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Christians in the Muslim World

South Sudan Crisis: the Bloody Price of Autocracy

Four states of South Sudan descended once again into the hell of war after nine years of peace. The fighting started as a murky quarrel within the presidential guards on the evening of December 15 but the political leadership used it to quell the opposition within the ruling party. Meanwhile, the presidential fracas turned into an ethnic conflict in Juba and extended to Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile states. Until mid-January, ten thousand people were killed and almost six hundred thousand displaced by the fighting.



The current crisis in South Sudan is portrayed as a political-struggle-turned-violent between President Salva Kiir Mayardit and former Vice President Riek Machar Teny. In fact, it is a fight between Kiir maneuvering to consolidate his power over the SPLM, South Sudan’s ruling party, and a number of historical leaders unhappy with his dictatorial drive.



Kiir did an excellent job during the interim period between 2005 and 2011. He kept southerners united, reining in warlords that during the civil war sided with Khartoum with amnesties and bribes, ignored the many “banana skins” Sudan dropped along the road to the referendum in a bid to derail the whole process.



The first sign of change in Kiir’s camp came prior to Independence Day during the review of the Interim Constitution that led to the Transition Constitution. Opposition and civil society groups were kept out of the process with the excuse that it was a minor exercise: the real constitutional review would be the draft of the Permanent Constitution. The Transitional Constitution Kiir signed and presented to the nation on July 9, 2011, on the occasion of the proclamation of independence, increased his powers substantially without proper checks and balances.



After the independence, the SPLM leadership, very active during the months that led to the referendum, went into limbo busy with their own lives. Kiir governed the country mostly through republican decrees read out at state-owned SSTV during the evening news. Sudd Institute, a very active research think-tank said 'the South Sudanese problem, however, is that their president has not been making that many public appearances, particularly as circumstances of national importance arise'.(See In 2013 Reflect Upon 2012: A Review of the New Year’s Call from President Kiir). It said Kiir was more a ruler than a leader.



The power struggle within the SPLM went on fire in February 2013 when its 19-member Political Bureau met in Juba to review the four key party documents: Constitution, Manifesto, Rules and Regulations and Code of Conduct. The four key documents should have been voted during an extraordinary Convention in March and a the party leadership renewed in May at the ordinary Convention. At the beginning of the politburo Vice President Riek Machar Teny, Secretary General Pagan Amum and presidential advisor Rebecca Nyandeng, John Garang’s widow, said they would contest the party’s leadership in the Convention.



They may have been working on the assumption that Kiir would not run for the presidency in 2015. He said many times that his job was to lead the nation to the referendum and implement its result. But Kiir changed ideas – or the people around him made him change them – and he tried to bury competition within the ruling party. The Political Bureau managed to pass the new SPLM Constitution and Manifesto but there was no consensus about Rules and Regulations and Code of Conduct, key documents to discipline party members. Another buzzer went off in May 2013: Kiir dismissed Justice Ajonge Perpetuar, the deputy head of the legal drafting team in the President´s Office. He also disqualified her as a first class judge through another republican decree, a clear breach of the separation of powers, sacrosanct in any functional democracy.



The discontent within and without the SPLM brewed: the country was under austerity since January 2012 and impunity and corruption continued to grow unchecked although Kiir declared zero tolerance to graft. At the end of July, the president dismissed the entire cabinet, including VP Machar. The move sided a number of gray party characters who passed from one ministry to another since 2005 without leaving any real mark. It also increased the opposition to Kiir that became more vocal.



Secretary General Amum gave an interview to private CTV in the cozy setting of a Juba hotel, blaming Kiir for almost all that went wrong in post-independence. Kiir suspended Amum, limited his movements, forbade any contact with the media and established a commission led by former speaker and new VP James Wani Igga to investigate the secretary-general. The tension upped in mid-November when Kiir inaugurated the SPLM House in Juba. He declared all party structures, including the Political Bureau and the National Liberation Council except the chairmanship, illegitimate since their mandate ended in May 2013 and 'the party was not functioning and dissolved itself' ( A number of historic members of the politburo met on December 6 in Juba while the president was in Paris attending an African summit organized by the French government. In a stern statement they wrote that Kiir had 'dictatorial tendencies' and 'completely immobilized the party, abandoned collective leadership and jettisoned all democratic pretensions to decision making'(See the Press Statement By Riek Machar).



Kiir went ahead with the National Liberation Council on December 14 without the Political Bureau’s okay that statutory had the power to set its agenda. The fighting between Dinka and Nuer presidential guards in a Juba barrack took place at the end of the Council’s meeting on December 15. The soldiers’ quarrel changed into an all-out chasse for Nuer males in Juba. Human Rights Watch documented that in one incident alone soldiers slaughtered between 200 and 300 Nuer men in Gudele, Juba, on December 16 (See South Sudan: Soldiers Target Ethnic Group in Juba Fighting). On December 16, Kiir appeared on TV, donning presidential guard fatigues.



He announced that the army foiled an attempted coup led by Machar and supported by a number of disgruntled ministers that lost their job in July’s cabinet dismissal. Kiir quitted the army in 2010 to be able to run for the presidency of South Sudan. Security operatives arrested ten of the named coup plotters and another four went on the run including Machar.



Three days of fighting in Juba killed at least one thousand people. On December 18, Peter Gadet led an uprising in Bor. Gadet is a Nuer warlord that got the command of Division 8 in Jonglei State after he made peace with the government for the second time and was reintegrated in the army. At least one thousand people were killed in the combats. The army retook Bor one month later helped by Ugandan forces. The fighting extended to Unity and Upper Nile states and Bentiu and Malakal, the respective capitals, were controlled by rebel forces for a while.



The media portray South Sudan’s as a Kiir versus Machar struggle for power. What is happening is a struggle to control the SPLM between Kiir and his acolytes and historic party members that contest Kiir’s autocratic drive. The fight became ethnic due to old scores between Nuer and Dinka. In 1991, Nuer forces loyal to Machar killed some two thousand Dinka in Bor. Earlier, Machar broke away from the SPLM, contesting John Garang’s style of leadership, and sided with Khartoum.



For South Sudan to gain peace and start the journey of prosperity, the current national leadership has to pass on the rudder of the country to a younger generation with new ideas and attitudes. The old liberators took already enough reward for their part in the struggle towards independence: those in power pocketed billions of dollars since 2005. The time arrived for a generation of technocrats within the SPLM and from the civil society that are better prepared for the job of government.



The old guard, Kiir included, should retire to their cows, women and ‘merissa’ – the local beer – for the sake and the future of South Sudan.