Blessed rain and old faces: Pa’gan Amum’s return to the SPLM

By James Copnall in Juba, Posted on June 24, 2015 by AfricanArgumentsEditor;

President Salva Kiir watched, motionless, as Pa’gan Amum was sworn in, and then the two men shook hands as the cameras flashed, before ululations and the customary celebratory chants of ‘SPLM Oyee’ filled the room. Shortly afterwards thunderclaps rumbled above SPLM House in Juba, and the rains began to fall: a blessing, or so many believe.

Pa’gan – former detainee, smooth-talking politician, divider of opinion – is back to what he once was: Secretary General of the SPLM. That is a surprise, and, perhaps, a sign of further changes to come; though it will, of course, take an awful lot more than this to put South Sudan back together again.

In the run-up to the outbreak of civil war in December 2013, Pa’gan was one of the most senior of an increasingly visible group of SPLM leaders criticising President Kiir. Once the bullets started flying, he and a handful of other critics were arrested, and accused of launching a coup attempt.

As emotions surged with every new atrocity perpetuated, the families of the detainees feared for the safety of their loved ones in their Juba prison.

The detained politicians insisted on their innocence throughout. Pa’gan himself said ‘if there are those who wanted to stage a coup and overthrow the government, I am not part of them neither in the past, at the present nor will I have any connection with them in the future.’

The court case subsequently collapsed. The prosecution failed to produce any convincing evidence linking the men with the violence that rapidly consumed South Sudan.

After the detainees were released, they lived abroad, carving out a political space as the G10, critics of President Kiir but opposed to taking up arms to bring about change. At various points they have been heavily involved in the Addis Ababa talks, and then seemingly cast aside.

This uneasy exile must have been extremely difficult for Pa’gan. The disciple of John Garang had spent many years in the limelight, and at the heart of the SPLM.

This was a man capable of taking Omar al Bashir’s National Congress Party on. In 2009, he led the push for the referendum act to be passed. At a critical point, he, Yassir Arman and several other SPLM leaders protested outside the national assembly in Omdurman.

The men were arrested, to huge international outcry. Days later, the referendum bill was made law. I saw Pa’gan shortly afterwards at the Presidential Guest House in Khartoum, where he and Kiir had been meeting Bashir. I asked whether he’d had a difficult week. ‘It all went exactly to plan’, he said, with a glint in his eye.

Pa’gan also won the admiration of many South Sudanese for his tough line in the post-secession negotiations with Sudan. However, the African Union mediatiors were often dismissive of the stances he took, and Khartoum was infuriated.

‘If Nhial Deng was in charge [of the South Sudanese negotiating team] we would have made a deal months ago’, one senior NCP figure once told me. But Pa’gan’s powerful evocation of what he perceived to be South Sudan’s best interests won him many supporters around his country.

Why did he fall out of favour then? Some believe he overshadowed Kiir in the Addis talks, or was seen as too willing to push his own line there. Pa’gan clearly grew frustrated with South Sudan’s trajectory too. He, along with Riek Machar and others, told Kiir he wanted to challenge him in the election for Chairman of the SPLM. There were also allegations of corruption – which Pa’gan denied.

Although many believe Pa’gan does not have a strong base among his Shilluk ethnic group (an important factor in South Sudan’s ethnicised politics) there is no doubt he was one of a handful of the most prominent national figures in the decade since John Garang’s death.

Pa’gan’s return to Juba and the party – weeks after he himself said the time wasn’t right, and after many months where such an outcome appeared impossible – is thus imbued with a certain weight. Change, of some kind, has come. The key now is discerning what sort.

After shaking hands with the President, Pa’gan addressed the press. He spoke for several minutes about the SPLM’s history, and how splits from the liberation struggle onwards had weakened the SPLM’s cause. He talked of the party’s ‘tarnished image’, a once unfeasible public self-appraisal by a senior SPLM official, now almost commonplace under the crushing weight of recent failures.

The new-old Secretary General promised that once the party had been fully reconciled, the ‘rejuvenated’ SPLM would ‘apologise to the people of South Sudan for the mistakes that we have committed, for our failures in leading the people of South Sudan, for having let the people of South Sudan down.’ This, then, was a display of public contrition, albeit for shared rather than personal failures.

Clarity on several issues is still required. As Pa’gan and his colleagues have been reinstated in the SPLM, are these previously independent critics now allied to President Kiir? Can the Secretary General of the party safely renew his criticisms of its Chairman – President Kiir – if he so chooses?

Does their return, a consequence of the Arusha negotiations aimed at SPLM reunification, herald an increased likelihood of a lasting peace agreement being signed some time soon? This, at least, seems unlikely.

The real issue remains convincing both warring parties to stop the war. The weakness of the G10, just like South Sudanese opposition parties and civil society, is just this: in the final analysis, at the negotiating table only the men with guns really count.

This is not to say the reinstatement of Pa’gan and the other former detainees cannot help matters, particularly if their return signals a willingness by the President to accept more internal dissent.

There are other possibilities, of course. Speculation is already rife in Juba that a reshuffle is on its way, perhaps after the 9th July commemoration of four years of independence. If some in the G10 have traded in their relatively free voice for positions and power, little will have been gained.

The party itself needs to change. A joke is making the rounds in Juba: ‘When the SPLM is united, it loots. When it is disunited, it fights.’ The level of skepticism about the SPLM is at an all time high; the image of the liberation heroes has been tarnished indeed.

Back in his office as Secretary General once more, Pa’gan Amum will face this and other challenges. The war began largely because of a power struggle within the SPLM. But the situation has deteriorated far beyond those beginnings. Ethnic tensions, the need for revenge, the fractures in the army – all these cannot be solved by changes within the party.

The blessed rain fell on SPLM House in Juba, but it hasn’t yet swept all the questions away.

James Copnall is a journalist and author of ‘A Poisonous Thorn in Our Hearts: Sudan and South Sudan’s Bitter and Incomplete Divorce’. He is Editor of ‘Making Sense of the Sudans’.


  1. Eli Wani says:

    James Capnall;
    Pagan Amum is a self serving rotten politician and so are his colleagues, they actually got broke and no more money to support their livelihoods in foreign countries since they don’t work and they have diminished all those stolen moneies from the nation’s treasury. That is the real treason, not the so called coup nonsense, the embazzlement of millions by these thieves, they should all be removed from their positions including the illigitimate president Kirr as of July 9 and be sent to jail. Just as you said, SPLAs are crooks and they are bunch of hyenas who unite to attack their preys but when food runs out they turn on each other. For dictator Salva Kirr the return of the old gang members is more like surrendering rather than unity, this is a politically calculated move for Juba to boast that they could win this war by giving back old positions and just maybe promoting them for returning to the house of horrors.
    I still see this as another beginning of a new political rivalry as the prodigal sons returned to be welcomed with blessings whilst the others who stayed loyalists are now pushed aside, guess what? Those who stayed in Juba since the rebellion started are now disgruntled. Let us see what the next chapter will look like, but the fact is, the problems still remains just as 18 months ago. Pagan and his group will soon regret their decision to return and run again or this time they all risks assassinations. Since the majority of his shilluk people are now considered as rebels and enemies of Kirr what good will that do to Pagan’s image? He lost popularity within the South Sudanese, the last time he visited the US he was booed and jierd at including in Australia nobody offered him reception as a national figure, he lost everything, so his return to Juba only serves himself. He rewarded himself for negotiating for oil money, that was his only intention to loot and rob the poors and drank the bloody of war orphans and widows.
    Eli Wani

    • job says:

      Yeah right. Cowards always call others to rise and fight, but themselves. Who are you kidding, cowards? If you hate the government in Juba, how about you go to front line yourself? These irrelevant idiots and their bitching!

  2. False Millionaire says:

    “When the SPLM is united,it loots.When it is disunited,it Fights”.Our musicians would make excellent popular songs if they ever integrate the two expressions in thier song lyrics and that would be a long lasting reminder for many generations about the SPLM’s tragic mistakes that led to immeasurable destruction of the country and society!!!

  3. Easy Money says:

    Take the SPLM to court in the Hague for trial. Then the international body would try them,as was the Nazi supporters and leaders for WAR CRIMES. Applauding the same leadership again and again to lead south Sudan, is equivalent to eating your vomit,that may poison your system. For sure, we are heading back to the second round of conflict in due course. Mark my statement! !!!!!!!!!!!!!.

    • info@southsudannation says:

      Easy Money,
      That is the absolute truth.
      The second round of ethnic warfare in South Sudan is just around the corner, these thieves of our nation are a cursed lot.
      As Alan Paton titled his famous book, Cry, the beloved Country, our people’s fate is doomed under the SPLM/A tyranny.

      • Joana Adams says:

        Eli Wani,

        You have spoken so well I see no need to add anything. Today I am a very happy and proud woman. I will sleep so well, knowing full well that our offsprings will not be surrendered to the dogs. This is a good day for us. May God Almightly bless you abundantly.


  4. Eli Wani says:

    Thank you sister Joana, together we shall bring this monster SPLA down, slow but sure we will win.

  5. Alier Gai says:

    Your comment to this article is serving no purpose at all. Instead of you talking about peace, your mind and your heart are unfailing for another war to be fought after this one. And as you are calling upon for the uprising to take place on the July 9, be the first example to pick gun and the rest will follow you. Don’t try to act like a hen on the ground when one of its babies snatched by a hawk, and she has no enough power in the wings to fly as high as hawk in the sky in order to recue the then baby and the now food for another bird. You are liberating nobody now on the internet nor making any influence on the ground in the battle field. There is no single reason you have attempted to say things that are far beyond your personal reach.The July 9 will be the end of many uprisings and Pagan Amum is absolutely right in making that decision of returning back to Juba. We need peace now than those dreaming nonsenses of keeping war in the nation. What is the reason for the war to continue?

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