From friends to foes: South Sudan’s power pair

South Sudan
Democracy

JOB: Current president and former vice-president of South Sudan

REPUTATION: A pair of thin-skinned, feuding kleptocrats

From Asmara to Addis, it’s an all too familiar story for Africans – yesterday’s freedom fighters become today’s ambitious autocrats.

Both Kiir, the populist president in his signature black cowboy hat, and Machar, the PhD with blood on his hands (forced to apologize for the massacre of 2,000 Dinka), earned their spurs fighting for South Sudan’s independence, a bitter decades-long struggle that saw three million die in the crossfire between the southern Sudanese People’s Liberation Front (SPLF) and the Sudanese government in Khartoum. The accidental death of long-time SPLF leader John Garang in 2005 (who believed South Sudan should maintain its autonomous status) left the movement in the hands of Kiir and Machar who favoured outright independence.

After a successful referendum in 2011, things looked rosy for an independent South Sudan with a healthy starting budget balance and great oil and mineral wealth. Just six years later the country has deteriorated into the definition of an ungovernable failed state, plagued by a chronic lack of food and basic physical security. According to Transparency International’s 2016 Index, South Sudan is also the second-most corrupt country in the world.

Few in power have clean hands. Kiir became the county’s first president with Machar gaining the vice-presidency. From the get go, it was definitely not a marriage made in heaven. Both have reputations for fragile Trump-like egos – Kiir once threw a newspaper editor in jail for his lack of respect in reporting his daughter’s lavish wedding. Kiir, from the majority Dinka tribe, and Machar, from the second-largest Nuers, both cynically use deeply rooted tribal tensions to buttress their own positions. After years of strain, the shaky Kiir-Machar alliance came completely unglued in December 2013 after a gunfight among Presidential Guards of the Tiger Division in the capital Juba.

The violence was spurred by still unproven rumours of a military coup. The Nuer Machar faction of the Division took to the bush and civil war made the perilous existence of the South Sudanese people even more so. The dissident faction formed the SPLM-IO (SPLM in Opposition) under the titular leadership of Machar, who is currently under house arrest in Pretoria, South Africa.

For two years running the newly independent South Sudan has been forced to cancel its official independence day celebrations. Not that there is much to celebrate – although that usually doesn’t stop those bent on national puffery. The treasury is bare, and insecurity and starvation stalk the land. The former is due to a combination of constant tribal civil war and entrepreneurial crime fuelled by a flood of weapons and angry young men without much else to do. The latter currently has hundreds of thousands teetering on the edge of famine, with food aid used as a political football by both sides.

LOW CUNNING:
Kiir repeatedly declares his corruption-fighting credentials but in April 2013 he fired deputy foreign minister Elias Wako Nyamellel for acknowledging that South Sudan is corrupt and ‘rotten to the core’.

SENSE OF HUMOUR:
Kiir jokes that ‘my 10 years in power are worse than his many years in the bush fighting for independence’. Not many South Sudanese would disagree.

There was a brief flash of hope in 2015. But despite a great hand-shaking by the two antagonists to celebrate a ceasefire signed in Addis Ababa (put together over 18 months by negotiating teams on up to $2,000 a day), it was widely ignored on the ground. So today South Sudan is awash with weapons, child soldiers, refugees, rape, famine and arbitrary repression of everyone from foreign NGOs to dissident journalists and activists.

Since the war restarted some 1.8 million have fled the country with another 1.9 million displaced. In the long term radical change is needed. But a start could be if the UN embargo against exporting weapons to a country spending millions on arms in the middle of a famine were respected – Canada, Israel and China are among many suspected violators. And Kiir and Machar need to be pressured to end their divisive political grandstanding – opening talks to ease Dinka/Nuer tensions is just a phone call away.

Sources: The Guardian; The Daily Mail; openDemocracy.net; Wikipedia; BBC; Al Jazeera; thesudantribune.com; Transparency International; The Washington Post; The Globe and Mail; www.chatham house.org; suddinstitute.org; africanarguments.org

Header Image: Riek Machar (left) and Salva Kiir (right) sit for an official photo. Picture: Albert Gonzalez Farran/AFP/Getty Images

mag cover This article is from the October 2017 issue of New Internationalist.
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