The “SPLM/SPLA Factor” in the December 2013 Crisis and Civil War in South Sudan (Part 4)

Posted: August 18, 2018 by PaanLuel Wël Media Ltd. in December 2013 Crisis, Editorials, History, HLRF, Opinion Articles, Opinion Writers, PaanLuel Wël

The “SPLM/SPLA Factor” in the fundamental root causes of the December 2013 Crisis and the present civil war in the Republic of South Sudan (Part 4)

By PaanLuel Wël, Juba, South Sudan

The Flag of the Republic of South Sudan

The Flag of the Republic of South Sudan

  1. Introduction

Saturday, August 18, 2018 (PW) — “Politics,” declares Carl von Clausewitz, the former Prussian general and military theorist, “is the continuation of war by other means.” The great Athenian historian and general, Thucydides, the author of The History of the Peloponnesian War, added that, in warfare, as in politics, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” And like any other forms and means of warfare, politics invariably produces both losers who “suffer what they must” and winners who “do what they can”. The acrimonious political fallout within the ruling SPLM party, which preceded and triggered the December 2013 crisis and the present destructive civil war in South Sudan, is a classic case study of Carl von Clausewitz’s aphorism that politics is war by other means, with sullen losers and haughty winners.

Underpinning the power struggle that precipitated the ongoing civil war is the prevailing contention from the opposition groups, as advanced and defended by Comrade Mabioor Garang de Mabioor, that the December 2013 crisis was generated by President Kiir’s fateful decision to eschew democratic institutions and processes by resorting to draconian and undemocratic means to preserve and exercise power in the country. To the government, the seditious machinations by the power hungry Riek Machar to take power by force define and constitute the fundamental root cause of the December 2013 crisis and the raging distractive civil war. In contrast, the veteran South Sudanese journalist, author and politician, Hon. Arop Madut Arop, maintains that the fundamental root cause of the December 2103 crisis was the institutional failure by the SPLM party to attain democratic transformation, as exemplified by the ambiguity of the presidential term limits which triggered political wrangling within the ruling party.

Therefore, this article will constructively respond to, and critically analyze, both Hon. Arop Madut Arop’s article, “How Political Wrangling in the Ruling SPLM Party Wrecked South Sudan Apart in 2013” and Comrade Mabioor Garang de Mabioor’s article, “The Root Cause of the December 2013 Crisis in South Sudan: The SPLM/SPLA Factor.” The evaluation and critiquing will be done on the basis of what is legal and democratic as the opposition leaders are fond of presenting their political actions preceding the December 2013 crisis, and what is a threat to national security as the government often portrays the political maneuvers of the opposition leaders on the eve of December 2013 crisis and the current conflict.

For instance, appealing for political, moral and monetary support from the masses of South Sudan as a means to acquire, exercise and perpetuate power would generally be considered legal and democratic, while political actions and maneuvers that appeal and resort to military and armed tribal militias as a means to acquire, preserve and exercise power in the country would generally be perceived as unconstitutional and undemocratic – a serious threat to national security and territorial integrity of the Republic of South Sudan.

This is essential because any successful revitalization and reconstitution of the 2016 Transitional Government of National Unity (TGONU) in Juba, South Sudan, would demand an environment where democratic means and processes are not deemed as threat to anyone or used as a pretext to arm and rebel; rather, such democratic means, actions and processes to acquiring and exercising power should be celebrated and promoted as legitimate outlets to searing political ambitions, thus, blunting the allure of resorting to tribalism and armed militias as the means and ladders to power and state resources.

  1. The Genesis and Evolution of the December 2013 Crisis

Politics, as other means and a continuation of warfare in different forms, entails and thrives in political opportunism. Therefore, the incumbent will eagerly capitalize on the privileges that comes with the trappings of power, while the aspirant will actively and readily seek out and utilize any available means and opportunities to acquire and exercise power in the country. This is the unenviable political setting President Kiir and Dr. Riek Machar found themselves in as they voraciously jostled for power within the SPLM Politburo in the months leading up to the May 2013 SPLM National Convention.

The party convention, conducted every five years, was convened purposely to review and approve the party constitution, basic documents, code of conduct, term limits for all party officials including that of the chairman and his two deputies, and above all, to determine, through a free and fair internal party election, the chairman of the ruling party who was going to be the party flag-bearer in the 2015 general elections.

However, the party national convention never materialized. Instead, what transpired were series of perilous events, emanating from both President Kiir’s and Dr. Riek Machar’s camps, that precipitated and triggered the December 2013 crisis and the resultant civil war. Dr. Riek Machar, as the aspiring leader, instituted and unveiled a plethora of political actions and activities across the country to market and endear himself to the leaders and civil population of the country. From J-1, President Kiir saw nothing but subversive maneuvers in the public pronouncements, and political activities, of his deputy. Therefore, as the incumbent leader, he resorted to utilizing the privileges and powers of the presidency to protect, preserve and perpetuate his reign.

Two unfortunate incidents might have initiated this calamitous scenario. First, on the eve of independence, President Kiir was whispered to have confided in the SPLM’s leadership that he would gracefully retire from active politics as soon as secession was secured and independence declared. However, when this rumor later turned out to be false, Dr. Riek Machar, who had so much worked himself up about his impending presidency, became bitter with and never forgave the president. And because Dr. Riek Machar had become obsessed with the immediate departure of President Kiir from power, the president was reportedly alarmed and became leery about the political activities of his fretful deputy.

Secondly, in June 2011, a month to the secession and independence of South Sudan, the nation was comically treated to two conflicting drafts of South Sudan’s Transitional Constitution. In the official draft backed by the president, there were no presidential term limits and the president was given absolute “powers to sack an elected governor and/or dissolve state parliament when there is a crisis threatening national security and territorial integrity.” In another version drafted under the directives of, and championed by, Dr. Riek Machar, there was “a maximum of two five-year presidential terms limit” and the president had no powers whatsoever to sack elected governors and/or dissolve state parliaments under any circumstance.

At the sixth South Sudanese Speakers Forum in June 2011, President Kiir, who was not amused by the political maneuverings of his restless deputy, publicly declared, “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?”

As the leadership of the SPLM converged in ad hoc meeting to vote and approve the Draft Interim Constitution before it was taken to the national legislative assembly for final approval, members deliberated with daggers drawn and voted with revolvers cocked. Ultimately, Dr. Riek Machar’s draft was voted out and later shut down both in the cabinet and national legislative assembly. This was how the Republic of South Sudan ended up with a Transitional Constitution without presidential term limits, and one that conferred upon 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.”

Though President Kiir was momentarily victorious, it came at a stiff cost: the alienation of a fidgety 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 ostensibly odious clauses in the Transitional Constitution and for an immediate departure of President Kiir from power. In the immediate aftermath of the controversial passing of the Interim Constitution, bigheaded political camps and highly opinionated tribal caucuses crystallized. It was a powder keg awaiting the match. And the president and his deputy launched a spirited competition to ignite the powder keg.

Around this point in time, Madam Angelina Jany Teny, the wife of Dr. Riek Machar, was alleged to have founded a political organization called “Initiative for Change” in order to raise funds for Dr. Riek Machar’s political campaigns. 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, Dr. Riek Machar embarked on a countrywide “National Reconciliation Process”, one that had earlier obliged him to confess and apologize to the Greater Bor Dinka community for the 1991 Bor Massacre, purportedly to heal old wound and resolve deep grudges from the bitter and contested history of the war of liberation.

President Kiir was greatly alarmed at the rate, scope and tone of Dr. Riek March-led National Reconciliation Process. To the wary president and his reticent 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.” In particularly, what startled the president was the allegation that Dr. Riek Machar’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’.”

Convinced that his deputy was actively and deliberately scheming and plotting against his leadership, essentially running a parallel government within his own government, the president undertook three ill-fated actions, all of which further compounded the precarious political situation in the country. First, in April 2013, the president stripped Dr. Riek Machar of “extra powers including chairing Cabinet meetings and his role as government liaison with the United Nations” by withdrawing “all powers he had delegated to Dr. Machar, and restricted him to only those duties stipulated in the transitional Constitution.” Secondly, he dissolved both the national reconciliation process and the national youth conference, both of which were championed by Dr. Riek Machar.

Thirdly, he began firing state governors who were perceived to be leaning politically towards Dr. Riek Machar. Thus, the democratically elected governors of both Lakes and Unity states — Engineer Chol Tong Mayai and Gen. Taban Deng Ghai— were replaced with supporters of the president. While issuing the presidential decree, President Kiir never bothered to “explain the reason for the removal of an elected governor.” On the other hand, Dr. Riek Machar and his supporters 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.”

On the other hand, “Officials in Lakes state said [Governor Chol] Tong was seen to be closer to the vice-president, Riek Machar.” Whereas the Transitional Constitution mandates the president to relieve elected governors on national security grounds, it also stipulates that a new gubernatorial election should be held within 60 days. That was the clause exploited by Dr. Riek Machar to strike back at the president. In an open letter to the president, he 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.” President Kiir never responded nor acknowledged the letter, much to the fury of his agitated deputy.

Furious at supposedly creeping dictatorial tendencies of the president, Dr. Riek Machar, on the very day he returned from Khartoum, summoned the British’s Guardian newspaper into his office in Juba and blasted the president. Without mincing words, he “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 Machar declared to the Guardian that “Kiir’s SPLM government had been unable to satisfy the people’s expectations” after the 2005 signing of the CPA, 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.”

Dr. Riek Machar demanded a transformational and democratic 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 Machar concluded that he would be more than “happy for Kiir to serve under him as president” of the Republic of South Sudan.

The media, too, joined the foray by accusing 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, “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.”

Comrade Mabioor Garang de Mabioor, then a little known figure struggling to find his political bearings, 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.”

The empire struck back by targeting perceived allies of Dr. Riek Machar. In June 2013, the president unceremoniously sacked both Cabinet Affairs Minister Deng Alor Kuol and Finance and Economic Affairs Minister Kosti Manibe over an alleged corruption scandal involving $8 million that were fraudulently wired to Kenya. Incensed by an apparent unilateral decision from the president, Pagan Amum confronted President Kiir, “saying it was politically motivated as Manibe was seen to have been opposed to Kiir’s bid for a third term.” Pagan Amum reportedly “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 Pagan Amum, placing him under house arrest and formal investigation, and barring him from talking to the media. However, Pagan Amum flatly refused to appear before the investigation committee, prompting the president to cause laughter among the audience during his visit to Warrap state when he joked: “Pagan is in his house, reading the Bible and he thinks that he is not talking to anyone unless God says so.” By this point in time, Dr. Riek Machar, Pagan Amum and Madam Nyandeng had all publicly declared their interests in contesting for the chairmanship of the SPLM party and the presidency in the 2015 general elections. With the trio baying for his seat, and being somewhat unsure of the support he could muster within the SPLM Politburo, President Kiir panicked and called off the party national convention several times, hoping to buy time and possibly salvaged his dwindling political fortune within the party politburo.

  1. The Inevitability of the December 2013 Crisis

Subsequently, on July 23rd, 2013, when the president sensed an imminent humiliating defeat within the SPLM Politburo, he suddenly dissolved the entire cabinet, along with Dr. Riek Machar — his vice president and political foe of 8 years. Once out of the government, the ex-ministers promptly “united with Dr. Machar in a desire to regain their ministerial portfolios.” Thus, the dismissal of the entire cabinet only increased the numbers of President Kiir’s enemies within the SPLM Politburo. With the numbers of his political opponents burgeoning within the SPLM Politburo, it became crystal clear to the president that his chances of retaining the coveted post of party chairmanship were very slim – and shrinking drastically day by day.

As a result, on November 15th, 2013, during the opening ceremony of the SPLM House in Juba, President Kiir dissolved all the SPLM party structures. When grilled by the media, the president categorically denied that he had disbanded the structures of the ruling party. Instead, he maintained that the structures had basically expired by themselves as party elections had been behind schedule. 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 had been taken over by his political antagonists; secondly, to further frustrate his political opponents so as to eject them from the ruling 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.

However, if the president, by sacking his political opponents from the cabinet and dissolving the SPLM party structures, had hoped for an immediate mass defection of his rivals from the SPLM party by establishing a different political party, then he was gravely mistaken. To his complete surprise, his political adversaries, in a televised press conference held on December 6th, 2013, made it crystal clear that they would rather fight their political wars from within, not outside, the ruling party. The main reason was because “Whoever controls the SPLM brand controls the politics and the country as well as the resources.” Therefore, the contest over the chairmanship of the ruling party was chiefly “about who represents the Garang legacy and who represents the true spirit of the SPLM.”

The December 6th group, under the leadership of Dr. Riek Machar, Pagan Amum, and Madam Nyandeng, accused the president of creeping “dictatorial tendencies,” further contending that 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 supporters of the president were allegedly blackmailing members of the SPLM Politburo to vote by ‘show of hand’ instead of ‘secret ballot.’

The December 6th group also 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.” To amicably resolve the impending political impasse, the December 6th 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.” In a swift response, the allies of the president led by Dr. James Wani Igga, dismissed the press conference by the December 6th group 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.

After President Kiir failed to force out his political rivals from the ruling party, he turned to and convened the SPLM National Liberation Council (NLC) meeting, an action claimed by his critics to have contravened the party constitution because the SPLM NLC could only sit after the SPLM Politburo deliberation. “The NLC meeting, for which the SPLM PB was yet to set the agenda was held unconstitutionally, and the SPLM documents still under discussion in the PB, were unconstitutionally passed at this NLC meeting,” complains Comrade Mabioor de Garang about the purported discrepancy. The SPLM NLC, unlike the elitist SPLM-Politburo, 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. And because majority of them had never been in, and fired from, the government, they had no deep-seated political grievances and debts to settle with the president.

Naturally, when the SPLM NLC meeting was convened – on the same day and hour that President Kiir’s rivals had allotted to their second ‘public rally’ at Dr. John Garang’s Mausoleum – the political detractors of the president postponed their rally and, being senior members of the ruling party, showed up for the NLC meeting. In fact, it is alleged that, on the first day of the SPLM NLC meeting, Dr. Riek Machar had “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 Lokudu Loro, while urging calm, mutual understanding, unity and peace among the participants, opened the meeting. Former UN special envoy and head of UNMISS, Hilde Johnson, on behalf of the international community, did the same.

When President Kiir gave his opening remarks, 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 the 1991 incident to repeat itself under his watchful eyes. To his critics among the SPLM NLC members and the general public that watched the speech live on SSBC, it was nothing less than an explicit declaration of war. Without mincing words, Madam Nyandeng 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 [11 former political detainees].”

However, within the SPLM NLC, unlike in the SPLM Politburo, President Kiir appeared to have done his homework well. His political rivals were crushingly outnumbered and their proposals were all voted down until they—feeling humiliated and a little bit startled by the turn of events in President Kiir’s favor—stormed out of the meeting on 14 December 2013, the second day of the meeting. Hon. Pagan Amum, the suspended ruling party secretary general, was ostensibly barred by the police from accessing the venue. He remained confined to the perimeter of his house in Thongpiny area as ugly political dramas unfolded at Nyakuron Cultural Center in front of a frightened nation, helplessly and nervously glued to their TVs, striving to make sense of the looming national disaster, courtesy of their national leaders.

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 sustained and heavy gunfight erupted within the elite presidential guards unit of Tiger battalion, stationed at Giada military barrack, next to Juba University. The presidential guards unit was the crown jewel of the 2006 Juba declaration, a culmination of President Kiir’s Big Tent Policy that brought militia leader Paulino Matip Nhial into the government as deputy commander in chief of the national army.

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 amused the president and his supporters, who were by this time on edge. 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 ruling SPLM 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 SSBC 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. What ensued between the nights of December 15 and 17 was a disreputable carnage, resulting in the massacring of unarmed innocent civilians, most of them from the Nuer nation. On 18 December 2013, the renegade SPLA Commander of Division 8, Peter Gatdet Yak, rebelled and took control of the strategic town of Bor, killing and displacing thousand of civilians in the process.

Then on 21 December 2013, the Head of SPLA Division 4 in Unity state, Commander James Koang Chuol deposed the governor of Unity state, declared himself the new Governor 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 belies 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.

While the government was trumpeting its proclaimed success at foiling an attempted military 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 Giada. Moreover, there were no simultaneous and coordinated attacks on all the major symbols of power in Juba, nor across the country: 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 SPLM 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 Giada.

“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.” 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.”

Nonetheless, convinced that it had decisively aborted a military coup, the government systematically began, between December 16th and 18th, to round up the alleged coup plotters, all of whom turned out to be President Kiir’s political rivals within the SPLM Politburo. Among the 11 political detainees (G-10) alleged to have masterminded the coup attempt were SPLM Secretary General Pagan Amum Okiech; Former National Security Minister Oyai Deng Ajak; Former Deputy Defense Minister Dr. Majak Agoot Atem; Former Cabinet Affairs Minister Deng Alor Kuol; Former Telecommunications and Postal Services Minister Madut Biar Yel; Former Youth Minister Dr. Chirino Hiteng; Former Finance and Economic Affairs Minister Kosti Manibe; Former Roads and Transport Minister Ghier Chuang Aluong; Former Justice Minister John Luk Jok; Former South Sudanese Ambassador to the USA Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth; Former Education Minister Dr. Adwok Nyaba, and Former Lakes State Governor Chol Tong Mayai. At large and hotly being pursued were Former Vice President Dr. Riek Machar; Former Unity State Governor Taban Deng Gai, and Former Environment Minister Alfred Lado Gore.

According to the government, the proofs of their complicity in the ‘foiled coup attempt’ were 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 SSBC, President Kiir’s critics argued that the incriminating flag was never verified by a third party, and yet chances were that it could have been concocted by the government to frame and eliminate President Kiir’s political rivals who had nothing to do with the army or the presidential guards that triggered the military uprising.

Madam Nyandeng, when asked about the fighting within the presidential guards, 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 remains to be debunked who started—and how—the military uprising on the night of 15 December 2013. One version, which is very popular with the supporters of Dr. Riek Machar and former political detainees such as Dr. Adwok Nyaba, has it that the government deliberately sparked the conflict in order to eliminate President Kiir’s 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 Machar and 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 Machar and nor could they be trusted to remain neutral—with guns in their hands—if Dr. Riek Machar 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 Machar but also all those top politicians who were later detained in the wake of the December 15th military uprising.

The problem with this version of events, besides the fact that it is hard to verify, is that the government, had it decided to arrest Dr. Riek Machar, 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 (Gel-Bany or Dot-ku-Bany) trained and stationed at Luri Farm on the outskirt of Juba city as has been repeatedly claimed, 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 Dinka soldiers, for all the SPLA divisions were mixed).

The claim that the Nuer soldiers were disarmed so that Dr. Riek Machar 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 detain Dr. Riek Machar 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 Machar, which was adjacent to the presidential palace in Hai Amarat, is far from Giada, where the presidential guards are stationed and where allegedly Nuer soldiers were being disarmed to arrest Dr. Riek Machar. The government could have arrested Dr. Riek Machar without the knowledge of those at Giada military barrack; they could have learned of it later together with the rest of the country. Therefore, the government, were it predisposed to incarcerate Dr. Riek Machar, 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 Giada.

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 Taban Deng Gai and was led by Dr. Riek Machar. The political detainees, particularly Pagan Amum, Oyai Deng Ajak, Dr. Majak Agoot, are claimed to have fully participated in the planning and execution of the military coup. Because, the government maintained, these people had participated in a coup that tried to remove a ‘constitutionally and democratically elected’ president, they had to face trial for treason, which, according to the constitution, is punishable by death.

The trouble with this argument, of course, is that the government’s claim of an attempted coup was, and still is, scorned upon by all except those in the government and their cohorts. The government had no proof whatsoever, and its metanarrative only made a fool of the government. Moreover, it was not lost on the patriotic South Sudanese that the president who made career out of flouting the constitution was then desperately hiding behind the very idea of ‘constitutionalism’ that he had worked tirelessly to destroy. The government sometimes bandied about the military actions taken by Peter Gatdet in Bor and James Koang in Bentiu as further manifestations of a coordinated coup attempt. Yet, both military commanders registered the killing of unarmed Nuer civilians in Juba as the rationale for their defections.

The third narrative about the conflict, one that this author espouses, is that the December 2013 crisis was triggered by heightened paranoia, tribalized political agitation and poisonous rumors that accompanied the political wrangling within the ruling SPLM party. That is, the political machinations of Dr Riek Machar, and 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, appeared to have been a private militia – the Gel-Bany/Dot-ku-Bany forces – created the unnecessary suspicions, poisonous rumormongering and heightened paranoid that sparked the catastrophic December 15th violence.

On the other hand, it is highly unlikely that the government of President Kiir did calculatingly provoke the violence so as to rid the ruling party of President Kiir’s political enemies. The utter disorganization, hopelessness and demoralization that the government troops were in, in the immediate aftermath of December 15th mutiny, did not pinpoint to a plan, an organized attempt, to use the military to solve political matters. However, one can profess that both the president and Dr. Riek Machar did try, and still are striving, to capitalize on the December 2013 military uprising to further their respective political ambitions at the expenses of the people of South Sudan.

  1. The Contested Presidential Terms Limit

Two major factors stand out as having contributed immensely to the outbreak of violence in December 2013. The first contributing factor was the contested presidential terms limit, and the second factor was the resultant political agitations and military provocations it engendered between the factions of President Kiir and his former deputy, Dr. Riek Machar Teny. This was manifestly an institutional failure by the ruling SPLM party to successfully transition from an armed revolutionary movement to a vibrant and democratic political party. Therefore, as both Hon. Arop Madut Arop and Comrade Mabioor Garang de Mabioor have aptly observed, it was this institutional failure on the part of the ruling SPLM party to achieve democratic transformation, from an armed revolutionary movement to a democratic political party, which triggered the December 2013 crisis and explains the present civil war in South Sudan.

According to the post-CPA 2005 interim constitution, the president was limited to two 5-year presidential terms; however, the 2011 transitional constitution, then spearheaded by Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister John Luk Jok, was eerily silent on the subject. Thus, as the political factions jostling for power within the SPLM Politburo geared up for the May 2013 SPLM National Convention, it was inevitable that the question of presidential terms limit would be at the forefront of the issues to be discussed and urgently resolved. At the heart of the acrimonious debate was the contention from the critics of President Kiir that the president, who had assumed power in August 2005 after the death of Dr. John Garang, would have already completed his two presidential terms by 2015 and was therefore ineligible to run for another term beyond 2015.

Basing their argument on the 2005 interim constitution, President Kiir’s first term had commenced in August 2005 and ended in August 2010, and his second term ran from August 2010 to August 2015, after which his two constitutional terms expired, making him unentitled to campaign for and run in the 2015 presidential election. The mere fact that the post-independence 2011 transitional constitution, which was essentially a revised version of the 2005 interim constitution, was strangely silent on the question of presidential terms limit was a non-starter issue to President Kiir’s critics. Secondly, because the 2011 interim constitution was imposed on, enacted against the wishes of, the political faction of Dr. Riek Machar, the undertone of the debate surrounding the contested presidential terms limit on the eve of the 2013 SPLM National Convention was therefore nothing less than a rematch of the unfinished constitutional battle, of which President Kiir had won the first round in 2011. Hence, Dr. Riek Machar, who was still licking the wounds of his bruised ego, was therefore more than determined to carry the second round.

However, supporters of President Kiir, who were entirely relying on the 2011 transitional constitution, contended that his first presidential term had commenced with effect from 2010 to 2015, and then the second term from 2015 to 2020. To the political faction of President Kiir, the period 2005 to 2010 was simply an apolitical era, collectively dedicated to the full implementation of the CPA and timely preparation for referendum and secession. Besides, they argued, President Kiir was not a constitutionally elected leader until 2010 when he officially and constitutionally commenced his maiden presidential term. Hence, according to President Kiir’s political camp, the president would have merely completed his first presidential term in 2015, as he geared up to campaign for his second term in the 2015 presidential election.

More importantly, the fact that the post-independence 2011 transitional constitution was explicitly silent on the question of presidential terms limit made the supporters of the president to wonder out loud what the dispute on presidential terms limit was all about since it was not anchored in the constitution. To them, the entire idea and debate surrounding the presidential terms limit was unconstitutional since the 2011 Interim Constitution did not, and still does not, explicitly limit the president to two five-year terms limit. To the extent that they could make sense of the debate, it was simply an unconstitutional and illegal attempt by the power hungry Riek Machar to use undemocratic means to ascend into power. Consequently, the December 15th mutiny only confirmed and reinforced their entrenched suspicion and fear that a determined, power hungry Riek Machar was willing and ready to employ hooks and crooks to depose the president and assume power.

Related to this debate surrounding the presidential terms limit is the third, extreme version that purports to challenge the legality of President Kiir as a legitimately elected president of the Republic of South Sudan, rather than of Southern Sudan. This SPLM faction, which is politically aligned to Dr. Riek Machar, claims that President Kiir was elected in the 2010 general elections as vice president of the Sudan and president of Southern Sudan. Put it differently, President Kiir has never been constitutionally elected as the president of the Republic South Sudan since no election has ever been conducted in an independent South Sudan. Thus, according to this claim, President Kiir is not and has never been the president of South Sudan but rather an elected vice president of the Sudan, not South Sudan. This controversial supposition is well captured in the leaked report of the AU Commission of Inquiry on South Sudan (AUCISS): “Some others asked the Commission: Is President Kiir an elected President or an elected Vice President, and of South Sudan or Sudan? After all, Salva Kiir was elected as Vice President, and not President. And that election was organized by the Republic of Sudan, not South Sudan. For that matter, South Sudan has never had an election since it became independent.”

Questioning the legality of President Kiir’s constitutional mandate as the elected president of South Sudan is informed by history. According to Ngundengism, Dr. Riek Machar was prophesied to be the first president of an independent South Sudan. Therefore, to the supporters of Dr. Riek Machar, the insinuation that President Kiir is not an elected president of South Sudan but of Southern Sudan, afford them an ample room to fight for and claim the divined title of the first president of the Republic of South Sudan. Unwittingly, however, they are playing into the hand of President Kiir and his inner circle to press for a fresh start of his reign as an elected president of the Republic of South Sudan. The fact that this statement was made by President Kiir’s political opponents could further strengthen and justify his resolve to press for a fresh start of his official presidential terms. In the event that a new constitution limit the presidential terms to two five-year, there is a compelling reason to surmise that President Kiir stands a good chance of arguing that he has never been elected in a general election as president of the Republic of South Sudan and should therefore be give his constitutional and democratic right to run for his first full term as the democratically elected president of the Republic of South Sudan.

If President Kiir were to consider and press to run for his first elected term as president of the Republic of South Sudan, he would not be the first leader to exploit such political loopholes. In 1992 when the multi-party system dawned in Kenya, President Daniel Arap Moi, who had then been in power since 1978, successfully argued that he should be allowed to run for his first official term as the democratically elected president of Kenya as he had never been democratically elected in his past terms. He successfully ran and reigned for another ten years before he relinquished power in 2002 after his second term was over. Verily, if the political rivals of President Kiir do really believe that he was merely elected as president of a defunct entity called GOSS and therefore has no constitutional right whatsoever to be regarded as the first democratically elected president of the Republic of South Sudan, then doesn’t President Kiir deserve the right to offer himself for the chance to stand for his first elected term as the president of the Republic of South Sudan?

  1. Dr. Riek Machar’s Political Agitations and Military Provocations

While the intense debate surrounding the contested presidential terms limit, couple with the power wrangling in the lead up to the May 2013 SPLM National Convention, might have laid the seed for the December 2013 Crisis, the resultant political agitations and military provocations it engendered among the ardent supporters of President Kiir and Dr. Riek Machar, was the fundamental root cause that triggered the December 2013 Crisis and birthed the present destructive and distractive civil war in South Sudan. As expounded above in section 2 (The Genesis and Evolution of the December 2013 Crisis) and section 3 (The Inevitability of the December 2013 Crisis) of this article, Dr. Riek Machar, in his quest to unseat and replace President Kiir, undertook several political actions and activities, all of which provoked counter measures from the president who felt warily under siege from his own deputy. As the aspirant, Dr. Riek Machar sought out political, financial and moral supports and backings from all corners of the country; as the incumbent, President Kiir resorted to making use of the immense privileges and resources at the disposal of the presidency, relying on the trappings of power conferred upon him by virtue of being the president.

It was politics as a different form of warfare, and thus, each side strove as much to attain a decisive win as to avoid a politically existential defeat. A number of fateful events constituted this game of cat and mouse between the president and his deputy. For instance, when Dr. Riek Machar initiated the national peace and reconciliation process and organized national youth conference, President Kiir got alarmed and stripped him of all delegated powers and abolished the national peace process and the scheduled youth conference. However, initiating a national peace process or organizing the youth conference is a legitimate means of political campaign in any democratic nation. Therefore, while his deputy was indeed trying to make political capitals out of the national processes, President Kiir should have not resorted to draconian means of abolishing the youth conference and dissolving the national peace process, but should have rather come up with his own means of wooing the public to outdo his political rival.

Moreover, it is within the constitutional rights, both party and national constitution, of Dr. Riek Machar, Hon. Pagan Amum and Madam Nyandeng, to declare their interests to run for any office of the land, to unveil their manifestos, visions and programs of actions to demonstrate why they would be better leaders than their respective competitors. It was also democratically permissible for any political leader to use the media as a tool to reach out to the people and explain themselves to the electorates. President Kiir should have done the same thing as his political adversaries as part of democratic campaign instead of panicking and resorting to draconian means to curtail their legitimate political activities. In fact, President Kiir was right to allow Dr. Riek Machar and his December 6th group to mount a spirited campaign against him in Juba without repercussion as was the case with December 6th press conference. It was and still is within the norms of democracy to respond aggressively in self-defense to your critics as President Kiir’s group led by Dr. James Wani Igga did. That is the essence of democracy – messy, vitriolic and scathing but ultimately peaceful.

The dismissal of Dr. Riek Machar, along with the entire cabinet in July 2013, was within the constitutional powers of the president. However, it could poisoned the political atmosphere if the dismissal was seen to have been triggered by sheer political differences, as a way of silencing political opponents, as if the president was abusing his powers to advance his political ambition, if it was done as a retribution for challenging the president. However, Dr. Riek Machar’s and Garang’s boys did not publicly contested their dismissal, with Riek Machar calling upon his supporters that it was within the powers of the president to fire and appoint the cabinet. Additionally, it was unconstitutional and undemocratic for the president to have placed Hon. Pagan Amum under house arrest, and media gag and to have barred him from leaving the country. While the president, as chairman of the party, has constitutional rights to suspend the SPLM SG pending further investigation, he has no right whatsoever, neither within the party nor national constitution, to place anyone under house arrest and media gag or to block someone from travelling outside the country except with a ruling from a constitutional court, of which President Kiir is not a member.

Regarding the dismissal of elected state governors, the president was granted legal powers by the 2011 interim constitution to dismiss them on special security ground. Dr. Riek Machar was also within his constitutional rights to protest the dismissal of the governors if he legitimately thought that the threshold for a special security ground was not warranted. More often than not, politicians are inclined to condemn anything done by their opponents, presenting it as unconstitutional, as a threat to national security, and as dictatorial, all in the name of painting their opponents black while hoping to reap the benefit of their downfalls brought about by their very actions. Dr. Riek Machar was tailing that particular political script, presenting President Kiir as dictatorial and authoritative, while presenting himself as the beacon of democracy to endear himself to the people, in anticipation of the 2015 general elections. Politically speaking, President Kiir might have been justified in dismissing the two state governors since the duo were widely rumored to have been campaigning for Dr. Riek Machar.

Whereas there was nothing absolutely wrong with or unconstitutional for them to have campaigned for Dr. Riek Machar as their preferred candidate, it was also understandable why President Kiir might have wanted to punish them, and perhaps installed friendly governors to do his biddings by campaign for him. In a political game of cat and mouse, both leaders were resorting to the best means within their reach to execute their presidential ambitions. Dr. Riek Machar had no access to presidential powers and was thus compelled to go to the people, endearing himself to the people. President Kiir saw Dr. Riek Machar’s action as a threat to his presidency and therefore took advantage of the incumbency to unleash the presidential powers on his rival. If one were to switch their respective positions – with Riek Machar as president and President Kiir as the upstart presidential candidate – one would witness that Dr. Riek Machar would have done exactly what President Kiir was doing: utilizing the powers of the state to torment his opponents.

  1. Conclusion: A Third Chance or a Third Disaster?

With the apparent success of the revitalization of the 2015 ARCSS and the impending reconstitution of the 2016 transitional government of national unity, the proverbial million dollar question, in the minds of every South Sudanese, politically disillusioned and economically ravaged by the civil war, is whether they are offering President Kiir and Dr. Riek Machar the third chance to achieve peace and reconciliation, political stability and social prosperity, or they are simply granting President Kiir and Dr. Riek Machar a third chance to screw up again by taking them to war, death and destitution. The two leaders have been consistent in screwing up every opportunity afforded to them by the people of South Sudan. The first chance at independence was screwed up when the two leaders took the infant nation to a destructive and distractive civil war in December 2013. The second chance in 2015 after the signing of the 2015 ARCSS was abruptly screwed up in July 2016 when the peace accord was obliterated in a broad daylight.

During the IGAD-led High Level Revitalization Forum (HLRF) of the 2015 ARCSS, the main points of contention among the warring parties, pertaining to chapter 1 and 2 of the 2015 ARCSS, appeared to have been the attempt by opposition parties to change the status quo in Juba by demanding the total dissolution and reconstitution of all state apparatus, and the strong determination by the government to maintain and perpetuate the status quo as presently constituted. The government thought the SPLM-IO and her bands of brothers outside the country would soon run into total and irreversible political and military irrelevance. On the other hand, the SPLM-IO prided itself on its conviction that the government would soon collapse under the weight of the current depleting economic crisis in the country. The other opposition entities, both inside and outside Juba, had convinced themselves that the government and SPLM-IO would finished themselves off militarily and, bereft of their military forces, would, sooner than later, wither into irrevocable political and military wilderness.

Therefore, with the revitalization of the 2015 Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (ARCSS), and with the looming return of Dr. Riek Machar to Juba for the second time to assume the powers of his old office, the government and SPLM-IO should strike the essential working comradeship necessary for the success and sustainability of such peaceful interaction and coexistence under the revitalized transitional government of national unity in Juba, South Sudan. Political tolerance, not peace and reconciliation per se, is what will be needed among the political warring elites, and particularly between the two principals – President Kiir and Dr. Riek Machar – if hope for politically and militarily stable interim period could be realized in the next three years.

This means that both the government and the SPLM-IO should learn to appreciate the new fragile political relationship they are entering into by embracing the new political dispensation wrought by the revitalization of the 2015 ARCSS. Both sides should moderate their entrenched positions of Day One and compromise for the sake of peace and reconciliation, political stability and social prosperity, in South Sudan. Similarly, both sides should, out of necessity, embrace political transformation and democratization – what is allowable under democratic system as a democratic means to pursue and secure political ambition must not be deemed or criminalized as a national security threat, or deployed as a pretext to take up arms against the state.

The opinion expressed here is solely the view of the writer. The veracity of any claim made is the responsibility of the author, not PaanLuel Wël Media (PW) website. If you want to submit an opinion article, commentary or news analysis, please email it to PaanLuel Wël Media (PW) website do reserve the right to edit or reject material before publication. Please include your full name, a short biography, email address, city and the country you are writing from.

PaanLuel Wël, the managing editor of PaanLuel Wël Media (PW) website, graduated with a double major in Economics and Philosophy from The George Washington University, Washington D.C, USA, and currently works as a Project Coordinator for one of the international NGOs in South Sudan. He is the author of Pioocku Thuongjang: The Elementary Modern Standard Dinka (May, 2011), The A.B.C.D.: An Introductory Book into the English Alphabet (July, 2011) and  Who Killed Dr. John Garang (July, 2015). He is also the Editor of The Genius of Dr. John Garang, vol. 1-3 (November, 2013), including Dr. John Garang’s Speeches on the War of Liberation (November, 2015) and Speeches on the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (November, 2015), Salva Kiir Mayaardit: The Joshua of South Sudan (with Simon Yel Yel, February, 2011), as well as The Customary Laws of the Greater Bor Dinka Community: Legal and Basic Rules for Self-Administration (July, 2017).

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