As Civilian Death Toll Mounted in South Sudan War, Salva Kiir Feared Obama Wanted To Kill Him With Drone-- New Book Says

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kiir shown with Obama during White House event. As war escalated in South Sudan, Kiir feared he'd be killed by a U.S. drone. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
 
[Review & Commentary]
 
Two years into civil war, as the civilian death toll in South Sudan mounted, Salva Kiir believed Obama was so enraged by his and Riek Machar's unwillingness to sign a deal to stop the fighting that the American president planned to have him assassinated by a drone strike or deposed by U.S. marines, according to a new book.
 
"A Rope From The Sky--The Making and Unmaking of The World's Newest State," (Pegasus, 2019, 336 pages) is a riveting account by Zach Vertin about the path to nationhood for South Sudan in 2011, and the country's quick unraveling just over two years later. Vertin was an Obama administration diplomat and was involved in the negotiations to end the war. He now teaches at Princeton University and is a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution's Doha Center.
 
Some of the incidents described in the book could be described as comical, were they not concerned with war and peace, such as when Kiir was once almost manhandled and pulled away by government supporters to prevent him from entering a conference center to sign a peace deal in Addis Ababa. Kiir often kept African presidents who were mediating the conflict waiting for hours. He vacillated between wanting to sign the treaty and then yielding to hardliners and changing his mind.
 
Kiir's fears that he would become a victim of a drone-strike were intensified when Obama excluded him and Machar, the vice president with whom he was at war, from a July 2015 meeting in Ethiopia with regional leaders to discuss South Sudan's fate. 
 
The South Sudan war had been especially brutal, and the book documents many of the atrocities, including an ethnic cleansing campaign of Nuer by Dinka troops loyal to Kiir when the fighting broke out in December 2013, following a political crisis between Kiir and Machar. The book documents revenge massacres of Dinka people by troops loyal to Machar in rebel-held zones.
 
It took an invasion of South Sudan by the Ugandan dictator Gen. Yoweri Museveni's ground and air forces to turn the war in Kiir's favor. Vertin says there were rumors in the early days of fighting that the U.S. had invited Museveni to intervene and was even supplying the Uganda People's Defense Force (UPDF) for its onslaught; rumors Museveni didn't try to quash. 
 
On the contrary, the U.S. opposed Uganda taking sides and pressured Museveni privately to rein in his military, Vertin claimed. "Securing the airport and preventing collapse in Juba was one thing, choosing sides and raining cluster bombs over rebel-held territory was quite another," Vertin wrote, conveying what he says was the Obama administration's attitude. (pg. 356) This is a remarkable observation. In other words the U.S. was aware Gen. Museveni had committed war crimes by using weapons banned under international law; yet, the matter was never brought up before the U.N. Security Council. The reason was simple; Museveni supplies Ugandan soldiers on behalf of the U.S. in trouble spots like Somalia. So what if he's involved in massacres here and there? 
 
The African countries tasked with ending the conflict belong to a regional group called Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). Yet, many had their own agenda. The Kenyan political and business elite benefitted from chaos as huge sums of money were embezzled to Nairobi by South Sudanese politicians and military leaders, the author wrote. Then Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and chief mediator Seyoum Mesfin deplored the obstacles presented by South Sudan's neighbors. "Seyoum and the normally even-mannered Hailemariam resented Kenya's antics and were apoplectic behind closed doors about the adventurism of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and his army," Vertin wrote. "For months, every private conversation we had with them included venting about Museveni, and it was hard to blame them." (pg. 354). 
 
The author called Museveni the most obstructionist ruler when it came to a peaceful resolution of the war. Described as "an enigmatic figure about whom everyone had a bizarre story," Museveni saw himself as the regional guarantor of security and dismissed the SPLM to Western diplomats as a "hollow party." He insulted SPLM leaders and said they couldn't live up to founding leader John Garang's stature. (It's widely believed Museveni had a hand in Garang's death in a 2005 helicopter crash). 
 
Museveni has special antipathy toward Riek Machar and conveyed it in comments to Vertin, Donald E. Booth, the U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, and U.K. and Norwegian diplomats, during a meeting in Kampala, soon after the fighting started. "Citing the 1991 split he said 'the old mistake maker' was not to be trusted," Vertin wrote, describing Museveni's comments about Machar--he was referring to the split between him and Garang, before the SPLM re-united. "Riek, he said with a tone of derision, was an opportunist who had 'betrayed the cause of the black people in South Sudan and went to work for Khartoum."
 
It is ironic that the Ugandan dictator laments about Machar's opportunism--this is a man who, seeking to ingratiate himself with the current U.S. administration, went to the extent of declaring that he "loved" Trump after the American used a slur last year to refer to African countries and Haiti. 
 
Vertin described Museveni as an eccentric, who often went off on long tangents, causing Western diplomats to roll their eyes and tune out. In one meeting, when Museveni welcomed the diplomats to his estate in Kampala he declined to shake hands, citing his fear of germs. He sat on an elevated position to indicate he was in charge. 
 
"M7 was sometimes rambling and incoherent, other times highly incisive and self-aware. Today was no exception," Vertin wrote, of the meeting. "Deflecting opening questions about the conflict, he transitioned swiftly into one of his legendary monologues, meandering from Marcel Proust to Winston Churchill to the demerits of 20th-century European colonialism," Vertin wrote. He continued: "My mind wandered. I assessed his bulky torso, contemplating the popular rumor that the former rebel --who helped topple two Ugandan presidents before him-- wears a bullet proof vest at all times."
 
While Museveni was off-topic the diplomats' eyes had "glazed over" but finally they "shook themselves out of their semi-catatonic states" when Museveni finally turned to South Sudan, Vertin wrote. When the diplomats pressed Museveni about his army's involvement in the war "he feigned ignorance" claiming he had "not been following the situation closely," which the author said "was hard to believe." 
 
"Prior to the crisis," Vertin continued, "M7 had personally engaged with key SPLM players, several times flying them to his farm to brief him on the latest developments inside the party. And when the war began, he had made a controversial military investment that carried considerable political and economic implications. Above all, his desire to maintain supremacy in regional security affairs was axiomatic."
 
Museveni told the Western diplomats he would withdraw as soon as Kiir asked. When pressed to get Kiir to the negotiating table, his response, Vertin wrote "underscored the charade-like nature of the meeting, Museveni asserted that he was 'always reluctant to get involved in the politics of another country.'" 
 
"As the remark hung in the air," Vertin continued, "I glanced across at my fellow diplomats, wondering just how many of them might fall off their chairs. Not only had Museveni directly intervened to save Salva's government, his belt-notches in the 1990s alone included grooming Paul Kagame and backing his Tutsi rebellion's capture of Rwanda, helping plot the invasions that toppled two Congolese presidents, and fighting directly on behalf of John Garang's SPLA in Sudan. His army had also deployed around the region to plunder timber, coltan, diamonds, and other valuable resources. All this made his principled nod to non-interventionism seem particularly rich." (pg 357).  
 
The Congolese of course are familiar with the toll of the plunder by Museveni's military, accompanied by massacres of civilians and mass rapes. In 2005, the International Court of Justice ordered Uganda to pay reparations of $10 billion to Congo. Time will tell if the new Congolese government under Felix Tshisekedi moves to enforce the judgment. 
 
By 2015, with his term coming to a close, Obama pressed for a solution to the South Sudan war. Horrific images of massacre victims beamed around the world prompted Congressional discussions. Washington even contemplated moving peace talks to U.S. soil or imposing a "pseudo-protectorate under the U.N. or AU administration,"  according to Vertin.  
 
So when Obama arrived in Addis Ababa in July 2015 on his last trip to Africa as president, he was more forceful then he'd ever been about South Sudan.  "There would be no peace in South Sudan," Obama suggested, "until the region overcame its divisions and agreed on a common approach. Hinting at the partisan engagement of both Kampala and Khartoum, he challenged the IGAD leaders to instead use their respective influence to end the senseless war." (page 397). Before the July 27 meeting chaired by Obama with the IGAD leaders, Museveni pulled Kenyatta, whom he considered a "junior brother," aside to confer. Obama, flanked by National Security Advisor Susan Rice and Special Envoy Booth, "signaled his readiness to back a political transition without Salva and Riek," but wanted the IGAD countries to support that approach. "Museveni was, unsurprisingly, the least constructive participant, frustrating those who were tired of his eccentricities and his partisan intervention in South Sudan," Vertin wrote. (pg. 397). 
 
Museveni suggested the IGAD leaders have a separate meeting amongst themselves to avoid airing dirty laundry before Obama, who agreed but said it couldn't be "open ended." Eventually, an August 17 deadline was set. That was when Kiir's political impotence was fully displayed. Machar was also under duress; some of his own comrades claimed he was no longer their leader. 
 
As Kiir planned his travel to Addis Ababa to sign the proposed peace deal, one of his ministers claimed he would be taken hostage "in an elaborate plot he claimed was supported by Washington," Vertin wrote. (pg. 401). Opponents of the deal were bolstered when Gen. Paul Malong, Kiir's own army commander, supposedly said, "If Kiir goes to Addis, he should not plan on returning." Meanwhile, Uhuru Kenyatta, Sudan's Omar Bashir, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, and Ugandan dictator Museveni waited for kiir.
 
Kiir flew to Addis the night before the signing ceremony. He was walked through the paper work. By morning, he had changed his mind and wasn't willing to sign. "This Salva Kiir is not a person in a position to make a decision," Seyoum Mesfin exclaimed in disbelief. Vertin added: "The hardliners had gotten to Salva, again. And true to form, he had agreed with the last person in the room."
 
Bashir and Museveni left Ethiopia. Kenyatta and Desalegn persuaded Kiir to turn back from the airport and return to the conference center. When Kiir returned, the drama shifted to overdrive when he stepped out of his SUV. "Upon disembarking, several senior members of the government delegation tried to physically block their president from re-entering. A vigorous exchange ensued outside the car door, as the cocoon rocked back and forth between the vehicle and the entryway, the energy mimicking the passion of the conversation at its core," Vertin wrote. 
 
Kiir managed to break through and enter the conference center. He must have trembled when he saw the pen; this time, he drove off to the airport and flew out of the country. 
 
Kenyatta and Desalegn had reached their limits. Before the invited guests and diplomats, Machar was invited to sign the agreement; Pagan Amum, once the SPLM Secretary General, also signed for another group of opposition leaders. Kenyatta then announced, to the surprise of many, that Kiir had been granted another 15 days to sign. Meanwhile, U.S. diplomats at the U.N. began circulating a draft sanctions document that reportedly included Kiir's name on a secret list.
 
Back in Juba, Kiir was described as paranoid, in the book. He summoned the new U.S. ambassador Molly Phee to find out what Obama planned to do.
 
"Phee dispensed with wild stories about U.S. ground forces invading Juba to remove him and install Riek," Vertin wrote. "She attempted to dissuade him of such outlandish notions, reassuring him that she was there to work with him, and encouraging him to sign the deal." 
 
"I listen to Obama, and he says no boots on the ground and I believe that," Vertin wrote, recounting Phee's conversation with Kiir, who replied, "But he will use a drone to get me."
 
Who can blame Kiir? After all, he was aware that U.S. drones had been unleashed against suspected Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders by the Obama administration. It's interesting that kiir believed that his stock had fallen that low; perhaps an unwitting admission of his culpability in the horrific civilian casualties in the war. 
 
Kiir finally relented and invited ambassador Phee, other diplomats, and IGAD leaders for a special signing event in Juba, on August 26.  The announced time on the invitations stated 10 AM; yet by noon, with IGAD leaders and foreign diplomats gathered at the venue underneath a huge tent Kiir was not to be found. 
 
It turns out that whenever he stepped toward his car, hardliners, led by Gen. Malong, lured Kiir back into his office.  It wasn't until 4 PM that kiir arrived. He took his place on the podium where Kenyatta, Desalegn and Museveni stood around him as he took a pen and opened the document. "They formed a half circle around him, as if to block out any more interference," Vertin wrote. (pg. 409).
 
Kiir insisted on including his written objections to some terms of the agreement as an appendix. The demand was rejected by the IGAD leaders and later in a statement by the U.S. Then, complaining about being given options between "imposed war" and "imposed peace," Kiir finally signed the 72-page agreement. 
 
That's where Vertin's story ends. 
 
The 2015 agreement provided temporary respite. Within a year, Kiir was again hunting down his vice president Machar, who again fled into exile. The second was that followed was even more devastating and horrific. 
 
Another deal was struck between Kiir and Machar on August 31, 2018 in Khartoum, Sudan. 
 
On January 19, Machar tweeted that the agreement even "if not that perfect" was "the only way towards changes in the country." 
 
How long will this deal last? Perhaps for as long as the region's biggest warmonger Uganda's Gen. Museveni allows it to. 

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