South Sudan’s Kiir still in murky political waters eight years into power

Saturday October 19 2013
kiir ss

Eight years into his rule, the South Sudan President Salva Kiir has lost a number of his key henchmen. Now it appears he will face a stiff challenge to his rule in the coming General Election. Photo/FILE/TEA Graphic

President Salva Kiir of the South Sudan has lost all his key men just eight years after taking power. The exits are a defining moment for Kiir’s political career.

As he seeks to steer the young country uncertainty over the fate of the disputed Abyei region persists. A referendum on Abyei was slated for this month but it remains unclear if it will take place.

READ: Sudans on edge, disputed Abyei in the middle

Last month, President Kiir suggested that the 2015 General Election may be delayed, citing lack of funds for census and finalisation of the new Constitution. So, how will his political fortunes fare in coming months.

Garang boys

His assumption to office in 2005, was a walk in the park. The death of Dr John Garang in a plane crash in July 2005 had left him the heir apparent. Many had angled for the post including former vice president Riek Machar and former foreign minister Dr Lam Akol. Unlike Kiir, both Dr Akol and Dr Machar are intellectuals with PhDs like the late Dr Garang, but Kiir’s strong point was his popularity within the military.


Kiir inherited the leadership together with a team that worked with the late Dr Garang, commonly referred to as the “Garang Boys.” Eight years later that team is out in the wilderness.

Dr Akol formed his own party in 2009, accusing Kiir of failing to rein in the corruption, tribalism, and insecurity that he said were tearing the country apart. Dr Machar followed suit in July, in a falling out with the boss, apparently because of similar concerns.

In 2007, Kiir fired former deputy interior minister in Khartoum and close ally Aleu Ayieny, along with Telar Ring Deng. He went ahead to suspend them from the party for allegedly making statements that did not reflect the position of the party and government about the death of Dr Garang.

With the duo out in the cold, Kiir continued with the remaining Garang Boys who included the ruling party secretary-general Pagan Amum, former foreign minister Nhial Deng Nhial and former Cabinet affairs minister Deng Alor Kuol.

Part of this team is also out, with Mr Amum being investigated for insubordination and Mr Kuol awaiting action on a report of an anti-corruption enquiry into the transfer of nearly $8m to a private firm.

Mr Ayieny is back in the fold as the interior minister and Mr Ring as the justice advisor. Mr Ring is said to have had a hand in the July Cabinet reshuffle that saw all ministers sacked. A handful later returned to the fold.

READ: South Sudan Cabinet sack stirs alarm

The duo — Mr Ayieny and Mr Deng — referred to Kiir as a dictator in February 2008. When he was fired in 2007, Mr Ayieny warned of revenge.

“I warn all of you, the communists behind my unwarranted humiliation, that I will not take this insult lying down nor do I have the intention to be exonerated, absolved and rehabilitated posthumously,” reads a scathing 2008 letter to Mr Amum attributed to Mr Ayieny.

“Whoever is pushing people to the corner or to the wrong camp is doing it at his own peril and the peril of the SPLM.” Mr Ayieny believed that Mr Amum and the Garang Boys were pushing people into the internal opposition.

“Pagan now has his answer,” said poet and political commentator Kuir Garang. “With increasing influence on Kiir, the two men have now decided to isolate those they feel threaten Kiir’s leadership and those they feel can prevent them from helping Kiir consolidate power in South Sudan,” Mr Kuir said.

Kiir has also brought former members of Bashir’s ruling party close, including former Bashir deputy party leader Dr Riek Gai Kok, who is now health minister.

Kiir also named former Popular Congress Party 2010 presidential candidate Dr Abdhalla Nhial as the minister for electricity, dams, irrigation and water resources.

“It seems the SPLM has shifted decision making to its caucus in the parliament and away from the relevant structures,” said Luka Biong Deng, a senior member of Kiir’s party.

When Kiir legitimised his leadership in the 2010 General Election, he was in charge of picking governors for the 10 states on behalf of his party. Nine of them won the contest.

But during the change of guard, Kiir fired elected Lakes State Governor Chol Tong Mayay and Unity State’s Taban Deng Gai and replaced them with caretakers. Matur Chut took the helm at Lakes State and Joseph Monytuil Nguen, former senior member of Bashir’s party took the helm in Unity State.

Mr Mayay and Mr Gai were said to have paid the price for rooting for Dr Machar to replace President Kiir. Kiir also elevated Jonglei State Governor Kuol Manyang Juuk, who was instrumental in Kiir’s ascension to power at New Site following the death of Dr Garang. Mr Juuk was given the defence docket.

Party members are now calling for a national convention to ratify new party documents after Independence.

The last convention was in 2008, during which Dr Machar and Mr Nhial vied for the top job. Kiir eventually won the seat by consensus. This time round, the stakes are high and observers say the president is consolidating his power base ahead of the convention.

Dr Machar and Pagan Amum have been saying that the party has lost direction.

During the party’s national convention, Kiir is expected to make a case for more time in office while Dr Machar is also expected to make a bid to take over from Kiir. The election will determine whether Kiir’s change of guard has worked for him.

With the General Election scheduled for next year, Kiir’s ruling party is already divided, with rumours of his deputy Dr Machar’s intention to break away in an effort to oust his boss.

Kiir it seems, has the odds stacked against him. He is facing accusations of poor nationalism. The case in point is the 1991 split of opponents Dr Machar and opposition leader Dr Akol from the rebel mainstream during the war. Kiir is also handling rampant insecurity and an unstable economy.

“When you have an economy that depends on one commodity, it is already a problem,” said economist Lual Deng. A proper banking system should be in place, if the government is to improve the economy.”

“As things stand today, these banks are not contributing to our economy, if anything they are encouraging capital flight,” said Dr Deng. “Ours is an open economy. You just march in and march out.” There are also pending issues with Sudan, including Abyei and border demarcation, which can incite public anger against Kiir.

“The ride to the top for Dr Machar is a stiff climb. He faces considerable challenges like lack of trust by the majority of the members of the political party that he wants to lead,” said Steve Paterno, author of Rev. Fr. Saturnino Lohure, A Roman Catholic Priest Turned Rebel.

In 2008, the party election rules demanded that a contestant for chairman must have had 10 years in the party, and by that time, Dr Machar had done only six years since rejoining the rebel movement turned ruling party.

“Even more troubling, Dr Machar has no power base compared to the one he used to enjoy among his Nuer ethnic group,” Mr Paterno said.

Going strong

The chances of defeating Kiir, according to Mr Paterno, are also limited for Dr Akol.

“Dr Akol’s challenges are equally daunting. For example, he is considered by majority of South Sudanese as Khartoum’s puppet and hence untrustworthy. As a result, he lacks a constituency within South Sudan,” he said.

Food production in South Sudan has increased considerably in the past year but hunger remains widespread as population growth neutralises gains in output.

Latest data shows production in 2012 reached 710,000 cereal equivalent tonnes (the value of all types of food converted into grain values) from the 470,000 tonnes a year earlier.

This reduced the deficit from 610,000 tonnes in 2011 to 370,000 tonnes in 2012. In 2011, production was affected by unstable rainfall patterns especially in the north of the country where farmers were forced to plant more than once.