Dr Lawrence Wongo: South Sudan’s Salva Kiir Sacks Cabinet and SPLM Secretary General

Just two years and only a few days from celebrating its second anniversary of independence, South Sudan’s President has sacked his entire cabinet, in a power struggle with other senior leaders in the ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). Issuing decrees on July 23, 2013, President Salva Kiir dismissed all ministers and deputy ministers, as well as the Vice-President, Dr. Riek Machar, and reportedly, 17 brigadier generals. He gave no reason for the firings, but analysts say Kiir and Machar have been embroiled in a power struggle for months. Among the other leaders dismissed was Pagan Amum, the SPLM Secretary-General and top negotiator in peace talks with Sudan. He is being investigated for mismanaging the party and is under investigation and house arrest. Political analysts argue that, Riak and Pagan have openly voiced their interest in vying for the presidency of South Sudan in the 2015 elections. In June Kiir sacked two other senior ministers embroiled in a multi-million dollar financial scandal, a decision reportedly criticized by Amum. Leaders have appealed for calm as security forces maintained tight security outside ministry buildings. Lingering squabbles with Sudan over oil have hampered stability, and corruption, leadership wrangles within the SPLM party, insecurity, human rights abuses and poor state of the economy have created discontent with Kiir’s leadership. Hence, Kiir is battling to maintain control of the SPLM, the ruling party. Machar, stripped of some of his powers in April, had hinted that, he may stand against Kiir for leadership of the SPLM before the next presidential election. Dissolving the cabinet in South Sudan hints at a wider attempt by the president to restructure, not only the government, but power and access to power in the country.

In recent weeks there have been strained relations within the governing SPLM and the relationship between the president and his deputy were at an all-time low. The timing of the cabinet restructuring is curious and raises suspicions that the president could be using his executive powers to stamp out dissent in the party and disagreement within his government. Whether the sacking of the entire cabinet will succeed in calming the disquiet within South Sudan’s political circles remains to be seen – there is a real fear that this might further divide the country along ethnic lines. Kiir is from the Dinka tribe, the largest in South Sudan, while Machar is from the second largest group, the Nuer, some of whom have complained about Dinka domination. Under-secretaries have been put in charge of the departments and the government insists it can function smoothly until new ministers are appointed. The fact that a new government is yet to be formed, except for the appointment of a Foreign Minister, is indicative of the difficulties the president has in forming one. It is always a tricky balancing act, given the many regional groups to politically appease. Some political analysts have questioned whether or not Kiir has the constitutional mandate to sack his running mate, Machar or the Secretary-General of the SPLM. South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in July 2011 after a decades-long civil war.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke on July 26, 2013 with President Kiir and expressed US concerns about the political situation in Juba, as well as the deeply disturbing violence and worsening humanitarian crisis in Jonglei State. He urged Kiir to form a new government quickly and transparently in a manner that respects South Sudan’s Transitional Constitution, and in a way that also reflects the diversity of its people. Kerry encouraged Kiir to act expeditiously to protect civilians, end human rights violations, and take urgent steps to cease ethnically motivated violence in Jonglei State. “Those responsible for human rights violations and attacks on civilians – including members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army – must be held accountable”, he added. The world is watching to see if South Sudan pursues the path of peace and prosperity, or the tragic path of violence and conflict that has characterized much of its past.