Home | Comment & Analysis    Monday 22 August 2005

The ascendancy of Mr Salva Kiir : Fate in Political Succession


By Wene Owino

Aug 22, 2005 (Nairobi) — The ascendancy of Mr Salva Kiir Mayardit to power in Sudan should be another grim reminder to ambitious politicians in Kenya and elsewhere about how the gods of fate distribute the spoils in succession and power politics.

If only politicians are a learning lot, they would know that the crown princes of modern politics rarely get to sit on the throne. They would know that the best way to ascend to power is to fight in the shadows, avoid controversy, become everybody’s friend and appear harmless, even daft.

The man or woman who gets the ultimate prize in succession and power politics is always the one who appears obscure and less known. He or she rises from obscurity to stardom within a very short time. Salva Kiir Mayardit, who was sworn in recently as the First Vice-President of Sudan, succeeding Dr John Garang de Mabior, who died in a helicopter crash on July 30 while returning from an official visit to Uganda.

Most of those who have followed Sudanese politics and the rebellion in the south of the country would agree that Commander Salva Kiir was an obscure figure before the accident occurred and he rose to power. The fact of the matter is that next to Dr Garang, the most prominent southern Sudan leaders were Dr Riek Machar and Dr Lam Akol Ajawin.

In the 1990s, the two almost enjoyed the same status as Colonel Garang, when they led a splinter group of the SPLA and threw their lot with the Khartoum Government. Other famous names in the SPLA/M politics included the lot that perished in a plane crash in the 90’s. Two of them, Arok Thon Arok and Kerubino Kaunyim Bol, deserve specific mention. Still no Salva Kiir Mayardit.

But when "Moses" was claimed by a Ugandan presidential plane crash recently, "Joshua" emerged not from among the high profile SPLA/M figures but from obscurity. This is a man that few people outside Sudan have heard of. Those who know him have perhaps not given him much thought. Trying to get his bio-data revealed that most websites posted it just after Dr Garang died.

Other websites on him like that of the BBC were so scanty as to give a real picture of the man. And all of them were short. But Kiir is not the first figure to emerge from the shadows and beat the front men to power. Joseph Stalin did it in the former Soviet Union at the expense of Leon Trotsky. Indian freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi, having led the struggle to free his country from British colonial rule, stepped aside for Jawaharlal Nehru to become the first Prime Minister in 1947. Nehru remained at the helm until he died in 1964.

Africa is replete with such Stalin-Trotsky examples. In Tanzania, Ali Hassan Mwinyi and Benjamin Mkapa emerged from nowhere to eclipse Dr Salim Ahmed Salim and the likes of Augustine Lyatonga Mrema.

When Samora Machel died in a 1986 plane crash on Mozambique’s border with the then apartheid South Africa, the man touted as his natural successor was Marcelino Dos Santos. But the gods of succession politics settled on Joachim Alberto Chissano.

And also in a strange twist of fate, the man considered the father of Mozambique’s liberation struggle, Dr Eduardo Mondlane, did not live long enough to see the fruits of his struggle. It was left to Dr Machel to lead his people on the last stretch in the fight for independence against Portuguese imperialism.

In Kenya, a less regarded Daniel arap Moi was propelled to State House after the founding President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta died peacefully in his sleep in Mombasa on August 22, 1978. Mr Moi, who had been Mzee Kenyatta’s long-serving Vice-President, ascended to the presidency at the expense of frontrunners like Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, who was independent Kenya’s first Vice-President. Others were former close Kenyatta aide and former Minister of State in the Office of the President Mbiyu Koinange, long-serving Finance minister Mwai Kibaki, Dr Njoroge Mungai and Elijah Wasike Mwangale, who made a name for himself at the no-nonsense chairman of the Parliamentary Select Committee that investigated the 1975 assassination of Nyandarua North MP J.M. Kariuki.

The first biggest threat to President Moi’s post single-party presidency was not the better known Mwai Kibaki or Oginga Odinga but former Cabinet minister and multi-party restoration crusader Kenneth Matiba. But then it is the less threatening Mr Kibaki, a man once derided as an incorrigible coward by his detractors, who is today in State House as Mr Matiba languishes in health and financial woes.

West Africa produced the towering nationalist Amilcar Cabral, who fought for the independence on Guinea Bissau, only to be assassinated in before he could ascend to power. It’s believed that Sekou Toure of Guinea, who was keen to bring Bissau under his wing, may have played a role in Cabral’s slaying in the 1973.

In Botswana, Festus Mogae - perceived also as a coward like Mr Kibaki - came from behind to overhaul front-runner, Ponatshego Kedkilwe to the presidency. Patrick Levy Mwanawasa was thought to be a vegetable when he was removed as Frederick Chiluba’s Vice-President in Zambia following an accident. But he is now the President and not such formidable characters like Vernon Mwaanga, Ben Mwila, Andrew Mazoka or Christon Tembo. In Namibia, the little known Hifikepunye Pohamba is now in State House and not famous figures like Hage Gheingob or Theo Ben Ghurirab.

Who knew that Olusegun Obassanjo would escape a death sentence to become the President of Nigeria again when Moshood Abiola and Sani Abacha were the two bulls tussling for power? Obassanjo had long been Nigerian President way back in 1979 and the thought that he would be back at Aso Rock again in 1999 seemed like a very bad dream.

Jerry John Rawlings had to be sprang from an Accra prison like Obassanjo to lead Ghana in 1979. When top figures in the British Labour Party like Michael Heseltine and Geoffrey Howe engineered the fall of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, they never succeeded her. Instead, the man subsequently dubbed the grey man of British politics, John Major beat them to the post. It is a cinch that the current men and women clamouring to succeed Kibaki are not likely to realise their ambitions. Politics being the art of the possible, the next Kenyan President might as well be a Mukhisa Kituyi, James Orengo, Anyang Nyong’o, Moody Awori, Musalia Mudavadi, Simeon Nyachae or even George Saitoti.

Wene Owino is a Kenyan journalist based in Botswana

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