When clashes broke out between forces loyal to Dr Riek Marchar and South Sudanese government troops in mid-December 2013, the former had the upper hand, holding the ground in Juba for eight hours until Ugandan forces arrived.
Facing risk of imminent capture, Machar, according to sources familiar with the events of that day, was whisked to safety by a combination of US Special Forces and the United Nations.
That dramatic escape was the culmination of friendships cultivated over time with strange bedfellows that would prove crucial in sustaining his rebellion against Juba.
According to multiple sources, during the course of the war, for a rebel, Machar was in unusually comfortable position with Khartoum, Ethiopia and Eritrea, if not directly supplying him, at least allowing safe conduct for weapons destined to his forces.
With money available, his knowledge and links with several armed groups in the Central African theatre ensure he was always well supplied.
Museveni vs IGAD
The entry of Ugandan forces created some tense regional moments. The intervention left President Yoweri Museveni at odds with his Igad colleagues.
Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, Khartoum and Eritrea on the other hand were allied to Machar. According to a security source, the risk this posed in the sense that pan-African forces, long united by the liberation ideology, would clash militarily if those countries actively joined the conflict, is what launched the political process that would save Salva Kiir and deny Machar a military victory.
“There has always been a silent pact among the revolutionary leaders that their armies should never come into contact if they were fighting on opposite sides. This allowed Museveni to handle his differences with Igad politically,” the source claims.
This, combined with the stalemate created by Ugandan forces that denied him a quick advance on Juba, and the unfolding humanitarian crisis, created conditions that got everybody focused on a negotiated outcome.
Sources describe Machar as a gifted individual who knows how to cultivate relationships; an intellectual with a world view that projected him as progressive to key Western constituencies.
Right from the liberation war, when he had to deal with NGOs seeking access to rebel-held areas, to 2005, when he became vice-president of the Government of South Sudan, within the SPLM, it is Machar who always had the better relationship with Western players.
How Machar built his power base
As Garang hobnobbed with African socialists, Machar constructed a space for himself with the Western donors and it is partly because of this relationship that Norway and the US would be among the guarantors of the 2005 Sudan Comprehensive Peace Agreement.
Although he has always wanted to rule South Sudan, Machar found a formidable challenger in the late John Garang. But while he remained semi-autonomous in pursuing his own agenda, Garang took him on as an asset to the SPLA because he spoke classic Arabic.
Garang’s death on July 30, 2005 catapulted Machar to the top. When Kiir succeeded Garang as national vice president, he left Machar, who was his deputy and operationally in charge of the South, fully in charge of the GOSS. It is this platform that would help cement his position further.
When in April 2006 President Oman al Bashir brokered peace between Uganda and LRA rebels that had been flushed out of South Sudan, Salvar Kiir delegated Machar to co-ordinate and he delivered when an agreement was signed in 2008. This helped him completely shed the image of the outcast in the SPLM.
While in charge of the GOSS he always chaired the Cabinet, even with Kiir in attendance. All ministries and government institutions were under him, which put him in direct contact with all international donors.
“Machar had a broader world view while Kiir remained pretty much the suspicious bush fighter,” said one source.
With foreign powers preferring to work with Machar even after Independence, Kiir belatedly tried to trim his influence by promoting and trying to empower his ministers.
By the time conflict broke out in December 2013, after Kiir dissolved the Cabinet and sacked his ministers, the international community had already decided to back Machar.