South Sudan crisis far beyond a power struggle

South Sudan crisis far beyond a power struggle

On December 15, around 10 PM, heavy gun fire clashes between the South Sudanese presidential guards were reported in the capital Juba. The national TV went off air, and the airport was closed. The following day, President Salva Kiir appeared in full military attire in a press conference and accused the former vice president Riek Machar of leading a failed coup.

The death of several hundreds in few days and the attacks on UN soldiers forced international and regional mediators to intervene in an attempt to prevent this political tension from escalating into a civil war. As negotiations are being arranged, several questions need answers: Are the factors behind this crisis purely political? How mature is the country’s leadership? And how fragile is this nascent nation? In fact, several questions will remain unanswered.

The 15th of December is nothing but a turning point in an ongoing power struggle. A week before the alleged coup, senior officials from the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (“SPLM”) party held a press conference, openly criticizing Salva Kiir’s leadership of the party and the whole country.

Machar was in the lead, and along with his colleagues he declared a rally to take place few days later. As party seniors invited Machar and his colleagues for an internal dialogue with Kiir during the National Liberation Council (“NLC”) event, the rally was postponed. Bishops and sheikhs gave the opening speech of the NLC reminding all the leaders in the room that discussion was the wise way to solve problems.

But apparently this did not calm the brewing anger. After the first day of the NLC meetings, and specifically on December 14, Machar declared he was pulling out of the meeting and invited his colleagues to do the same.

Last July, Machar was sacked from his position as a vice president, but remained serving as the vice chairman of the ruling SPLM. Commenting on his dismissal with a smile, he declared he will run against President Kiir for his positions as chairman of the SPLM and as president of the Republic.

Machar was not the only challenger to Kiir’s leadership. Pagan Amum, the former secretary-general of SPLM, who was sacked at the same time as Machar, also declared he would run for president in the 2015 elections. Amum was later subject to an internal SPLM investigation and was dismissed from the party – a decision which incited much criticism about Kiir.

Both men had a habit of openly criticizing Kiir’s decisions even when they still served in office. But after their dismissal, they waged a campaign against the SPLM’s leader, calling for internal reform and describing him as an undemocratic president.

In a mosaic society like South Sudan, politics is never the sole motive behind power struggles. Machar and Amum, from Nuer and Shilluk tribes respectively, did not only represent themselves in the government but also represented the people of their tribes. The two tribes have historically been the foes of the dominant Dinka, from which President Kiir originates.

With their dismissal, Kiir shook the fragile political structure of the government and shifted alliances towards other officials from minor or less prominent tribes. News about a coup by Machar was more than enough to spark massacres and counter-attacks between the Dinka and Nuer communities in the capital, which eventually snowballed in Jonglei and Unity states, where the two tribes are heavily present.

However, the country’s vulnerability is not only due to its tribal structure, but to its institutional fragility and in some cases failure. The Sudan People’s Liberation Army (“SPLA”), the country’s military body, was supposed to be the driving force behind the building of South Sudanese unity and nationalism. The SSDF forces, a mainly Nuer militia that was formed by Machar in 1991 amid his defection from the SPLM, were among the different rebel factions that integrated in the SPLA.

But the integration was full of obstacles, mainly related to the ranks and payment received by the former SSDF soldiers. In fact, the different rebel forces are very prone to defection. Apart from the economic difficulties and joblessness faced by many war veterans, those who are still in service are often unable to put aside their tribal affiliations or their loyalty to their previous generals.

On the one hand, several reports talked about soldiers loyal to Kiir deliberately targeting the Nuer community in Juba. On the other, Machar had, in few hours, forces under his command that clashed with the army and took over key towns in the oil rich Jonglei state. The actions of both parties made it crystal clear that this is no longer a political dispute.

South Sudan’s neighbours are very concerned about the country drowning in civil war. Any armed conflict will entail an influx of refugees to neighboring countries, especially Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda, burdening them with more problems.

The visit of the Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyata and the Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemarian Desalegne highlights how crucial the situation is, but also sheds light on how mediation efforts are not sufficiently effective. What started between Kiir and Machar as a power struggle is turning into a civil conflict, over which both men have no control.

The involvement of militias like the White Army, a Nuer youth militia estimated at 25,000 young men, is alarming for all parties. During the civil war, the White Army sided with Machar after his defection in 1991 and fought against the SPLA. But he has not always had control over them: in 2011 and 2012, Machar was unable to stop their deadly clashes with the Murle tribe through visits and conversations.

If violence erupts in South Sudan, its repercussions will cross regional borders. China, the biggest buyer of South Sudan’s oil, will definitely bear much loss. But those who will pay most are the people of South Sudan. In one week, about 1,000 were killed and numbers between 80 and 120 thousand were internally displaced. Their fate is not just dependent on international mediations and aid. Their fate is mainly in the hands of the country’s politicians and generals. They have yet to prove their capacity to manage crises and rule such a complicated country.

About Author

Ahmad Taleb

Ahmed is a Business Intelligence Analyst for a multinational financial advisory services company. He received his graduate education in Business & International Commerce in Egypt and France. He obtained a master’s degree in Comparative Politics from the Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po Aix) in France.