SOUTH Africa’s recent positions on South Sudan rebel leader Riek Machar, raised interesting questions about its very different policy on Rwanda dissidents.
Last Friday South Sudan’s rebel group, the SPLM-IO denied reports that its leader, former vice president Riek Machar was under house arrest in South Africa.
A senior member of the group, Kuong Dak, reportedly told Radio Tamazuj that Machar entered South Africa legally and that he was moving “freely without any restriction”.
“Riek Machar is not under house arrest, he went to South Africa for medical treatment, and now he is free, he can travel to Khartoum and Addis Ababa or elsewhere,” Dak was quoted as saying.
Reports had indicated that South African authorities had “confined” Machar to a residence outside Pretoria “in order to prevent him from leaving the country again”.
Machar, according to the reports, arrived in South Africa on November 21 without Pretoria’s knowledge after fleeing Juba, claiming that President Salva Kiir wanted to assassinate him.
WHAT’S THE TRUTH?
Two days later, however, Machar seemed to contradict the SPLM-IO Friday statement, telling the Associated Press in a phone interview that he can move freely, but “I am to inform them [whenever] I want to go somewhere and they take me there”.
He said this was for his protection. When asked if he is under house arrest, he referred the question to South African authorities, saying: “I am their guest, so you ask them.”
South Africa’s foreign affairs ministry has said it was “taking care” of Machar and expressed concern about reports claiming house arrest.
To add to the intrigue, the SPLM-IO’s statement that Machar is “free, he can travel to Khartoum and Addis Ababa or elsewhere,” seems not to be true.
Three weeks ago when he tried to return to the region, Machar was denied entry by Sudan and Ethiopia, officials said according to a report in ISS Africa.
Both countries were traditionally hospitable to him, and indeed some elements in president Salva Kiir’s inner circle have accused Addis Ababa and Khartoum of backing Machar.
In an extended report, ISS examined whether Pretoria advancing the faltering cause of peace in South Sudan by keeping veteran opposition leader Machar under what was first said to be “house arrest”, noting that “not everyone thinks so”.
INTERNATIONAL DEAL ON MACHAR
The “guest conditions” under which Machar is living in South Africa are a result of an agreement between the South African government, the South Sudanese government of President Salva Kiir, South Sudan’s neighbours and key international states – principally it seems – the US, ISS reported, quoting unnamed South African officials.
Machar has been replaced as first vice president by Taban Deng Gai, a fellow Nuer and member of his SPLM-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO) faction.
However, some members of SPLM-IO backed Taban but not most, says Lauren Hutton, a South Sudanese analyst. She points out that the SPLM-IO has formally re-affirmed Machar as its legitimate leader, and that most members of this party/faction regard Taban as a collaborator and sell-out.
Not discussed in South Africa’s intervention in the South Sudan crisis, is its position in another East African corner – Rwanda.
South Africa has had on-off-on diplomatic scuffles with President Paul Kagame’s government over its hosting of anti-Rwanda dissidents for years now. Most prominent among is former Army Chief general Kayumba Nyamwasa.
International rights groups have accused Nyamwasa of committing war crimes in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) while serving as army general, and Rwanda has accused him of terrorism.
Relations between Rwanda and South Africa hit a low in 2010 after a failed attempt to assassinate Nyamwasa in Johannesburg.
Both Kayumba and the South Africa accused Rwanda of being behind the plot, but Rwanda denied involvement in the shooting.
Another round of accusations and diplomatic hostilities came in 2014 with the murder of former intelligence chief Patrick Karegeya, turned Kagame critic and dissident, in South Africa in 2014.
Relations between the two countries were severely strained.
Some commentators say that for South Africa, Rwanda dissidents are just a pawn in its struggle with Rwanda for hegemony in the DRC.
South Africa has developed extensive economic interests in the DRC, and its companies have taken big stakes in the country’s resource sector.
Rwanda, wary of the presence of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) remnants of the forces that committed genocide in Rwanda in 1994 – in which nearly one million people were killed – has been seen to be backing proxy rebel groups in the mineral-rich eastern part of the country for over a decade now.
Also, South Africa recently started its withdrawal from the International Criminal Court (ICC), a body that many African leaders see as “targeting mostly Africa” and being a “neo-colonial instrument”.
It raises the question why then Pretoria – and other leading ICC critics like Sudan and Ethiopia – would enforce a South Sudan solution pushed by the same international forces whose influence over the ICC it hates so much, it is pulling out.
In addition, to placing Machar under any restrictions, while dissidents from Rwanda have the freedom to organise and don’t operate under such restrictions, is to suggest that the Jacob Zuma government sees the Kiir regime as more legitimate than the Kagame one.
It probably doesn’t, but the contradictions it has found itself in only points to a basic failure of South African Africa policy, that has dogged the country especially in the years of the Zuma presidency.
And for the other countries like Sudan and Ethiopia, it illustrates the limitations of basing policy largely on protecting fellow incumbents, not wider national interests.
The author is a Rogue Chiefs contributor.