarily, Dr. Garang best describes Dr. Riek’s betrayal when he said: “Even if I forgive them, they will be known in history as people who stabbed the movement in Southern Sudan in the back. They will be known as people who at the point of victory, when we were going to win in Juba, this was our next target, still is, they stabbed us in the back. The people of Southern Sudan and the people of Sudan will judge that.”

Well said, Mr. Chairman. Southerners may have deferred their judgment but one day one time, they will issue their verdict.
What else can Southerners call a disservice than Dr. Riek’s previous inclination to conspire with Khartoum regime to allow relief food and services, via the help of his deceased British wife, Emma McCune, to be delivered to Nasir while the government, with his permission, imposed a no-fly zone in other interior parts of Southern Sudan? What can we call a disservice than his decision to make peace with the enemy while becoming a staunch adversary to his Southern brothers (the SPLA)?

Having proved to the contrary the claim that Dr. Riek was the man who brought all the goodies on the table of Southern Sudanese, I find it crucial to elucidate Dr. Riek’s legal liability in the wake of the 1991 massacre. First and foremost it is to be stated that justice knows no ethnicity.

Therefore both the supporters and opponents of Dr. Riek will have their hands tied behind their back when justice is being administered on the case. Should the case be brought under the microscope of the International Criminal Court (ICC) it would be quite relieving for others and devastating for some that the man stands very little chance of acquittal. If anything, Dr. Riek would be on his way to join the likes of former Liberian President, Charles Taylor and Thomas Lubanga of Congo Republic.

Article 28 of the Rome Statute defines very clearly the circumstances under which a military commander could be held accountable for wrong deeds their forces committed. The article states the following:
“In addition to other grounds of criminal responsibility under this Statute for crimes within the jurisdiction of the Court:
(a) A military commander or person effectively acting as a military commander shall be criminally responsible for crimes within the jurisdiction of the Court committed by forces under his or her effective command and control, or effective authority and control as the case may be, as a result of his or her failure to exercise control properly over such forces, where:
(i) That military commander or person either knew or, owing to the circumstances at the time, should have known that the forces were committing or about to commit such crimes; and
(ii) That military commander or person failed to take all necessary and reasonable measures within his or her power to prevent or repress their commission or to submit the matter to the competent authorities for investigation and prosecution.”

A video clip (and I watched the complete tape) on You Tube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MZIT_g4FCV0) shows Riek giving a very incriminating testimony where he acknowledges his responsibility for what befell Bor people. “Yes, yes, yes I am the commander of the forces. They were in touch with me, yes. They were in touch with me (when they attacked Bor area) and they had the specific instructions”.

Whether or not what occurred on the ground came as the result of Dr. Riek’s “specific instructions” is not the point of contention. The fact was that civilians were killed en mass and their belonging looted (another prosecutable crime by the ICC). Therefore, it would be prudent for one to conclude that the specific instructions that Dr. Riek gave his troops included the horrendous killing of civilians and looting of their livestock and property for that is exactly what happened.

However, a case like this has to be filed at the ICC if the state party or the UN Security Council requests the prosecutor to launch an investigation. Since Sudan is not a state party to the Rome Statute, it may take us a long time to lay charges against human rights violators. And even if Sudan was a state party to the Rome Statute, the fact that Dr. Riek is currently at the helm of power, coupled by a number of temporary immunity (although the ICC does not honor this, the state will not renege on it), anyone’s quest for justice in the near future may be hampered.

The biggest blow to those who want the case filed in The Hague is that the ICC can only prosecute cases which occurred on or after July 1st 2002 or after the country becomes a member state as dictated by Article 11 of the Rome Statute. This reality leaves Dr. Riek with a happy face. But there are many other avenues where Dr. Riek could be made to account for his past actions.

It is naïve for us to expect victims of Riek Machar to forget what befell them. As a matter of fact, this reality will live with them for the rest of their life, no matter how hard they try to forget. They won’t forget but they can forgive. But to forgive someone, that person must ask for it. And the request must be genuine enough to attract your forgiving gesture.

So far, Dr. Riek never asked for forgiveness so how can the victims forgive an egoistic human being? I also find it ironic to see Southerners putting pressure on the victims to be lenient on the culprits while the latter pride themselves in their heinous actions.

In the present time, it appears as if Dr. Riek is reborn. His return to SPLM in 2002 was plausible while his tireless work as the Vice President seems marvelous. Despite Riek’s current redemption, Southerners must know that justice cannot be compromised in any way.

I therefore join hands with those who call upon Dr. Riek and all other concerned individuals to account for their past misdeeds, albeit I differ with those who demand absolute justice via the court. What Southerners want is some form of justice where they will be able to put the past behind them. This, in my humble opinion, could be attained through a South African style Truth and Reconciliation process where victims and perpetrators would be made to come vis-à-vis with one another. This healing process must be initiated by GoSS and started by none other than Dr. Riek Machar.

GoSS and Dr. Riek ought to give Southerners the timeframe when this process would take place or risk preemptive measures taken by the victims and their sympathizers to file charges.

Riek’s only redemption is in the simple words “I am sorry” to all the affected victims and people of South Sudan. In the absence of that apology, he must be prepared for a mountainous journey ahead. There are other possible means of making things a lot harder for him, both legally and politically. It is most likely that he will campaign for his own election or that of his party members. And the issue of Bor massacre will be a thorn in his shoes, regardless of where he marketed his political plan.

Filing criminal charges against Dr. Riek in Sudan and many other countries can also be an effective tool of making his life a living hell. If convicted at home, justice will be served. If found guilty in other countries, he may not step his feet in that country or if he does, he would be roughed up by law enforcement agents or face immediate deportation. Therefore his movement would be confined to limited number of countries, making his relevance in politics and diplomacy obsolete.

Should this happen, Dr. Riek’s political career and ambition would be crumbling for Southerners wouldn’t want to elect a President who is a wanted criminal in some countries.





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