THE latest fighting in South Sudan’s between forces loyal to longtime rivals President Salva Kiir and his Vice President Riek Machar in the capital Juba, has raised an old question – who exactly is in charge in the world’s newest independent nation?
The fighting broke out as two leaders were together in one of their first meetings since April when Machar returned to the capital to take his place as vice president in a unity government. It followed a peace agreement that ended a deadly two-year war that broke out in December 2013, after the two men fell out.
At least 270 people have been killed, and thousands displaced since the latest flare-up, apparently sparked on Thursday when Kiir’s forces stopped and demanded to search vehicles with Machar’s troops.
MACHAR WITHDRAWS FROM JUBA
Machar has now withdrawn with his troops to outside of Juba but is not planning for war, his spokesman Gatdet Dak said on Wednesday, as a ceasefire that ended heavy fighting with the president’s forces entered its third day.
Dak said Machar would stay away from Juba until ceasefire details were worked out.
In an unnerving but insightful article titled “Who’s behind South Sudan’s return to fighting?”in African Arguments, Clémence Pinaud, an Assistant Professor at Indiana University’s Department of International Studies, whose research focuses on the South Sudan’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army’s (SPLA)military history and marital practices, argues that the current crisis is the handiwork of the SPLA’s Chief of General Staff and former governor of Northern Bahr El Ghazal, Paul Malong.
Malong, she says, is seen by many as the “true power behind the Salva Kiir presidential throne”.
Though the article focuses largely on Malong, it paints Kiir – and Machar – as leaders who are away with the fairies.
MALONG ‘OWNS’ KIIR
Malong, Pinaud says, pocketed the South Sudan leader when he provided him financial support after Kiir fell out with then SPLA leader John Garang in 2004.
“One bit of anecdotal evidence that points to the supremacy Malong developed over Kiir is that he recently offered to pay for the bride wealth for Kiir’ new wife, a role traditionally taken up by a groom’s father and his close and extended kin,” she writes.
The recent fighting in Juba and Kiir’s apparent ignorance of what was happening reveals his lack of control over the SPLA, she writes.
Also, that it is increasingly clear that the president has lost a great deal of credibility and power “amidst rumours of alcoholism and health issues”.
South Sudan’s problems are confounded by the fact that Machar too is not in charge of the all buttons in his organisation.
“If Kiir is a lame duck, the same might be said − albeit to a lesser extent − of Riek Machar. The first vice-president never seemed to control his troops and never had as much military gravitas as his peers in the so-called SPLM-In-Opposition (IO).
“Furthermore, he has made the grave mistake of dismissing IO’s most experienced generals in the past year”.
It’s anyone’s guess what happens next. However, while Machar’s side is presenting the withdrawal of its forces as tactical, and even considerate, Kiir’s officers say they are on the run.
A Bloomberg report quoted Lul Ruai Koang, a spokesman for the president’s army, saying the government is searching for Machar’s troops who’ve been “dislodged” from their main base at Jebel and sites in the rest of the capital, Juba.
It also quoted an opposition official describing the violence as a coup against the East African country’s transitional administration by factions opposed to the power-sharing peace deal.
If true, then both Kiir and Machar are in trouble.
Pinaud argues that it raises the possibility that, faced with a common enemy, the two might form a new alliance, as the SPLA splits further.