By Brian Adeba
The replacement of South Sudan’s First Vice President Riek Machar with Taban Deng is a well-tested policy that dates back to the 1980s that the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) party has employed to purchase the loyalty of groups opposed to it. Following a shoot-out between the bodyguards of President Salva Kiir and Machar earlier this month, relations between both men worsened, culminating in an attack on the latter’s residence in the capital Juba. Machar fled the city and said he would only return if regional peacekeeping troops were allowed in the country to act as a buffer between the two forces.
The power vacuum created by Machar’s exit encouraged a few of his colleagues in the SPLM-IO to orchestrate the installment of Taban Deng as leader, ostensibly on a temporary basis until Machar returned. As the de facto leader of the SPLM-IO in the center of power in Juba, the choice of selecting Deng as first vice president was left to President Kiir.
The backdrop to Deng’s appointment is an acrimonious relationship between the government and the SPLM-IO over the slow implementation of the August 2015 peace deal, as each side sought to maximize outcomes in their favor.
It is possible that some quarters within government viewed Machar as an obstacle and welcomed the move by the SPLM-IO leadership in Juba to nominate Deng as his replacement. Nevertheless, Kiir’s endorsement of Deng as first vice president, amounts to purchasing the loyalty of the SPLM-IO.
Buying the loyalty of rival groups is an activity that various powers in South Sudan, be they colonial or otherwise, have had to exercise over the course of history in order to win over groups that threatened their monopoly on power. The SPLM, therefore, is following a well-trodden path of neutralizing rivals by purchasing their loyalty.
At its inception in 1983, the SPLM’s “New Sudan” ideology, which sought to establish a secular and united Sudan, ran contrary to the secessionist stance adopted by the rival Anyanya Two rebellion which preceded the SPLM revolt. A series of armed confrontations ensued between both groups as each tried to assert its authority in South Sudan. But it was not through military prowess that the SPLM managed to entirely subdue the Anyanya Two. Rather, it was through a buy-out process in which the Anyanya Two top brass and foot soldiers were absorbed into the SPLA. In exchange for loyalty, the Anyanya Two received military positions and authority in their benefactor’s organizational structure.
In 1991, the SPLM splintered into two main factions initially, led by John Garang and Machar respectively. Sensing an opportunity to weaken the rebellion in the south, Khartoum wasted little time in offering support to the Machar faction. Through this process, Khartoum not only retained dominance over the Machar faction but also maintained control over crucial oil fields in the territory he controlled. Subsequently, Machar’s faction suffered serious fractures, leading to the birth of several groups that also challenged his authority in his own home turf. Khartoum, wary of a dominant Machar faction in the oil fields, bought the loyalty of these groups by distributing material support, dispensing political power and other logistical support. Not only were these factions used to undermine Machar but there were also used as a cheap counter-insurgency insurance policy against the Garang faction.
In the aftermath of the peace deal that ended the larger North-South war in 2005, an autonomous transitional government in Juba led by Salva Kiir and Bashir’s National Congress Party all sought to bag the loyalty of the armed groups, which were predominantly Nuer in ethnicity. For Kiir, the stakes were even much higher as these factions not only threatened access to the oilfields but also threatened to derail the Southern Sudan referendum.
A contest to buy the loyalty of these groups ensued between Juba and Khartoum. In this duel, Kiir outbid Bashir and bought the loyalty of these factions through his “big tent” policy announced in early 2006. Buy-outs were assessed on the threat potential of the armed rivals. In other words, it was centered on their ability to marshal resources and their capacity to rally constituencies behind them. This process was kick-started through a shrewd “general amnesty” followed by the integration of these factions into the SPLA. In this way, Kiir managed to neutralize a potential foe and succeeded in realizing a peaceful referendum in 2010.
The inadvertent consequence of this buy-out policy, however, was that it incentivized other factions to rebel in order to negotiate themselves into the power structure at a much higher level than previously. In this sense, while buy-outs can neutralize rivals, they create a false sense of security. Subsequently, for the better part of the time it has spent in power, the SPLM has been in perpetual “negotiation mode” with armed rival groups in order to buy their loyalty. The appointment of Deng as first vice president should be viewed in this light and is the first step in closing the buy-out deal. However, the usefulness of this buy-out process, like others before it, will be solely premised on what Deng can bring to the table in terms of rallying the SPLM-IO constituency behind him and retain their loyalty. If President Kiir’s action to remove Machar and replace him with Deng proves to be an elite pact without grassroots support in the SPLM-IO constituency, it could undermine the peace agreement. It is imperative that South Sudan’s leaders stick to implementing the peace agreement and ensure that their inner-circle power plays do not foster more violence and destabilization.
Brian Adeba is Associate Director of Policy at the Enough Project, focusing on the Sudans and the Horn of Africa. He can be reached on Twitter @kalamashaka