By Brian Adeba
December 31, 2013 - In denouncing the “coup” in December, President Salva Kiir said he would not allow the incidents of 1991 to be repeated. He called former vice president Riek Machar a “prophet of doom” and accused him and his “disgruntled group” of being bent on pursuing the actions of the past, meaning the Machar-led August 1991 split in the SPLM/A.
Aside from labeling Machar and his group as unhappy rent-seekers (most of them were fired from cabinet in July), Kiir’s statement is significant for drawing parallels to the August 1991 split.
However, there are some slight differences worth noting when the two incidents are compared. In 1991, the Nassir putschists openly declared they wanted to see John Garang removed from the leadership of the SPLA/M. “Why Garang Must Go Now,” was a famous leaflet issued by Machar and his comrades in the splinter faction of the SPLM. The subsequent use of force to reinforce their quest to remove Garang, gave credence to their coup attempt.
Fast forward to December 2013. Currently, there is much debate on whether the December 15 incident in the barracks near the University of Juba constitutes a coup.
While the government calls it a coup, Machar and his comrades deny the allegation. And as Philip Knightley reminds us in the classic The First Casualty: From the Crimea to Vietnam: The Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth Maker, truth is always the first casualty of war.
However, the debate on whether it was a coup or not, (including the ethnic-laced violence in its wake), obscures focus on the fundamental fault lines and simmering tensions in the SPLM.
But in essence, Kiir is largely correct in comparing the incidents of 1991 and December 15, 2013. However, to get a contextual understanding of Kiir’s likening of the current crisis to the 1991 incident, it is crucial to revisit the fault lines articulated by the Nassir putschists back then and examine if there are parallels in the present. The literature penned by South Sudanese politicians, some of whom were key players in both sides of the strife in 1991, offers ample room for introspection and understanding of the grievances outlined.
As Lam Akol tells us in SPLM/SPLA: The Nassir Declaration, the main contentious issues were Garang’s one-man rule of the SPLM and the constricting democratic space in the movement, including intolerance for free speech. Akol argues that on paper, the SPLA embraced collective decision-making through its High Command. In reality, he asserts, the “movement was being run by one man making nonsense of the Political-Military High Command which never ever held a single meeting since it was formed.” Vice President James Wani Igga, in his book, Southern Sudan: Battles Fought and the Secrecy of Diplomacy, has tried to counter this argument by saying the High Command couldn’t meet because of logistical issues tied to travel. Due to this, Igga asserts that assembling members of the High Command stationed at various locations under SPLA control was practically difficult. As an example, he cites the case of Daniel Awet, who was based in Bahr El Ghazel. Igga argues that it would practically take two to three months for someone in that location, including Equatoria, to travel to the Ethiopian border for a meeting of the High Command. The veracity of this assertion is of course debatable.
Revisiting events prior to December 15, 2013, it would be fair to note that there seems to be a replay of some of the grievances articulated in August 1991, not withstanding the personal political ambitions of the perpetrators of the violence, on both sides of the SPLM political divide. Observers have noted that since March 2013, the top organ of the SPLM, the Politburo, has not met, despite repeated calls for the chair to convene a meeting to address some fundamental issues on leadership and the general direction of the party. The fate of the SPLM convention is up in the air as it has been called off on a number of occasions. Within the party itself, a section feels that its right to free expression is being curtailed. Most disturbing is the assertion that there is a slide toward authoritarianism manifested in disregard for the rules and regulations of the party, including the country’s interim constitution.
Elsewhere, Reporters Without Borders has noted that there is increasing intolerance for free speech in South Sudan. Human rights organizations have fingered the government for abuses in conflict zones in the country.
Going forward, (and given that there are parallels between August 1991 and December 2013) the impetus is upon the leaders of South Sudan to draw lessons from their own recent history in order to rectify the current political impasse in the country. In doing so, the resort to violence to attain political ends must be condemned and abandoned in favor of peaceful democratic procedures.
Brian Adeba is an Associate of the Security Governance Group in Canada and producer of the documentary Waiting for Statehood.