A month since he fled Juba, little has been heard from Dr Riek Machar, save for a brief interview with Al Jazeera TV. He is believed to be hiding in Yei, south of Juba.
Meanwhile, President Salva Kiir has been consolidating his grip on power, reaching out to members of the South Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition (SPLM-IO).
The effort seems to be paying off. In Kampala last week, for a debate on the “Cost of the violent conflict in South Sudan: implications for regional peace and security,” organised by the civil society group Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment, a high-powered delegation of members of the SPLM splinter group quickly distanced themselves from Dr Machar while insisting they were an official delegation of the Transitional Government of National Unity (TGoNU). The other delegates, cronies of President Kiir led by his spokesman Awek Teny Awek had “protested” the absence of the “other side.”
Leading the SPLM-IO, Dr Richard Mulla, handed the controversial portfolio of Minister for Federal Affairs by Kiir and until recently a staunch Dr Machar ally, accused his former leader of fleeing Juba without alerting his colleagues, some of whom were at the time holed up in a city hotel.
Describing the violence that left scores dead on July 7 and 8 after clashes between forces loyal to Dr Machar and President Kiir as “regrettable and unacceptable,” Dr Mulla suggested SPLM-IO was bigger than Dr Machar and that the former first vice president had better fit into the new order or risk being left out.
“We the leadership of SPLM-IO met and nominated Taban Deng Gai. Many people including Dr Machar himself argue this was an illegal move but the peace agreement provides for filling a vacancy. Dr Machar fled Juba without even letting us know, his whereabouts are not known to us up to now, given the circumstances of his escape. One can’t tell when he will be back,” Mr Mulla said.
In a sign that the opposition in Juba now allied to President Kiir intends to move on from Dr Machar, Mr Mulla spoke highly of the new First Vice President, “Gen Deng Gai was the engine of the movement although Dr Riek Machar was the driver taking us in the direction (of reuniting South Sudan),” he said.
'Personal ambition for power'
Newly sworn-in MP David Otim attacked Dr Machar, saying the rebel leader’s major problem was “personal ambition for power,” warning those still loyal to Dr Machar: “President Riek is not the same as the agreement. If you want to worship Dr Machar: he is out of the political scene, you can continue to worship him but the rest of us want peace in South Sudan,” he said.
Brig-Gen Ellijah Tut, also a former Machar ally, warned that attempts by Dr Machar to cobble together military support from the tribal leaders who command the loyalty of the militia groups was unsustainable as the TGoNU was working to win them over to the Kiir camp.
He said the country could not have two commanders in chief as they jointly expressed satisfaction about in the fact that their new leader, Gen. Deng had forged a good working relationship with President Kiir.
“We are exploring how to contact Dr Machar to support Gen Deng,” said MP David Otim.
“Dr Machar wanted to support the peace process but his working relationship with the President became very difficult. Now he is not able to support that peace process, should we stop the process? I strongly believe that Dr Machar can still be relevant if he does not fight. If he chooses to fight because he believes he has control of the army then he won’t manage because our army is tribal and he cannot count on the loyalty of the tribal leaders who control the different militia,” Brig-General Tut said.
At a meeting in Entebbe with President Yoweri Museveni immediately after the clashes in Juba, President Kiir was told to accept a regional protection force suggested by Igad and the AU, but on his terms.
Those terms would, The EastAfrican understands, only apply after Kiir first consolidated himself as the undisputed political supremo in Juba. The flight of Dr Machar from Juba, whether forced by a threat or a need to re-organise was exactly what Kiir needed, analysts have said and the window it offered has been well utilised in the past 30 days.
Uganda’s Foreign Affairs Minister Okello Oryem said it was time Juba got its act together.
“Today when you look at the situation is South Sudan you ask, what would the late Dr Garang (founder and former leader of the SPLM) think? The violence, the killings, the rape, the pillaging! I condemn this situation in no uncertain terms, it is unacceptable. South Sudan has got to get its act together, you cannot keep saying the country is young, that these are the struggles of growth, the child must begin to grow up and eat solid food, we cannot continue to feeding it on soft food indefinitely.”
The question that remains unanswered is whether, Dr Machar can still marshal his networks of powerful external allies to help him re-consolidate his internal base to mount a major political or military assault against Kiir.