That Machar felt this way is curious. Trump rarely, if ever, mentioned Africa on the campaign trail. In fact, somewhat counterintuitively, it is Trump’s “America First” policy, which promises to rid Washington of its commitments to foreign countries and conflicts and restore prosperity to ordinary Americans, that Machar and his inner circle believe will prompt the president-elect to express solidarity with the South Sudanese rebels.
Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, doubted that a conflict like the one in South Sudan would capture the attention of the Trump administration, which she described as having “little knowledge of international affairs or experience in diplomacy.” But she also acknowledged that the lack of diplomatic experience in Trump’s camp may make it “very malleable to whoever can get in early and make an argument that hits the right bells.”
“Machar is probably thinking ‘Okay this gang is gone. This new team has none of that baggage, and in fact they might be eager to poke the old Obama team in the eye on this, and kind of reverse course,’” Cooke said. But it doesn’t help that Machar, unlike leaders of some authoritarian governments, can’t argue his case as “the bailiwick against Islamic extremism.” The dictators who may find a sympathetic ear in the Trump administration are those who can reliably promise to root out radical terrorism abroad, an advantage unavailable to leaders in South Sudan.
In a conversation over tea at a busy Nairobi café this week, two of Machar’s top aides, both of whom requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the conversation, gleefully reiterated their boss’s optimism that an outsider in Washington could be the force necessary to push Kiir out of power and restore some legitimacy to the opposition. Both men believed that Trump, if properly briefed on South Sudan, will back Machar, and will see supporting him as an opportunity for Washington to save aid money in the long run. “When President Trump looks at the South Sudanese crisis from the angle of the American government spending money in South Sudan, he will actually try to solve the problem itself instead of giving aid that doesn’t even feed the people of South Sudan,” one aide said. “Once the policy changes in Washington, it will also change in Juba,” he said. “Trump doesn’t know much about South Sudan, and to us that’s a blessing.”
In an email, a State Department official wrote that it “does not take sides between the warring parties in this conflict” and that an “inclusive” process that involves voices from both sides of the conflict is the only path forward. A spokesman at State also said by email that “it might be too early for us to speculate on what a Trump administration’s policies might be regarding South Sudan.” (Recently, the United States suggested in an annex to a draft resolution on an arms embargo in South Sudan that the UN Security Council blacklist Machar, as well as government army chief Paul Malong, for his alleged efforts to kill Machar and extend the conflict. Also included was Information Minister Michael Makuei for allegedly orchestrating an attack that killed three UN guards and 140 civilians in 2014. Russia and China threatened to veto the proposal.)