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A different take on the unraveling of South Sudan

 A South Sudanese government soldier inspects the body of a dead woman lying the street in Bor, Jonglei State, South Sudan.
A South Sudanese government soldier inspects the body of a dead woman lying the street in Bor, Jonglei State, South Sudan.

South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, may be unraveling and one of the few journalists actually on the ground there says the media’s characterization of the conflict – usually done remotely, by telephone – is bit one-sided, if not off-target completely.

Robert Young Pelton
Robert Young Pelton
Machot Lat Thiep
Machot Lat Thiep

“We’ve spent the last few days with Riek Machar and the so-called rebel forces,” journalist and author Robert Young Pelton said to Humanosphere by telephone today.

As we reported in late January, Pelton and a Seattle man, a Costco supervisor and former Sudan Lost Boy named Machot Thiep, are in South Sudan partly to truth-check the standard narrative. “What we’re seeing and learning is very contradictory to the official line.”

“Nobody is really telling our side of the story,” said Thiep, who by ‘our side’ meant the perspective of Machar, the rebel forces and the discriminatory (and he argues, corrupt) policies of the government that favor one tribal group, the Dinka. Machar and Thiep are Nuer, one of the larger but still minority tribal affiliations in this country with dozens of others.

Pelton and photographer Tim Freccia recently spent four days with Machar in Malakal, a town in the northeastern region of South Sudan that Machar and his forces just took over after fighting with government forces. Below are some recent news reports updating the conflict that has, since erupting in mid-December, killed thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese:

AP Fresh fighting resumes in South Sudan

Reuters South Sudan rebels seize oil-producing capital

Al Jazeera South Sudan rebels attack key oil town

The basics, agreed upon by most, are these facts:

South Sudan President Salva Kiir and Pres. George W. Bush in the White House.
South Sudan President Salva Kiir and Pres. George W. Bush in the White House.

– Oil-rich South Sudan fought for and gained independence from Sudan in 2011 with help from the U.S. government. The President of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, even sports a cowboy hat he received from President George W. Bush.

The fighting over turf didn’t end, with invasions from military forces serving war criminal Sudan President Omar Bashir and some internal battles between tribal communities.

Riek Machar
Riek Machar

– Last July, President Kiir sacked Machar, who was Vice President, and his entire cabinet alleging they were plotting a coup.

Machar was later attacked at his home and fled in his pajamas into the bush, where he eventually regrouped to take command of most (but not all) of the militias fighting now against the government.

Where Pelton and Thiep diverge from the standard framing of the conflict is with the mostly unchallenged media characterization of Machar as leading a ‘rebellion’ and that today’s conflict was spawned by another one of those typical African power struggles.

“According to Machar, where this all started was when he first began looking into reports of government corruption and the official favoritism given especially to Kiir’s people, the Dinka,” Pelton said. “Another way to look at what’s happening here now is not that this was a failed coup but rather an attempt by Kiir to quickly put a stop to dangerous inquiries by Machar.”

Pelton explained that the primary reason he is in South Sudan talking to Riek Machar is because the former VP of South Sudan had earlier tried to broker peace talks between the elusive warlord Joseph Kony and those seeking to kill or capture him. In his latest adventure dubbed Expedition Kony, he is ultimately looking to find Kony. But along the way, Pelton likes to probe the conventional wisdom and standard narrative of these places.

Thiep, for his part, hopes the probing of this high-profile adventuring journalist author (of several books that include the phrase ‘World’s Most Dangerous’) will enlighten more Americans about what he believes are some of the less-appreciated dynamics of this unfolding tragedy.

“The Ugandan military is in South Sudan, bombing and killing my people,” Thiep said. The Ugandan military, supported and supplied by the U.S. government, he said, wouldn’t do this without at least tacit approval from Americans.

When reports started surfacing in 2012 of widespread corruption in South Sudan, on oil contracts or construction projects, President Kiir identified some 70 people as the leading culprits and demanded they reimburse the state. Machar, however, told Pelton he had contacted the World Bank to do an independent assessment of these corruption allegations because left off that list of culprits were Kiir’s associates – and some powerful people in Uganda.

“Machar was sacked by Kiir a few days after he approached the World Bank,” Pelton said. And after he was sacked, along with many other government officials, Machar’s village was attacked and the soldiers went round killing everyone they determined as non-Dinka. Machar and his family fled under assault and continued attempted attacks on his life by government forces.

“I’m not sure how you can characterize that as a coup attempt by Machar,” Pelton said. “That’s Salva Kiir’s narrative and the media is accepting it with little question.”

An alternative narrative supported by some of these neglected facts and allegations, Pelton said, is that the ‘rebels’ and Machar represent an attempt by the disenfranchised citizens of South Sudan to restore democracy and legitimate governance in a country that appears at high risk of becoming another Nigeria – another other oil-rich African nation that succumbs to what some have dubbed the natural resource curse.

“There’s actually a fairly complex web of events unfolding here that don’t fit the standard story,” Pelton said. “There are no other journalists here. We’re trying to get the word out to the media that all they are doing is taking dictation from Kiir. What we’re seeing is a very different story.” 


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.