Africa

South Sudan’s president pushes the reset button

By Simon Allison 25 July 2013

With his country stagnating and his vice-president jostling for his position, South Sudan’s president Salva Kiir didn’t mess around, sacking the entire cabinet in a shock move that left no one in doubt about who was really in charge. He may have been motivated by self-preservation, but his drastic move also gives South Sudan the chance to appoint a government better equipped to start acting like one. By SIMON ALLISON.

There’s nothing wrong with a good old cabinet reshuffle every now again. A new broom sweeps clean, and a few new ministers keep all the rest on their toes. It’s good politics. Sack too many ministers, however, and it becomes more than just a reshuffle – it’s a change of government. And that’s an altogether more dangerous move.

Not that South Sudanese President Salva Kiir seems overly concerned about this. On Tuesday evening, a special presidential decree was read out on national TV. In it, Kiir relieved all 29 cabinet ministers of their positions; he sacked his vice-president, Riek Machar; and he suspended Pagan Amum, his chief negotiator in the peace talks with Sudan proper.

Taking a leaf out of Jacob Zuma’s book, he didn’t even bother to explain himself. “The president of the republic uses his prerogative when appointing members to the national executive. He does not need to provide reasons,” said South Africa’s Presidency in statement earlier this month, following a cabinet reshuffle of its own.

Speaking to Voice of America, South Sudan’s now former information minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin echoed this sentiment: “[President Kiir] has acted within the constitution of the Republic of South Sudan. Those are his constitutional powers and that’s why he has appointed the secretary general of the government and the undersecretary to take care of administering the government until that time when he will be able to form his new government.”

Benjamin, at least, remains loyal to Kiir. But questions of loyalty are at the heart of the sudden dissolution of government – and the real problem is not the cabinet, but the vice president. Riek Machar is an interesting man. Along with Kiir and John Garang, he was one of the pivotal figures in the fight against the Sudanese regime in Khartoum – a long and often brutal civil war which resulted in the independence of South Sudan.

Given his leadership background, and the historic tense relationship between him and Kiir, Machar was never going to be happy being the president’s understudy for long. And, sure enough, in the last month or so he’s been making his move, positioning himself as the main challenger to Kiir’s re-appointment as head of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) ahead of general elections in 2015 – elections which the SPLM, as the liberation party, are almost guaranteed to win.

This positioning has mainly taken the form of sharp criticism of Kiir’s rule. “Since Machar declared his interest for the presidency come general election slated for 2015, he has upped on his criticism of Kiir’s reign. He has cited corruption, tribalism, and poor international relations as failures of President Kiir’s leadership and has challenged the President to step down for him,” explained Mapuor Malual Manguen, a freelance journalist based in Juba.

A recent interview with the Guardian, in which Machar expressed his intention to oust Kiir, was typical – although Machar did have the grace to acknowledge that South Sudan’s problems aren’t only in the leadership department. “After independence, the expectations of the people shot up very high. They want us to turn this country into another Dubai or Korea or Malaysia, countries that have moved fast in their economic and social development…That is good, but we have to weigh and measure those expectations against the reality on the ground…We haven’t met the expectations of the people in the last two years.”

In the context of this open rebellion from his deputy, Kiir’s decision to press the reset button on his government does at least make political sense. Not only did he need to get rid of Machar, but he needs to replace Machar’s friends in government – and that requires wholesale changes.

More puzzling is his suspension of Pagan Amum, the chief negotiator in seemingly never-ending talks with Sudan. Amum is also secretary-general of the SPLM, and according the presidential decree he’s being investigated for “mismanagement of the party”. No further details were forthcoming, although it’s worth noting that he too has been muttering about running for the top job. It will be interesting to see what impact his removal has on the talks with Sudan proper. Amum has been involved for years, and has a strong relationship with the Sudanese negotiating team, as well as the kind of institutional knowledge that only comes from being immersed in the minutiae of the various treaties and agreements for so long.

Whatever his reasons, Kiir needs to move quickly to fill the gaps cause by his drastic decision. No one expected Africa’s newest country to develop without significant teething problems, but those teething problems just aren’t going away – and are being exacerbated by the ongoing dispute over oil with Sudan, which has resulted once again in the gradual shutting off of South Sudanese oil production (gradually is the only way to shut off oil production – it’s not like a tap which can be turned on and off). This time round, the production shut down was demanded by Khartoum, in retaliation for the support they claim South Sudan is giving to rebels operating in Sudan proper (Juba denies these allegations).

South Sudan, meanwhile, is stagnating.

Ayom Wol Dhal, an independent media and civil society consultant and former presidency staffer, based in Juba, told the Daily Maverick:

“The core reason for President Kiir’s decision to undertake such an extreme reshuffle is not hard to fathom. There have been constant and consistent complaints, within South Sudan, about across-the-board failures of service delivery – despite an ever-increasing number of ministries and senior government officials. South Sudanese people are concerned about education, health, jobs – the same as people everywhere – and these long-awaited peace dividends have yet to be felt by the majority of the population. The President last year promised a radically slimmed-down executive, and he has certainly delivered on that promise, reducing the number of ministries from 29 to 19. I’m calling it the President Kiir Instant Slim-Fast Diet and I sincerely hope that it results in a fitter administration and better governmental performance. In these days of uncertain oil revenues, the reduction in ministries should also lead to welcome cost savings. Fewer ministries will certainly be popular with the South Sudanese electorate, though of course we will all have to get our heads around the likelihood that somebody we know or personally support will probably lose out in the process.”

In June, four of the country’s most prominent western supporters – Ted Dagne, John Prendergast, Eric Reeves and Roger Winter – issued an unprecedented appeal to President Kiir to reform his government, or risk repeating the mistakes made by Khartoum (read about the contribution of ‘The wonks who sold Washington on South Sudan’ here).

“We have all come to conclude that without significant changes and reform, your country may slide toward instability, conflict and a protracted governance crisis,” they wrote in an open letter, highlighting abuses against civilians by security forces, an utterly corrupt judiciary, and a near-complete failure by the government to meet basic needs such as health and education.

It is a damning indictment of Kiir’s government – or, at least, what was Kiir’s government. He’s given himself a chance to start again. Let’s hope he makes the most of it. DM

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Photo: South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir addresses a crowd of pro-government supporters outside parliament in Juba January 23, 2012. REUTERS/Hereward Holland

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