A Historicized Analysis of the Key Political Events in South Sudan Leading to December 15th
By PaanLuel Wël, Nairobi, Kenya
Part One of this article had maintained that President Kiir’s actions and/or inactions had more or less depressingly contributed to the Military Uprising of December 15th that has, politically and militarily, torn our beloved country apart. Part Two had argued that Dr. Riek had been tried—and failed—as a leader in the past, for he has spectacularly bungled every political party and military movement he has ever formed; consequently, he is not the right leader to fulfill the destiny of South Sudan. Part Three of this article is going to present a historicized analysis of the key political events leading to December 15th. Finally, Part Four will forecast the likelihood of the success of the Addis Ababa ongoing peace talks between the Government of South Sudan and the SPLM-in-Opposition, and the way forward—bullet or ballot.
What happened on December 15th, 2013 was, first and foremost, the collapse of the 2002 power sharing deal between Dr. Riek Machar’s SPDF and the SPLM/A (the historical SPLM/A’s leadership led by John Garang, Salva kiir and Wani Igga). The contributing factors were, however, a combination of the 1991 Nasir coup, the 2004 Rumbek Crisis, and President Kiir’s political and military blunders. Salva Kiir sporadically come across like a leader who has never felt secured, and duly respected, enough in his Presidency since 2005 when fate handed him a mantle of leadership of a party he had helped co-founded—and protected—but that he had never aspired to lead. President Kiir has been talking about coups ever since he ascended to power. In one of the Wikileak cable, he accused Oyai Deng Ajak of planning a military coup to install Madam Nyandeeng into power, an accusation that Oyai dismiss as nonsensical. “Why would I risk my life to put someone else into power?” he had asked the President in the face. Dr. Majak Agoot’s name has been cyclically connected to every rumor of coup in Juba since 2005.
Still, there is another layer encompassing personal rivalries and vendettas among the inner circle of the SPLM ruling party, much of which is either occasioned by politics of succession or just pure greediness and raw ambition in so far as having access to the Presidency translates to material and political gains, both in the short run and the long term basis. For illustration, is the President, along with the entire country, being held hostage to the whims and personal vendettas of Telar Ring Deng and Aleu Ayieny Aleu and are the two politicians—who were expelled in 2008, an expulsion that they blamed solely on Pagan Amum—taking revenge on those they perceived to have been behind their political woes in 2005 and 2013? How is the allegation of the coup attempt a function of the rejection of Telar Ring Deng by parliament—then dominated by the accused and jailed leaders? Telar Deng is currently the legal advisor to the President. Some say he is the President of the Republic of South Sudan by all deeds but name.
Finally, there is the question of Garang’s family—Madam Nyandeeng and Mabioor Garang de Mabioor—against President Salva Kiir. In spite of barrages of rancorous attacks and libelous accusations heaved on the President by Madam Nyandeeng and Mabioor Garang, the President has been so magnanimous and tolerant, he has so well-handled this last issue, that one only wonders where this wisdom has been all along when South Sudan was hurtling into the abyss. Whoever is advising the President on how to handle Garang’s family should be (in the belief that the President has sometimes been, and could still be, under the spell of malevolent advisors) constitutionally designated as the sole presidential advisor to President Kiir.
The Blissful Honeymoon Before the Acrimonious Divorce
When the SPLM/A’s commander, Southern Sudan’s Vice President, SPLM’s Vice Chairman and deputy C-in-C of the SPLA, Salva Kiir Mayaardit, officially took over from the late Dr. John Garang on 11 August 2005, he was, in contrast to his predecessor, “widely believed to be a team leader who would consult broadly before taking a decision. Quiet in mannerism, strikingly deferential, and glowing with dignified humility, he projects a winning personality and invokes more respect than fear.” In the idyllic honeymoon of Kiir’s leadership, much of that observation was demonstrated. He appointed Dr. Riek Machar as his Vice President, confirmed Pagan Amum as the SPLM’s Secretary General and brought Madam Nyandeeng from—as Nyandeeng’s critics habitually love to point out—the “kitchen” into the SPLM’s Politburo, the highest-ranking organ of the party. In fact, on the list of the SPLM-PB, Kiir listed Pagan at position two, over and above both Dr. Riek and Wani Igga—the two deputy chairmen of the SPLM. With oil money greasing the hands of everyone within the echelon of power, it was all heaven. They were all in Canaan—flowing with milk and honey. Of course, not everybody was celebrating the grand arrival in the Promised Land, for it was exactly at that point in time that Nhial Deng, Yasser Arman and Adam el-Hillu became disillusioned with Kiir’s leadership, took the leave of absence and went for further studies. It was also at that point in time that corruption took root, and baby impunity was born by the infant Republic.
In his 1972 letter to General Joseph Lagu, the 27-year-old Captain Garang had argued that any agreement between the North and South must, if it were to be viable, include a standing army for the South to guarantee the agreement. The CPA, which strikingly mirror Garang’s 1972 letter, just did that. With a fully armed and well-funded SPLA by his side, President Kiir was therefore able to stare Khartoum in the face and trumpeted: “give me independence or give me war; which one are you ready for?” History has recorded it that Khartoum was tired of war and was ready for South Sudan’s secession. Consequently, President Kiir was able to triumphantly oversee a historic, free and fair CPA-mandated Southern referendum and to usher in an independent state on 9 July 2011. With a new country to look forward to and the unpredictable North keeping them on their toes, the SPLM’s leadership closed their ranks and they became as united as never before. In those heydays—that sound today like a myth—it was common to hear President Kiir and Dr. Riek eagerly greeting each other in public gatherings as “my brother this” and “my brother that”. The comradeship was taken to a notch higher when, on the eve of South Sudan’s independence, President Kiir was whispered to have confided in the SPLM’s leadership that he would resign to his home village as soon as independence was declared.
But when his alleged political departure became the talk of town, particularly within the expatriate community, President Kiir reportedly reneged on his promise to step down, possibly rationalizing that it was neither Biblical nor Koranic and had to be abrogated at will. Because Dr. Riek had so much worked himself up about his impending presidency, he never forgave the President; and because Dr. Riek was so obsessed with his immediate abdication, the President was alarmed and began keeping Dr. Riek at arm length. On the eve of South Sudan’s independence, June 2011, the boiling political tension burst into the open when the nation was comically treated to two conflicting drafts of South Sudan’s Transitional Constitution. In the official draft backed by President Kiir, there were no presidential term limits whatsoever and the President was given the absolute “powers to sack an elected governor and/or dissolve state parliament when there is a crisis threatening national security and territorial integrity.” In the draft version written under the directives of, and championed by, Dr. Riek, there was “a maximum of two five-year presidential terms” limit and the President had no powers to sack elected governors and/or dissolve state parliaments under whatsoever circumstances.
President Kiir was not amused by Dr. Riek’s underhand political maneuverings. At the sixth South Sudanese Speakers Forum on 7 June 2011, President Kiir declared that “there is no country that can be run by more than one government.” The appearance and circulation of two draft versions of South Sudan’s Interim Constitution, he said, “shows that there is parallelism: You cannot identify, you cannot really say; is there one government or are there more than one government?” Dr. Riek and his diehard supporters—who by then did not include Pagan Amum, Madam Nyandeng or most of the disgruntled ex-cabinet members that were recently detained—did not back down in the face of President Kiir’s stern warnings. As the SPLM’s leadership went into the ruling party ad hoc meeting to vote on the Draft Interim Constitution before it was taken to the National Assembly, members deliberated with daggers drawn and voted with revolvers cocked. The SPLM ruling party, then overwhelmingly pro-Kiir, voted out Dr. Riek’s draft. It was also later “shot down both in the cabinet and in parliament.” Thus, South Sudan, till today, ended up with a Transitional Constitution without presidential term limits and that “gives the President the powers to sack an elected governor and/or dissolve state parliament when there is a crisis threatening national security and territorial integrity.” President Kiir was victorious but it came with a cost: the alienation of a restless Dr. Riek Machar who did not lie down licking his wounded ego in dignified defeat. He schemed, plotted and lobbied for the repeal of the purportedly odious clauses in the Transitional Constitution and for an immediate departure of President Kiir.
While most South Sudanese might had agonized over the exact definition of the national “crisis” that would warrant the dismissal of an elected state governor or assembly, for President Kiir, however, what qualified as “a crisis threatening national security and territorial integrity” was all within his own prerogative. It was neither up for debate nor for unsolicited interpretation. Bigheaded political camps and highly opinionated tribal caucuses crystallized in the aftermath of the controversial passing of the Interim Constitution. It was a powder keg awaiting the match. President Kiir provided it. Lakes State in Greater Bahr el Ghazal, like Jonglei state in Greater Upper Nile, has never known peace prior to and after South Sudan’s joyous independence. While the conflict in Jonglei is purely an inter-ethnic feud over cattle, borders and child abductions among the Nuer, Dinka and Murle, the one in Lakes State is peculiarly an inter-clan war, mostly confined to two main clans within the Agaar Dinka. On 21 January 2013, after one of the deadliest cattle raid and massive killing in Lakes state, President Kiir decided to exercise his “constitutional powers” by relieving the elected governor of the state—Chol Tong Mayai—and replaced him with an SPLA General, Maj-Gen. Matuur Chut Dhuol, as the acting Governor.
Whereas President Kiir’s supporters saw it as an overdue necessary action needed to save lives and to bring about long lasting peace to the conflict-stricken Lakes state, Dr. Riek’s supporters cried foul, accusing the President of targeting those perceived to be leaning towards Dr. Riek in their opposition to additional term for President Kiir. “Officials in Lakes state said Tong was seen to be closer to the vice-president, Riek Machar.” Whereas the South Sudanese Transitional Constitution allows the President to relieve elected governors on national security grounds, it also stipulates that a new election should be held within 60 days. That was the clause exploited by Dr. Riek to strike back at the President. In a letter dated March 13, 2013, Dr. Riek railed of a looming constitutional crisis in South Sudan, courtesy of President Kiir’s action, if new gubernatorial election was not held on time in Lakes state as per the transitional constitution. “I believe the main issue is the status of the care-taker Governor. I think your comradeship will either relieve him and re-appoint him or re-instate the elected governor Chol Tong Mayay to avoid the looming constitutional crisis,” Dr. Riek warned the President. President Kiir simply ignored him; he never responded nor acknowledged the letter.
It was at that point in time that Madam Angelina Jany Teny, the wife of Dr. Riek, was alleged to have founded a political organization called “Initiative for Change” in order to raise funds for Dr. Riek’s forthcoming political campaigns. In March 2013, Madam Angelina Teny and Ambassador Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth reportedly “went to Dubai to raise funds from ‘Arab friends’. They raised $5 million. Significantly, some of these generous ‘Arab friends’ are businessmen with close ties with the Bashir Government in Khartoum.” Meanwhile within the country, Dr. Riek embarked on a countrywide “National Reconciliation Process”, a process that had earlier made him to confess and to apologize to the Bor Dinka community for the 1991 Bor Massacre. By early April 2013, however, the President was alarmed at the rate, scope and tone of Dr. Riek-led National Reconciliation Process. To the President and his supporters, “the Machar camp was abusing the national reconciliation process as an instrument for removing Kiir in the SPLM convention by stocking internal rifts and tribal-based tensions.” What alarmed the President most was the allegation that Dr. Riek’s political camp was propagating the argument “that leadership should be transferred from the Dinka to the Nuer because, in the words of a Machar key supporter, ‘it’s our turn to eat’.”
The Smoldering Collapse of the 2002 Political Arrangement between Dr. Riek’s SPDF and the Historical SPLM/A’s Leadership
Convinced that his Vice President was politically scheming against him, President Kiir, on 15 April 2013, “withdrew all powers he had delegated to Dr. Machar, and restricted him to only those duties stipulated in the transitional Constitution.” That is, Dr. Riek was stripped of “extra powers including chairing Cabinet meetings and his role as government liaison with the United Nations.” The presidential decree also dissolved Dr. Riek-led National Reconciliation Committee. Barely a week later, 22 April 2013, the President decreed the formation of the “National Reconciliation Committee for Healing, Peace, and Reconciliation Conference.” As if to safeguard it against another ‘political hijacking’ by Dr. Riek, the President stressed that “The Committee shall be an independent body which shall not be subject to control and direction from anybody or any institution; the role of the government shall be facilitative and provide support, where necessary and when called upon.” Membership was only opened to religious leaders, a peculiarity that provoked Dr. Jok Madut to remark that the President put church leaders in charge “to focus on praying away the woes of South Sudan and nothing more.” The new reconstituted reconciliation committee was headed by Archbishop Dr. Daniel Deng Bul, the head of the Episcopal Church of the (South) Sudan, and was deputized by Bishop Emeritus Paride Taban of the Catholic Church. Among the prominent members were other clergymen like Bishop Rudolf Deng Majak of Wau, the President of the (South) Sudan Catholic Bishops’ Conference; Bishop Enock Tombe, the leader of the Episcopal Diocese of Rejaf; and Reverend Peter Lual Gai, the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan.
But President Kiir was not done yet. On 7 July 2013, he sacked the elected governor of Unity state, Taban Deng Gai, and replaced him with Dr. Joseph Nguen Minytuil as Unity state’s caretaker governor. Unity is Dr. Riek’s home state and Taban Deng Gai is Dr. Riek’s brother-in-law, a cousin to Madam Angelina Teny, both of whom hail from the Western Jikany Nuer community of Unity state. Taban Deng and Dr. Riek had had love-and-hate relationship. In 1998, in a gubernatorial election mandated by the 1997 Khartoum Peace Agreement, Dr. Riek had nominated Taban for the post of the state governor while his nemesis, Paulino Matip Nhial, had proposed Paul Lili, a fellow Bul Nuer. War broke out after Taban was declared the winner, a conflict in which the entire headquarters of Dr. Riek was razed to the ground and his army routed out of Bentiu area. Of the entire headquarters, only the white-cemented grave of his wife, Emma McCunne, remained standing. Yet, in the 2010 general election, Madam Angelina Teny, the wife of Dr. Riek and the cousin of Taban, controversially decided to run against Taban Deng for the gubernatorial post in Unity state. Though he pretended to have been neutral, Dr. Riek was widely seen to have had a hand in his wife decision to oppose Taban. Taban was then seen by Dr. Riek’s political camp as too close to the President. Taban Deng got a controversial win in which some people lost their lives. Thus, bad blood was seeded between Dr. Riek and Taban Deng, the erstwhile political allies.
That was what President Kiir exploited when he fired Taban Deng On 7 July 2013. Purportedly, President Kiir, much aware about the discordant relationship between Dr. Riek and Taban, had informed Dr. Riek in advance that he was considering firing Taban. Dr. Riek, under the illusion that his wife would be the automatic beneficiary of the deal, obliged. Having tricked Dr. Riek, the President went ahead and dismissed Taban Deng and—instead of Madam Angelina Teny as Dr. Riek had falsely assumed—replaced him with Dr. Monytuil. Why Dr. Nguen Monytuil? Dirty politics. It transpired that among the SSLM/A rebels fighting the government of President Kiir in Unity state was one renegade commander called Bapiny Monytuil—the younger brother of Dr. Nguen Monytuil. It also transpired that in May 2013, the rebel group under Bapiny Monytuil had signed a tentative peace agreement with Juba, tentative because the rebels were not ready to commit themselves to peace till Taban was removed. On 23 July 2011, a renegade militia Gatluak Gai, who was affiliated with the SSLM/A and was also fighting in Unity state, was killed by his deputy, Marko Chuol Ruei, a week after he agreed to a ceasefire with the government. The rebels under Bapiny Monytuil had maintained that Gatluak Gai was assassinated by Taban Deng, and were therefore arguing that the same thing would befall them should Taban remain as the governor of Unity state. After all, it was Taban that they were directly fighting against. Apparently, in light of that information, “President Kiir agreed to remove Taban and appoint Dr. Nguen Monytuel as Governor of Unity as a precondition because the SSLM/A argued that Taban Deng was a threat to peace.”
Of course, as pitiless politicians they essentially are, both President Kiir and Dr. Riek gave different impressions when Taban was relieved. While issuing the decree, President Kiir never bothered to “explain the reason for the removal of an elected governor.” On the other hand, Dr. Riek and his supporters—contrary to Dr. Riek’s knowledge of and sanction for the removal of Taban—were spreading the rumor that “the two have fallen out recently as Taban Deng, member of Politburo of the ruling party, SPLM, was opposed to additional term for President Kiir” and was therefore perceived “to be closer to the vice-president, Riek Machar.” In response, Dr. Riek “urged for the reversal of Mr. Taban’s sacking, or else Kiir’s own legitimacy was in the line.” Furious at the way the President had fooled him on Taban’s sacking and particularly at what he perceived as President Kiir’s growing dictatorial tendencies, Dr. Riek, on the very day he returned from Khartoum—having gone to represent the country—summoned the British’s Guardian Newspaper into his office in Juba and attacked the President. Without mincing his words, Dr. Riek “issued a veiled warning” to President Kiir “telling him to stand down and vowing to replace him before or after elections due by 2015.” Dr. Riek told the Guardian that “Kiir’s SPLM government had been unable to satisfy the people’s expectations” after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005, not least because “Kiir had failed to use his time as leader since 2005 to build strong institutions, tackle official corruption or create a co-operative relationship with Khartoum.” In a call laced with threats, Dr. Riek demanded a transformational change in leadership within the SPLM party: “To avoid authoritarianism and dictatorship, it is better to change. Our time is limited now. I have been serving under Salva Kiir. I do my best serving under him. I think it is time for a change now.” In what he might have regarded as a consolation to the President, Dr. Riek concluded that he would be more than “happy for Kiir to serve under him as president” of the Republic of South Sudan.
However, it wasn’t only Dr. Riek who was raising alarm over President Kiir’s alleged creeping totalitarianism—the consolidation of power and self-enrichment. Within the country, Pagan Amum, the former powerful SPLM’s secretary general, and Madam Nyandeeng, the outspoken widow of the late SPLM/A’s leader, Dr. John Garang, had been vocal against some of President Kiir’s actions and/or inactions. The media too accused the President of “creeping authoritarianism, strengthening his control over the security apparatus and threatening to curb non-government organisations and the media.” Foreign observers reasoned that “Kiir’s increasingly autocratic behaviour sowed division within his governing party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM),” which has been “struggling, like so many militant liberation movements before it, to transition to a political party.” One foreign diplomat in Juba, for example, had overtly warned that “There is a danger that this country that fought so hard for its liberty is going to end up resembling the country it fought against.” Dr. Peter Adwok Nyaba, the ex-minister for higher education had confessed that “Things were going wrong in the education system but I had a complete year of not being able to meet him.” This led Dr. Adwok to conclude: “I think being president of the country is too big for him, which is showing itself in him being unable to take charge of the current situation. He’s just a village chief.” Furthermore, Mabioor Garang de Mabioor, the eldest son of the SPLM/A late leader, Dr. John Garang, had indicted President Kiir of having “frustrated persistent prior efforts within the South Sudanese ruling clique to transform the SPLM from a liberation movement to a proper political party. He also accused the President of abetting spiraling grand graft in the corridors of power; of arbitrarily dismissing his entire cabinet and unconstitutionally replacing regional governors who did not agree with Salva Kiir.” Another alleged victim of President Kiir’s neglect was none other than the President of the United States. One aid agency official claimed that “Kiir treated Barack Obama like shit. The story goes they were supposed to meet at the UN in New York but Kiir kept him waiting for 20 or 30 minutes. People should have said this guy is not our friend.”
On 19 June 2013, President Kiir suspended Deng Alor, then Minister for Cabinet Affairs and Kosti Manibe, then Minister for Finance and Economic Planning, over an alleged corruption case involving $8 million that were illegally wired to Kenya. Incensed at Kiir’s failure to consult nor to inform the party, Pagan Amum confronted the President “saying it was politically motivated as Manibe was seen to have been opposed to Kiir’s bid for a third term.” Pagan Amum was said to have “warned that such action of relieving officials based on political motivation may generate tensions and even violence” in the country. The President responded by suspending him, placing him under house arrest and formal investigation. Pagan flatly refused to appear before the investigation committee. On one of his visit to his home state of Warrap after these political upheavals, President Kiir caused laughter among the audience when he said: “Pagan is in his house, reading the Bible and he thinks that he is not talking to anyone unless God says so.” But it wasn’t a joking matter! With Dr. Riek, Pagan and Nyandeeng baying for his seat, and being somewhat unsure of the support he could summon within the SPLM politburo, President Kiir panicked and called off the party National Convention. He called it off again and again and again, hoping to buy time and possibly salvaged his dwindling political fortune. Subsequently, on 24 July 2013, the President dissolved the entire Cabinet along with Dr. Riek—his vice president and political foe of 8 years.
Accordingly, the dissolution of the political arrangement that had brought the two factions together in January 2002 started with the dismissal of Dr. Riek Machar on 24 July 2013. Indeed, it was imprudent of Dr. Riek to have publicly criticized a government that he was part of, been part of, for over 8 years. And President Kiir, as Dr. Riek was the first to acknowledge publicly, was within his constitutional rights to dismiss Dr. Riek from the vice presidency. Had not President Kiir gone on to talk recklessly about the 1991 coup as if he had made a new discovery that he had to share with the nation, things would have stabilized with Dr. Riek out of the government (after which he was constitutionally free to criticize the government—and the President—in any form, way, and manner he could conjure up). But Dr. Riek’s attempt to do so—to criticize the government and to term up with other dissatisfied former members of President Kiir’s cabinet—was thwarted by the President. President Kiir, inadvertently, wanted to make it appeared as if it was a crime for Dr. Riek and his sulking colleagues to have criticized the government while they were a part of as well as when they were outside the government, which was absurd. It was only a political crime for Dr. Riek to have criticized a government that he was the deputy president of, but not when he was outside the government. For President Kiir, however, it appeared as if it was a crime for Dr. Riek to have criticized a government he was once a member of. That is, Kiir’s reasoning seemed to have run, no government official, current and former, should criticize the government that they have once been a part of. It was, and still is, logically absurd.
When the President failed to reappoint most of the dismissed cabinet members in his new restructured cabinet staffed with his loyalists, the ex-ministers simply “united with Dr. Machar in a desire to regain their ministerial portfolios.” Thus, the dismissal of the entire cabinet, because majority of them never made it back to the government, only increased the numbers of President Kiir’s enemies within the SPLM Politburo. With the numbers of President Kiir’s political opponents burgeoning within the SPLM politburo, it became crystal clear to the President that his chances of retaining the prized post of party chairmanship were slim. As a result, on 15 November 2013, President Kiir dissolved all the SPLM party structures with the exception of his post—the chairmanship. When grilled by the media, the President categorically denied that he had disbanded the structures of the SPLM party. Instead, he flagrantly claimed that the structures had basically expired because party election had been behind scheduled. Nonetheless, the termination of the SPLM party structures by President Kiir was premeditated to serve three main purposes: firstly, to get rid of the party organs, particularly the SPLM politburo, that have been taken over by his political antagonists; secondly to further frustrate his political opponents so as to force them out of the party, and thirdly, having rid the party of his political challengers, to restructure and reconstitute the party organs to ensure his success at the party chairmanship contest. But if the President—by sacking his political opponents and by dissolving the SPLM party structures—had hoped for an immediate mass defection of his political opponents from the SPLM and formed another political party, then he was gravely mistaken. To his complete surprise, his rivals, in a televised Press Conference held on 6 December 2013, made it crystal clear that they would rather fight their political wars from within, not outside, the party.
The main reason why President Kiir’s rivals did not opted to form a new political party was because “Whoever controls the SPLM brand controls the politics and the country as well as the resources.” Therefore, the contest over the party was chiefly “about who represents the Garang legacy and who represents the true spirit of the SPLM” between President Kiir and his political challengers. In that Press Conference of December 6th, President Kiir’s rivals led by Dr. Riek, Pagan Amum, and Madam Nyandeeng accused the president of creeping “dictatorial tendencies” because, they contended, there was a tremendous “shift in decision making process from SPLM national organs to regional and ethnic lobbies around the SPLM chairman when it came to appointments to positions in government; that membership of the SPLM and one’s participation in the revolutionary struggle became irrelevant.” Moreover, they claimed that “Kiir had directed state governors to name their preferred members for an impending national convention” in which the President was ‘talimatizing’ members of the SPLM-PB to vote by ‘show of hand’ instead of through ‘secret ballot’ as then championed by Kiir’s critics. The press statement released by the group proclaimed that all those imperious measures were being taken by the President with “The intention to sideline and prevent SPLM historical leaders and cadres categorized as ‘potential competitors’ from participation in the convention.” As a feasible way out of the impending political impasse, the group recommended that “a meeting of the party’s highest decision making organ—the political bureau—is convened to set the agenda for a national liberation council meeting.” Otherwise, they warned: “General Kiir is driving our beloved republic… into chaos and disorder.”
President Kiir remained indifferent to their frantic call for political dialogue. After all, if one were to have read his mind, they were nothing more than disgruntled elements, some of whom had been in the government for 8 years, yet had nothing to show for it. Were they to remain in the cabinet for life, he might have wondered in swelled exasperation. Meanwhile, President Kiir’s allies sardonically dismissed the group Conference as a futile work of disgruntled political opportunists. ”Growing disenchantment and international criticism created fertile ground for opportunists masquerading as democrats,” grumbled one of President Kiir’s allies. When President Kiir’s best bet of forcing his political rivals out of the ruling party faltered through, he turned to and called the SPLM National Liberation Council (NLC) meeting, an action that was said to have contravened the party constitution because the NLC could only sit after the SPLM-PB deliberation. The NLC, unlike the elitist SPLM-PB, had more members, most of whom had never been part of the government and were therefore trying to curry favor with the President in the hope of getting noticed for future appointments; or simply put, they had no deep-seated political grudges to settle with the President. Of course, when the NLC meeting convened—scheduled on the same day and hour that President Kiir’s rivals had allotted to their second ‘public rally’ at Dr. John Garang’s Mausoleum—President Kiir’s political rivals, by virtue of being senior members of the party, showed up for the meeting. In fact, it is alleged that, on the first day of the NLC meeting, Dr. Riek “stuffed up to 30 armed men into four cars and drove to the meeting venue at the Nyakuron Cultural Centre in Juba”, a serious security breach that did not go unnoticed by the President. Archbishop Paulino Lukudu Loro, while urging cool headedness, mutual understanding, unity and peace among the participants, opened the meeting. Hilde Johnson, on behalf of the international community, did the same.
When President Kiir stood up to speak, however, he began with an inflammatory speech that stillborn any pretense of comradeship among the participants. He railed against those who had carried out the 1991 Nasir coup, boasting that he had never been a betrayer, and threatening that he would never allow that to repeat itself under his watchful eyes. To his critics among the NLC members (most of whom were taken aback by the tone of the speech) and the general public that watched the speech live on SSTV, it was nothing less than a declaration of war. It was as if the President was telling his rivals: “do as I say, or else, try and you will see; I will not allow 1991 to happen again under my leadership”. Without mincing her words, Madam Nyandeeng stood up to speak and “criticized Kiir, the party and government system. Dr. Machar then spoke in a tone similar to Ms. Nyandeng’s and walked out, followed by Ms. Nyandeng and some of the now-detained 11 politicians.” But within the NLC, unlike in the SPLM-PB, President Kiir appeared to have done his homework well. His rivals were outnumbered and their proposals were all voted down till they—feeling humiliated and a little bit startled by the turn of events in Kiir’s favor—stormed out of the meeting on 14 December 2013, the second day of the meeting. Pagan Amum, then suspended SPLM secretary general who was supposed to have convened and chaired the party NLC meeting, was ostensibly barred by police from accessing the venue.
That was how the fate of the entire nation precariously hang in the balance—the bitter sacrifices and historic triumphs of all the martyrs, the wounded heroes/heroines and the war veterans, and the destiny of South Sudanese’ present and future generations—a day to that infamous Sunday, 15 December 2013, when an Attempted Coup (President Kiir and his cohorts) or the Mutiny (Kiir’s opponents and the International Community) erupted within the elite Presidential Guards of Tiger battalion, stationed at Gihada Military Barrack, next to Juba University, in Juba city, the seat of the Government of the Republic of South Sudan.
What Happened on Sunday, 15 December 2013?
On 15 December 2013—the last day of the NLC meeting, “Dr. Machar and his group were absent. At about 6pm, after Kiir closed the meeting, gunmen, driving past in a car, shot at the venue”, a serious military provocation that did not go unnoticed by the President and his security men. Probably because of that security incident, and more so due to political polarization of the country along ethnic line, fueled by the volatile mood generated by political wrangling within the SPLM ruling party, “The number of soldiers guarding an arms depot at Gieda military base near the town centre was increased from one to four. Later, at about 9 pm, a colonel in the Presidential Guards Unit shot dead his deputy; a Major also shot his deputy. A fight ensued over the control of the depot. The gunfire was echoed at the military headquarters in Bilpam to the north of the capital…The fighting continued throughout the night until the next morning and spread to army garrisons outside Juba.” On 16 December 2013, President Kiir, in a glowing military fatigue, went on SSTV to declare that he had successfully foiled an attempted coup against his government, a coup that was allegedly masterminded by his former deputy and political rival, Dr. Riek Machar Teny. On 18 December 2013, the renegade SPLA Commander of Division 8, Peter Gadet Yak, rebelled and took control of the strategic town of Bor, killing and displacing thousand of civilians in the process.
Then out of the blue, SPLA Head of Division 4 in Unity state, Commander James Koang Chuol (who, together with James Hoth Mai, John Kong Nyuon, James Kok Ruea, etc., was among the few Nuer top Commanders in the SPLM/A who never joined Dr. Riek after the 1991 Nasir Coup) deposed Kiir-decreed governor of Unity state on 21 December 2013, declared himself the new Governor of Unity state and pledged his loyalty to the nebulous rebel movement. The government was flatly caught off guard, with its troops largely demoralized and utterly disorganized—a fact that belie any claim to President Kiir having plan the violence. The Lou Nuer white army decimated the government army dispatched to Bor and it took weeks, and the ill-advised military involvement of Uganda’s UPDF troops, to retake the town (after it had exchanged hands severally). The international press converged on the country and “The conflict, which was sparked by fighting in the presidential guard, was quickly framed as an ethnic contest between the Dinka and the Nuer. That fit nicely and conveniently into the good-guy, bad-guy narrative preferred by international media serving global audiences with little time and short attention spans.”
While the government was trumpeting its asserted success at foiling an attempted coup, many observers, however, both within and outside the country, poured scorn on the purported coup attempt. To most South Sudanese and international watchers, the shooting started within and was, for the most part of December 15th, largely confined to the Presidential Guards at Gihada. Most symbols of power in Juba—the Presidential Palace, the National TV, the Airport, the Army General Headquarters, the Juba Bridge across the Nile, the National Security Headquarters, the Nyakuron Cultural Center where the NLC meeting was held, and all the major Road Intersections in Juba city—were not attacked and some that were, such as Bilpam and New Site, was only after the fighting had endured for hours at Gihada. There were no simultaneous attacks on all the major symbols of power in Juba, nor across the country. “If it was a coup attempt it was the worst organised, worse conceived and worst executed coup ever,” said a diplomatic source in Juba. “There’s a constant battle between chaos and conspiracy in South Sudan. Nine times out of 10, it’s chaos.”
Nevertheless, the government was convinced that it had aborted a military coup. Thus, between December 16 and 18, the government started rounding up the alleged coup plotters, all of whom turned out to be President Kiir’s political rivals within the SPLM ruling party. There were no military commanders among those detained in the wake of the ‘foiled attempted coup’. Among the political detainees alleged to have masterminded the coup attempt were Pagan Amum Okiech, former secretary-general of the ruling SPLM party; Oyai Deng Ajak, former minister for national security; Dr. Majak Agoot Atem, former deputy minister of defence; Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth, former South Sudanese ambassador to the United States; former cabinet affairs minister Deng Alor Kuol; former minister of telecommunications and postal services Madut Biar Yel; former youth minister Dr. Chirino Hiteng; former finance minister Kosti Manibe; former roads and transport minister Gier Chuang Aluong; former justice minister John Luk Jok; former education minister Dr. Adwok Nyaba, and former Lakes state governor Chol Tong Mayai. At large were, and still are, former vice president of South Sudan Dr. Riek Machar; former governor of Unity state Taban Deng Gai, and former environment minister Alfred Lado Gore. While the rest have been released and are currently in Addis Ababa attending the peace negotiations, Pagan Amum, Majak Agoot, Oyai Deng and Lol Gatkuoth are still languishing in jail, awaiting trial for treason. Even though the government has the gun to keep them in prison, it neither has credible evidence nor the consistency of argument. Taban Deng, the alleged ringleader of the coup, is the man leading the SPLM-in-O at the Addis Talks. So this government, negotiating with the ringleader, think it fit and logically consistent to negotiate with some part of these group that have allegedly committed treason against the state while detaining others in detention citing adherence to the constitution.
According to the government, the proofs of their complicity in the ‘foiled coup attempt’ are a putative blueprint of the military coup and a recovered flag designed to replace the current flag of the republic of South Sudan. While the alleged flag was shown on SSTV, it was never verified by a third party, and yet chances are that it could have been concocted by the government to frame and to eliminate President Kiir’s political rivals who had nothing to do with the army or the presidential guards that triggered the military uprising. Madam Nyandeeng has been disputing the claim of coup attempt on behalf of the political detainees. When asked about the fighting within the Presidential Guards, she retorted, “There was nothing called a military coup. There was no military coup. Since Dr. John Garang died, President Salva Kiir has been talking about coups, about coups, about coups. Nobody staged a coup because we are politicians. Those groups that were arrested are politicians, are civilians but while they were army people before, they are politicians and civilians. If you wanted to plan a coup, you don’t plan a coup and go back to your room and sleep. A coup is not a simple thing. It is a very dangerous thing. You cannot plan a coup and go to sleep. That is Number One. Number Two, you cannot plan a coup without any general that you are in communication with. If you are saying there was a coup, where are the generals that they were cooperating with who have been arrested? This is a question we have been asking and they don’t answer it.”
For the record, it still remain to be debunked who started—and how—the military uprising on the night of 15 December 2013. One version—popular with Dr. Riek’s supporters and political detainees such as Dr. Adwok Nyaba—has it that the conflict was deliberately sparked by the government in order to eliminate President Kiir’s party-political opponents from the political arena in the country. It is largely claimed that Maj. Gen. Marial Chanuong, the head of presidential guards, on the evening of December 15th, had disarmed all the units of the republican guards and then surreptitiously recalled back and rearmed all Dinka soldiers of the presidential guards. The motive, according to the popular narrative, was for the rearmed Dinka soldiers within the presidential guards, with the backing of Gelbeny, to storm the home of Dr. Riek and to arrest him. The reason why the entire unit of the presidential guards was disarmed first, it is argued, was because the Nuer soldiers within the presidential guard could not be trusted to arrest Dr. Riek and nor could they be trusted to remain neutral—with guns in their hands—if Dr. Riek was arrested by their own comrades and without their prior knowledge or participation. This version sometimes go further to claim that the premeditated arrest warrant was to include, not just Dr. Riek but, all those top politicians who were later detained in the wake of the December 15th military uprising.
The problem with this version of event, besides the fact that it is hard to verify, is that the government, had it decided to arrest Dr. Riek, didn’t need to disarm the Nuer soldiers within the republican guards nor to make use of the Dinka soldiers within the presidential guards. If indeed there was a private militia, Gelbeny, trained and stationed at Luri Farm on the outskirt of Juba city, that could have been used by the government to arrest anybody in Juba (that is, if the government needed an army entirely made up of Dinkas, for all the SPLA divisions were mixed). The claim that the Nuer soldiers were disarmed so that Dr. Riek could then be arrested is absurd. How about the ten of thousands of Nuer soldiers in the SPLA divisions across the country and even within Juba? Assuming that all that the government needed to arrest Dr. Riek and his colleagues was the disarmament of those few Nuer soldiers, how about the aftermath of the arrest, how do you prevent those disarmed soldiers from rearming after they have learnt of the arrest, which, surely, they would have done. Most importantly, the compound of Dr. Riek, which is adjacent to presidential palace in Hai Amarat, is far from Gihada, where the presidential guards are stationed and where allegedly Nuer soldiers were being disarmed to arrest Dr. Riek. The government could have arrested Dr. Riek without the knowledge of those at Gihada military barrack; they could have learned of it later together with the rest of the country. Therefore, the government, were it to arrest Dr. Riek, did not need to disarm the Nuer soldiers, nor to rearm the Dinka soldiers, because it could have carried out the arrest without the involvement, and the knowledge, of the presidential Guard division that was stationed at Gihada.
The second version—gospelly backed by the government—has it that the conflict was triggered by a thwarted coup attempt against the leadership of President Kiir. With a purported plan of the coup and an alleged rebel flag in their hands, the government claimed that the foiled coup attempt was masterminded by Dr. Riek Machar and was led by Taban Deng Gai (with the assistantship of Alfred Lado Gore). The political detainees, particularly Pagan Amum, Oyai Deng Ajak, Dr. Majak D’agoot, are claimed to have fully participated in the planning and execution of the military coup. Because, the government maintained, these people have participated in a coup that tried to remove a ‘constitutionally and democratically elected president’ of the republic of South Sudan, they must face trial for treason, which, according to the constitution, is punishable by death. The problem with this argument, of course, is that the government’s claim of an attempted coup is scorned by all except those in the cabinet of President Kiir and their cohorts. The government has no proof whatsoever, and its metanarrative only makes a fool of the government. Moreover, it is not lost on the patriotic South Sudanese that the President who made career out of flouting the constitution is now desperately hiding behind the very idea of ‘constitutionalism’ that he has worked tirelessly to destroy. The continual detention of SPLM/A heroes—Oyai Deng Ajak, Pagan Amum, Dr. Majak Agoot is nothing less than a national tragedy. If President Kiir is thinking of masquerading as the Museveni of South Sudan, then he is better advised to seek another country, not South Sudan. No leader would militarily control the cattle-herding Nilotic communities of Nuer and the Dinka and succeed enough to tell tales about it, period.
The military actions taken by Peter Gadet in Bor and James Koang in Bentiu are sometimes bandied about by the government as further manifestation of a coordinated coup attempt. Yet, Dr. Riek has no troops; there are only semi-independent Nuer soldiers and white army fighting to avenge the death of their relatives killed in Juba (just as Dinkas are outraged by the wanton killings of their innocent relatives in Bor, Panrieng, Akobo, Unity, Bailiet etc.). It must be stressed here that neither Peter Gadet nor James Koang pledged their loyalty to Dr. Riek personally. They declared that they rebelled because their people were killed in cold blood. No one is denying the killing, for if the brother of James Hoth Mai, South Sudan’s Chief of General Staffs, could be killed because he was a Nuer, who was safe? Probably, this may explain the tragedy of a war hero like James Koang Chuol to succumb to the axiom of “blood is thicker than water.” This is not a justification for the violent crimes committed by Peter Gadet, James Koang and the white army in Bor, Akobo, Panrieng, Malakal, Bailiet, but a reminder to South Sudanese leaders and citizens that actions have consequences, and people must therefore think twice about everything they utter or do. It must also be emphasized here that one must first talk about what happened in Juba before mentioning what happened in Bor, Akobo, Malakal, Bentiu, Bailiet, Panrieng etc.; there would have never been those tragedies without the December 15th incident. Just as the Nasir coup makers were held responsible for the aftermath of the 1991 Nasir coup, the politicians who triggered the December 15th military uprising must also bear the full blame. It is not about Kiir or Riek per se—the two can die tomorrow but the country would still be in mess given the current level of animosity and divergence within the country. Surely, it is incontestable that President Kiir and Dr. Riek are the most popular politicians in the country: but what does that says about the people themselves? Yet, the same people have the temerity to blame Kiir and Riek, but not themselves. Would it be too preposterous to presuppose that South Sudanese people are simply getting the government they deserve? A society wherein gun-wielding thieves and mass murderers are the most popular leaders has no moral authority to blame their leaders: it is the best it can, and has, produced.
The third narrative about the conflict, one that this author espouses, is that it was triggered by heightened paranoia, tribalized political agitation and poisonous rumors that accompanied the political wrangling within the SPLM party. That is, the political panicking by the President, exemplified by his flagrant decision to restrict the media freedom of his political opponents, and most tragically, his incendiary decision to recruit what, in all aspects of the word but name, appear to have been a private militia—15,000 Gelbeny forces—created the unnecessary suspicions, poisonous rumormongering and heightened paranoid that sparked the catastrophic December 15th violence. On the one hand, if the December 15th military uprising was an attempted coup, then indeed, it was “the worst organised, worse conceived and worst executed coup ever.” It was not a military coup because it does not bear the hallmarks of a coup, for even the one carried out by a Priest in DRC Congo was internationally recognized as a coup because that guy, with his ragtag army, attacked, though unsuccessfully, all the power structures of the government in Kinshasa. Secondly, the government has no showable substantiations to present to the public to back up their claim. On the other hand, it is highly unlikely that the government of President Kiir did calculatingly provoke the violence so as to rid the party of President Kiir’s political enemies. The utter disorganization, hopelessness and demoralization that the government troops were in did not point to a plan and organized attempt to use the military to solve political matters. One, however, could profess that the President did try, and still is striving, to capitalize on the military uprising.
In other words, it might not have been the case that President Kiir wanted to unleash a military confrontation against his political opponents. Apparently, it might have been more of an inept leadership—born out of sheer panicking—than that of a planned military purge of his political adversaries. Unquestionably, he subsequently tried to take advantage of it by claiming and presenting it as a foiled military coup and by going after his political opponents, all of whom must have had no prior knowledge of, let alone participating in, the alleged attempted coup. President Kiir, by all intents, wanted to kill two—if not all—birds with one stone. But if history will hold President Kiir responsible for unwittingly triggering the political, military and humanitarian crisis of December 15th, it won’t be kind enough on Dr. Riek. Like President Kiir, Dr. Riek—who may or may not have been privy to the military buildups leading up to the gunfight, and must have been running away from the killing field in Juba for his dear life—later tried to make political and military capital out of the crisis by presenting himself as the de facto leader of the inchoate rebellion.