Thursday,23 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1179, (9 - 15 January 2014)
Thursday,23 November, 2017
Issue 1179, (9 - 15 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Kiir’s come-uppance

South Sudan’s political leaders are mired in internecine strife even as the oil-rich country wallows in civil war, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

The executive secretary of the Inter-governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), Mahboub Maalim, called for a peaceful end to the fighting in South Sudan. Maalim’s call comes as delegations of South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and his rival former Vice President Riek Machar arrived in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, last Wednesday for talks to end the month-long conflict. Maalim’s tone was far more conciliatory than some of East Africa’s leader’s strongly worded condemnations of Machar.

Earlier in the week, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni told reporters in South Sudan’s capital, Juba, that IGAD leaders had agreed to unite to defeat Machar if he rejected the East African grouping’s ceasefire offer. He was uncompromising and unequivocal. “We gave Riek Machar four days to respond to the ceasefire offer and if he doesn’t we shall have to go for him, all of us. That is what we agreed in Nairobi,” the Ugandan president told reporters.

The mediators are from the regional IGAD East African grouping, South Sudan being a member state of the bloc. On Sunday, fighting erupted in the oil-rich states of Unity and Upper Nile, the former mainly peopled by ethnic Nuer and the latter by Shilluk, South Sudan’s third most numerous ethnic group. Sporadic fighting continued in and around Juba, even as thousands of supporters of Machar moved to counter government troops in Bor, Jongolei State.

This much is sure; South Sudan will continue to be politically unstable in spite of the peace talks in Addis Ababa. Both South Sudan’s information minister, Michael Makuei, part of the government’s delegation to peace talks in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, and Reik Machar’s spokesman, Yohanis Musa Pouk, declared that peace talks have been delayed even though the teams are now “waiting to hear the way forward” from IGAD mediators.

“The heads of the two delegations need to agree on an agenda. Maybe tomorrow or after tomorrow,” Pouk was reported as saying Saturday. As Al-Ahram Weekly went to press, there was good news about the resumption of peace talks. However, South Sudan’s foreign minister, Barnaba Marial Benjamin, was quoted as saying that his government would make no compromises to reach a negotiated settlement. “Compromise is for the other side,” Benjamin stressed.

“We are ready to do our part to ensure that this fighting stops,” he added, somewhat unconvincingly.

Contradictory statements by officials of both the government and Machar’s followers abound. Rumours are also flying. Over 1,000 people, both civilians and soldiers, have been killed since the latest round of fighting started in the war-weary country. Machar warned that those demanding the immediate cessation of hostilities are “jumping the gun”. The chief of staff of South Sudan’s Armed Forces, General James Hoth Mai, on the other hand warned that government troops would forcibly free territories held by Machar’s sympathisers.

Violence erupted in the fledgling state of South Sudan with minority ethnic groups accusing the Dinka people, the country’s largest group, of monopolising power. The South Sudanese government has rejected the charge. However, Machar has urged the International Criminal Court to prosecute President Kiir for “ethnic cleansing”.

Western powers have expressed concern over the turn of events in South Sudan, the third largest producer of oil in Africa south of the Sahara, after Nigeria and Angola. US Secretary of State John Kerry warned that the Addis Ababa peace talks must not be “a delay gimmick in order to continue the fighting and try to find advantage on the ground at the expense of the people of South Sudan”.

A bone of contention is the continued incarceration of politicians loyal to Machar. The spokesman of the Machar delegation in Addis Ababa, Taban Deng Gai, repeated Machar’s call for the release of several senior politicians allied to Machar and for the state of emergency imposed by Kiir in two states of South Sudan to be lifted. “We ask for the release of political detainees and free movement and political space for them to join us here,” Gai declared at the opening ceremony of the peace talks in Addis Ababa.

The fractious nature of the ruling party in South Sudan, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and its armed wing, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), has deepened antagonism between various factions and splinter groups. An ingrained sense of national identity in South Sudan has yet to take hold and threatens to disrupt the delicate equilibrium between South Sudan and Khartoum.

Khartoum has not openly interfered in the conflict. Sudan itself has been embroiled in its own internal suffering. As a result of the fighting thousands of South Sudanese have been reported as heading for Khartoum. Some 200,000 South Sudanese have been rendered homeless.

Tribalism rears its ugly head and threatens to rip the world’s newest nation apart. There is no real animosity between ordinary South Sudanese. The problem is with politicians playing the tribal card. Barely two years after fleeing the North for the “Promised Land” in South Sudan, the South Sudanese are trickling back North. South Sudan’s economic potential is tremendous. Nevertheless, without permanent peace one of the world’s least developed nations cannot prosper.

Bor, capital of oil-rich Jongolei state and the hometown of the founder of the SPLM/A, John Garang, has fallen to ousted vice president Machar. Jongolei is home to several ethnic groups, including the Dinka people, South Sudan’s most numerous ethnic grouping. The current spate of fighting threatens to have grave consequences for the nascent nation.

Machar fell out with legendary SPLM/A leader Garang in 1991 and with other mainly non-Dinka SPLM leaders formed SPLM-Nasir. Born in Unity State, South Sudan, Riek Mahcar is an ethnic Nuer, South Sudan’s second largest ethnic group in numerical terms. Unlike the more numerous Dinka people of South Sudan who are divided into several rival tribes and clans, the Nuer people are only divided into clans and hence are a less fragmented community than the more numerous Dinka.

“My bodyguards at the vice presidential residence were summarily executed,” Machar told the pan-Arab satellite television channel Al-Jazeera. “[Troops loyal to President Kiir] attacked [the residence] with tank shells and then burned it. It is rubble now. They fired on my residence and I fled. My life was in danger. This was not a coup,” he expounded.

Bickering and backstabbing among South Sudan politicians has become endemic. The nascent country’s depressing outlook is having scant impact on Arab countries, but it is gravely concerning neighbouring African nations south of the Sahara, especially those in East Africa, that have common ethnic compositions.

A moderate with considerable appeal, Lam Akol, an ethnic Shilluk, is the current leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-Democratic Change (SPLM-DC) that he founded 6 June 2009. Akol, a former senior official of the SPLA and subsequently a minister of foreign affairs of Sudan from September 2005-October 2007, when it was a united country, as part of a deal brokered by the government of Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir offered several senior ministerial portfolios to leading SPLM figures.

Akol first joined the SPLM in 1986, but in 1991 he defected and formed the SPLA-Nasir. In 1993, the SPLA-Nasir adopted the name SPLM-United in solidarity with, and in the wake of, other defections by senior SPLA commanders who were under detention by orders of Garang, the founder of the SPLM. Leaders of militias in South Sudan often assume a political role.

Akol subsequently signed the Fashoda Peace Agreement with Khartoum and in March 1998 was appointed minister of transport in the Sudanese government, a post he held for four years. However, in 2002 Akol resigned from the ruling National Congress Party in Khartoum and re-joined the SPLM under Garang’s leadership in October 2003.

South Sudan has long been ravaged by war. Militias emerge only to be broken up by factionalism. From 1994 to 1997, Riek Machar’s movement was known as the South Sudan Independence Movement/Army (SSIM/A). His second wife Angelina Teny is one of South Sudan’s most powerful political women. She was minister of energy and mining, the petroleum ministerial portfolio in the transitional government from 2005-2009.

In April 2010, Angelina Teny defected from the SPLM because she claimed the party rigged the election in favour of the then incumbent governor of Unity State, Taban Deng Gai. She claimed there were missing ballot boxes and to placate her she was appointed adviser on petroleum matters to the South Sudan Energy and Mines Ministry. In addition, she was also the leader of negotiations with the Khartoum government over ownership and management of oil assets.

Interestingly enough, Riek Machar did not overtly support his wife during her trials and tribulations. Another influential woman politician in South Sudan is Rebecca Nyandeng de Mabior, widow of the late Garang. She is highly critical of the South Sudan government, has expressed dissatisfaction with the ruling SPLM and is resentful that she was not awarded a senior ministerial portfolio. After a brief period as minister of transport she was relegated to the position of advisor to South Sudanese President Kiir, with whom she publicly disagrees on several key issues, including the reunification of Sudan under a secular and democratic dispensation.

From the outset, Riek Machar desired an independent South Sudan, a political inclination that the late Garang strongly objected to, as he favoured a united, secular and democratic Sudan.

The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), with close ties to the ruling party in South Sudan, has so far refrained from officially commenting on the violence and political power struggles in South Sudan. Nevertheless, it is expected to play a role in the final outcome of the crisis. The SPLM-N has had to operate in Khartoum under mounting fire from the Sudanese government. The South Sudan debacle has opened a deep rift with Sudan and encouraged many who want reunification of Sudan and South Sudan.

The trouble with this sanguine perspective of the two Sudans is that the bleak fundamentals of both countries have so far done little to bring about the political stability sorely needed for structural economic reform and democracy.

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