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’.