Taban Deng Gai, who was appointed by President Salva Kiir to replace Riek Machar as First Vice-President, played a key role in negotiating the peace agreement in Addis Ababa.
In his late 60s, Mr Gai is a cousin of Dr Machar’s wife, Angelina Teny. But the two were involved in a bitter contest for the governorship of Unity State in the 2010 elections, with Ms Teny ending up as an independent candidate.
President Kiir threw his weight behind Mr Gai, who won by 137,662 against Ms Teny’s 63,561 votes. The results were disputed, sparking violence in the state as earlier results had shown that Ms Teny was in the lead.
Still, Dr Machar was grooming Mr Gai for leadership despite complaints by some SPLM-IO cadres.
After leading the SPLM-IO negotiators for over two and a half years, Mr Gai — a man of Nuer and Arab descent who trained in security and intelligence — was not happy that he was appointed minister for mining instead of petroleum that he craved.
On April 30, a day after the formation of the Transitional Government, Mr Gai resigned his position as chief negotiator for SPLM-IO, even though he was expected to lead his side in guiding implementation of the peace agreement.
Mr Gai, whom President Kiir sacked as the governor of Unity State in July 2013, maintains that by accepting his appointment as VP, he is just filling the vacuum to help the transitional government to move the implementation forward, but will step down should Dr Machar come back to Juba.
After being sworn in on Tuesday, Mr Gai claimed that the South Sudanese army is now one, contrary to the agreement that provides for two armies.
However, SPLM-IO cadres allied to Dr Machar are questioning why President Kiir picked Mr Gai who is number four in the hierarchy despite the presence of his two senior officials — Dr Machar’s number two Gen Alfred Lado Gore, and Dhieu Mathok Diing, the party’s secretary-general.
According to Lam Jok, the SPLM-IO representative in Kenya, it is the 25-member Political Bureau that has the mandate to change the party’s leadership, yet there were only four bureau members at the July 23 meeting that nominated Mr Gai.
Sources say that the meeting was flooded with unknown gunmen in civilian clothes, with the deputy chairman Gen Gore — who is the Minister for Interior — being escorted to the meeting at Crown Hotel under tight security by government forces.
Sources say the Chief of General Staff, Gen Paul Malong Awan had earlier been seen at the hotel in a different room and did not come out until Mr Gai was appointed.
Jacob Dut Chol, the head of Political Science Department at the University of Juba, told The EastAfrican that it is doubtful whether Mr Gai enjoys the support of the SPLM-IO rank and file.
Mr Chol said that even though Mr Gai was close to the late Dr John Garang during the bush war, at some point they parted ways during the 1991 SPLM split led by Dr Machar.
Mr Gai, a member of the ruling SPLM’s Political Bureau, served as Unity Governor from 2010 to 2013. He had previously held the governorship of the state as an appointee of the president.
A rich politician
He is reported to be very rich and was close to President Kiir when he was the governor of the oil-rich state.
It was then a surprise when President Kiir sacked him in July 2013. Those conversant with the issue said that the ambitious Mr Gai — who had been eyeing the presidency — had silently started campaigning against President Kiir’s bid for the aborted 2015 elections because he had already served for eight years.
Mr Gai was removed at a time when a number of SPLM top ranks such as then vice-president Dr Machar, secretary-general Pagan Amum, and the widow of the late Dr Garang, Rebecca Nyandeng, had called for internal party reforms and declared that they were planning to contest the presidency against President Kiir.