Collapse of Salva Kiir’s government raises spectre of escalating violence during crucial oil and security talks with Sudan
South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, has sacked his entire cabinet, including his chief political rival, vice-president Riek Machar, in what analysts say is the climax of a ruthless power struggle inside the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) that could turn into “a full-blown catastrophe”.
In dramatic developments in the South Sudan capital, Juba, Kiir also fired Pagan Amum, the SPLM’s secretary-general and the country’s senior negotiator in crucial oil and security talks with Sudan. Like Machar, Amum has publicly criticised Kiir’s leadership.
The collapse of the government raised the spectre of escalating violence in the world’s youngest country, which gained independence from Sudan two years ago this month. Kiir’s popularity has suffered due to his government’s perceived failure to end high poverty rates, lack of infrastructure, internal repression, and widespread official corruption.
With Kiir giving no indication when a new government may be formed, sources in Juba suggested a prolonged standoff between the president and his opponents could split the SPLM into two or more rival camps, raise tensions between the powerful Dinka and Nuer tribal groups, and wreck plans for elections in 2015.
The UN and aid agencies warned last week that up to 120,000 people have been displaced by fighting between the army, rebels and rival tribes in eastern Jonglei state. South Sudan is also embroiled in several border disputes with Sudan and other neighbours.
A Juba-based analyst who asked not to be identified said: “The international community must urgently ensure this crisis does not spiral into a full-blown catastrophe. They must appeal for calm and demand President Kiir respect the constitution and uphold democracy.
“This is a crisis that has been looming for months, if not years. The international community – and particularly South Sudan’s strongest backers in the US and Europe – have done a great disservice to the people of the new country by ignoring the signs, allowing the corruption, poor governance, and political repression at the root of yesterday’s events go unchecked for so long …
“[The crisis] threatens not just the country and its people, but also the fragile relationship between South Sudan and Sudan.”
Edmund Yakani of the independent Community Empowerment for Progress Organisation (Cepo) in Juba said Kiir’s actions reflected deeper problems. “This is the indicator of a power struggle within the ruling party. Dismissal of the vice-president, party secretary-general [and] the national ministers and their deputies is indicator of political instability in the system.”
Some of the sacked ministers would be reappointed to their posts, Yakani predicted, but there would be no rapprochement between Kiir and the vice-president, Machar. The implications of an ongoing confrontation between the country’s two most senior political figures were huge, he said.
“Among the key implications which are negative is the possibility that this means no elections and no registration of political parties, since the SPLM will want to register first before the other political parties … This means the division of the SPLM into two is possible …
“The president becoming authoritarian cannot be ruled out, while the vice-president is going to continue pressing for a SPLM ‘conversation’ [and] for national elections. The president may not easily accept either if he is not so sure of himself winning,” Yakani said.
A Juba-based commentator who asked not to be identified said Kiir appeared to be purging opponents who threaten his hold on power.
“This approach is just to cover up the major move, that is to say, the removal of Dr Riek Machar from the vice-presidency. The suspected intention is to provoke Dr Riek and Pagan Amum and a few other discontented ministers to quit the SPLM and perhaps form their own party.
“This would leave Mr Kiir with less opposition in the SPLM convention when the body convenes to select their flag bearer for 2015 elections,” the commentator said.
Machar and his allies were unlikely to fall into this trap, he added. “They seem to be aware of such a push, so they are more likely to stay to rock the boat from within SPLM. This is because they know it is only the national convention that can remove them from their party positions despite [their] removal from government … I do not see either Dr Riek or Pagan picking up arms, because … they are both prepared for a democratic competition, quite convinced that the incumbent has lost popularity.”
Machar went public with his criticisms of Kiir in a Guardian interview in Juba last month, following Kiir’s decision in April to strip him of key vice-presidential powers.
Saying it was time for Kiir to step down after nearly a decade as SPLM leader, Machar indicated he was ready to challenge him for the top post either before or after the 2015 polls. The SPLM controls all but a handful of seats in parliament. Whoever leads the party is almost certain to be president.
Machar recently led a delegation to Khartoum to discuss bilateral tensions but came away empty-handed. Critics accused him of conniving with Sudan leaders to further weaken Kiir’s position, or alternatively, being bamboozled by them.
The government collapse comes at a critical moment during talks with Sudan over oil exports, which account for almost all South Sudan government revenues. Khartoum has threatened to shut down Red Sea export pipelines on 7 August unless the SPLM ends its support for rebels in Sudan’s Blue Nile and South Kordofan states. South Sudan denies aiding the rebels.
South Sudan’s oil minister warned this month that turning off the oil could cause irreparable damage to the pipelines and harm both countries’ economies. Stephen Dhieu Dau said if oil did not flow for several months, the pipeline would be a “total loss for the investors and the owners”.
The pipelines and other facilities in both countries were mainly built by China. China National Petroleum Corp, Malaysia’s Petronas and India’s ONGC Videsh run the oilfields in South Sudan together with the government.
[Salva Kiir is the President of Southern Sudan and the First Vice president in Sudan via Flickr user Stein Ove Korneliussen]