Home | Comment & Analysis    Wednesday 25 December 2013

Synthesis and analysis of the current crisis in South Sudan

By Athiaan Majak Malou

December 24, 2013 - The current political crisis which has also taken ethnic dimension has its roots in 1991 split within the then Rebel Organisation called Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM) now turned the ruling party. Since its inception in 1983, Dr John Garang, the founder of SPLM/A had been running the movement or liberation struggle affairs in an autocratic manner which invited criticisms from his colleagues in the then SPLM’s Politico- Military High Command. A group led by Dr Riek Machar, Dr Lam Akol and Gordon Kong staged a coup d’état against the leadership of Dr Garang. However, the other 8 members of High Command (including Salva Kiir) stood with Dr Garang. So it was 9 against 3 and as a result the coup failed and the Nasir faction of Dr Machar allied itself to Khartoum to fight against Torit faction of Dr Garang.

It was during this period the government in Khartoum was able to successfully drilled oil in Unity and Upper Nile states under protection of local militias. The proceeds from the sale of oil were used by Khartoum to acquire sophisticated military weapons including Russian made high altitude Antonov plane that became notorious in aerial bombardment of towns and villages in the rebels controlled areas of Sudan including Darfur; killing, maiming and displacing scores of civil population.

The two rival factions were able to join ranks again 8 years later. In this respect, a conflict may drag on for years unless serious efforts are immediately exerted to contain it at the early stage.

Political Superstition

A Nuer prophet by name Ngundeng who lived in the turn of the last century is believed by many Nuer people to have prophesied about the future of South Sudan. One of these prophesies was that Ngudeng mentioned that a left-handed person with gap in his upper teeth will lead south Sudan to independence. The two features: left-handedness and the gap in the middle of upper teeth are observable in Dr Riek Machar. In fact, it is widely believed that it was this superstitious prophesy that motivated Dr Riek Machar to claim the leadership of SPLM/A from Dr John Garang in 1991.

Up to now, in an apparent attempt to bolster his stature as a leader of Nuer or South Sudan for that matter, Riek Machar is keeping in his possession a ceremonial stick once carried by Ngundeng.

The famous stick is made from the root of tamarind tree and decorated with copper wires. It was looted by the British colonial troops early in the last century before being returned to South Sudan in 2009 by British academic Douglas Johnson. Somehow, Dr Machar managed to hold onto it though many suggest the right place for the stick should be national museum or the shrine of Ngundeng, if any.

Awalad Garang vs Awalad Kiir

Awalad is Arabic word which literally means boys of…In 2004, just few months before the signing of Comprehensive Peace Agree (CPA) that brought an end to Sudanese Civil War, there happened a disagreement between Dr John Garang and Salva Kiir who was Garang’s deputy in SPLM/A leadership hierarchy. This dispute also spread into the rank and file creating what became known as Awalad Garang and Awalad Kiir.

The dispute did not, however, last for long because it fitted Dinka against another Dinka. Elders and comrades, including Riek Machar, initiated dialogue and the dispute was resolved amicably. 2015 Elections and SPLM‘s Leadership Succession

As a political party SPLM holds its national convention every 5 years. The last convention was held in May 2008; so, the next convention should have taken place in May 2013. It couldn’t take place because of political wrangling within SPLM leadership.

Rumour had it that one of Awalad Garang (a Dinka from Kiir’s state of Warap) who was a government minister at the time went to Dr Riek Machar, who was Kiir’s Vice President and told him that President Kiir was not going to contest in 2015 elections. The news motivated Dr Machar to proclaim his intention to vie for SPLM chairmanship and by implication contest for the top job on SPLM ticket, come 2015 elections. Although the news of president kiir not vying for next election came in handy, going for the top job is something Dr Machar has been nursing.

In an interview he conducted with a Ugandan newspaper few years back, he categorically stated that he believes in terms limit. This was construed as a gesture to president Kiir who has already had two terms-6 years of interim period (2005-2010) and 5 years of transitional period (2011-2014). Up to now, president Kiir has been at helm of South Sudan top job for 10 years.

Dr Machar and many others believe that Kiir has done his job. He has implemented CPA and Referendum successfully. He should therefore gracefully leave the seat and give chance for others to deliver. In a nut shell, succession politics is the bone of contention, not ethnicity or tribalism. Tribal clashes are just side-effects of doing tactless politicking in unpretentious and highly militarised (armed) political communities.

July’s Ill-fated Government Reshuffle

Though reshuffle is a normal practice of changing guards within the system of governance, the one which took place within the government of South Sudan in July 2013 was plagued with a lot of rumours, conspiracies and uncertainties. First, it was associated with Khartoum’s rulers because many of the new faces that came to government were among those who worked with Khartoum government during the war. Officials within Khartoum government did not hide their happiness with the changes in Juba. The exit of people like Pa’gan Amum and Deng Alor from the government was music to ears of Khartoum’s officials. Khartoum believed that the two who had been involved in many negotiation sessions between Khartoum and Juba are hardliners and therefore obstacles to normalisation of relationships between the two countries.

This reshuffle was also seen as fitting Awalad Garang against Awalad Kiir as all those believed to be Awalad Garang lost their portfolios. Inspired by the role they played during the war of liberation, Awalad Garang didn’t receive the intention to isolate them lying done.

Instead, they resorted to holding press conferences pointing out what had gone wrong within SPLM and the government.

Though Dr Machar was not among those originally dubbed as Awalad Garang, he associated himself with them, since they were removed at the same time. Based on party hierarchy, Dr Machar became the leader of 15 or so disgruntled politicians whose arrest was ordered by the government after events of 15th December 2013.

Intentional Violation of the Constitution

It has been observed in the recent past that some of decisions made by president Kiir were clear violation of the constitution. One clear example was the dismissal of state governors who were elected by the people without replacement through the same democratic process. It happened in the three states of Lakes, Unity and Jonglie. Illegal removal of elected officials was, at one point, questioned by Dr Machar which put him at loggerhead with the president. Similar violations of established institutional regulation happened within the SPLM.

The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back

SPLM National Liberation Council (NLC) meeting held in Juba on Saturday, 14th December 2013 was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Rumour had it that President Kiir prepared his speech for NLC before he attended Mandela’s funeral in South Africa. When he came back, he shared the speech with one of his ministers who suggested that there some key points missing that needed to be added to the speech. The minister did his addition in the course of the night and the morning he president the updated speech to the president.

The speech later appeared to be in bad taste, because it didn’t show any reconciliatory tone between the two SPLM groups as expected.

Instead, the president lambasted Dr Machar, who was sitting next to him as a traitor, who had betrayed the cause of people South Sudan during the war of liberation, when he broke ranks with Dr Garang in 1991 and joined Khartoum. Many observers and analysts believe that the speech didn’t go down well with Dr Machar and his followers, especially the tribesmen from Nuer.

The NLC meeting was scheduled to continue for 3 days. However, Dr. Machar and some of his supporters didn’t attend Sunday’s session. The party documents for which the meeting was called were passed thoughtlessly, without regard to dissent or even genuine queries.

To the majority NLC participants who were driven by none other than mob thinking, it was democracy being exercised. But democracy is multi-facets, defining it from different angles. Though is theoretically defined as the ‘rule of the majority’, it should put into consideration the needs or concerns of minority, so that there is equilibrium. Any democratic process which misses this point, risks being defined as, “the tyranny of the majority”.


If it was coup d’état or a mutiny on the night of Sunday, 15th December 2013 as it is now being debated by the parties in the conflict, it was triggered off by the way National Liberation Council (NLC) meeting was organised and conducted, though political tension between the two belligerents had been simmering for long.

What I’ve narrated above are the root causes of the current crisis in South Sudan. Anything which is happening now in the form of tribal conflict, displacement, fail-state, etc., is the side effects of the real disease.

The author has formerly served in the government of Lakes state of South Sudan as the County Commissioner for Yirol East and state Minister for education. He can be reached at: athiaanm@yahoo.com