BY: Simon Tisdall in Juba
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 4 July 2013 16.40 BST;
Vice-president’s leadership challenge raises fears of renewed violence in country beset by food shortages and corruption
The deputy leader of newly independent South Sudan has issued a veiled warning to the country’s western-backed president, Salva Kiir, telling him to stand down and vowing to replace him before or after elections due by 2015.
The forceful intervention by the vice-president, Riek Machar, a general in the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/SPLA) and former regional warlord, threatens to ignite a power struggle that South Sudan, an unstable, landlocked and virtually bankrupt country beset by border wars and internal insurgencies, can ill afford.
Kiir, who is expected to seek another term, has reportedly faced three military coup attempts since South Sudan gained independence from Sudan two years ago, on 9 July 2011.
A vicious conflict raging in eastern Jonglei state has displaced 20,000 people this year, the UN says. The country’s economic plight is worsening, reflected in swingeing austerity measures and a growing dependence on foreign aid and loans.
Now Machar’s challenge has raised fears of a new descent into violence only eight years after the end of Africa’s longest civil war.
In a boost for his position, Kiir won the agreement of the Khartoum government this year for a resumption of southern oil exports via pipelines running through Sudan to the Red Sea.
But Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s president, is threatening to shut down the pipelines in retaliation for what he says is South Sudan’s backing for rebels fighting Khartoum’s rule in the border states of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile.
South Sudan denies the claim. But oil accounts for at least 95% of the South Sudan government’s revenue. Observers in the capital, Juba, say a renewed cutoff could bring the new state to its knees, triggering a wider governmental collapse – an eventuality Bashir may be keen to bring about.
Speaking to the Guardian in his office in a government compound in Juba, Machar said Kiir’s SPLM government had been unable to satisfy the people’s expectations after the 1983-2005 civil war ended with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which set South Sudan on the road to secession and independence.
Machar suggested that 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. He said that, after almost a decade at the top, it was time for Kiir to go. “When a president has been in power for a long time, it becomes inevitable that a new generation arises,” Machar said. “It is a natural process, it is best to move that way. It is not that the incumbent is at all bad.
“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.”
He added: “Our president has a good legacy. He took us through a very difficult interim period and that was managed successfully under his leadership. The CPA was implemented, a referendum was conducted, independence was declared, and now we are in a transition. This is a good legacy for Salva Kiir.”
Given the SPLM’s control of the government, army and security forces, and all but a handful of seats in parliament, Machar said he hoped the ruling party would adopt a pre-election endorsement of his candidacy, in effect forcing Kiir to stand down early or drop his re-election bid.
But in what observers said was a sign of dissension in ruling circles, a national party convention to discuss the leadership issue has been repeatedly postponed. This year Kiir stripped Machar of some vice-presidential powers. Since then, critical articles published by the state news agency have accused Machar of paranoia.
Machar appeared unfazed at the prospect of splitting the SPLM. “We hope we can resolve this issue. Currently there are four known people who expressed their desire to run for the presidency, including me and the incumbent. That shouldn’t lead to a split. We want to demonstrate democratic debate within … I’m hoping we can remain together as one party.”
While Machar said he would be happy for Kiir to serve under him as president, he was vague when asked whether he would be content to continue to serve under Kiir.
Machar has a history of changing sides. In the 1990s he fell out with the late SPLM leader John Garang de Mabior and allied himself with Khartoum before returning to the fold. While Kiir and most of the SPLM leadership belong to the Dinka people, Machar’s Nuer tribe makes up much of the army rank-and-file.
Another declared presidential candidate is Rebecca Nyandeng de Mabior, Garang’s widow, who is a presidential adviser. Observers in Juba have speculated that she may join forces with Machar in an effort to oust Kiir.
Dissatisfaction with Kiir’s government (of which Machar is a prominent member) is widespread, with perceived failures to provide jobs, adequate healthcare, schools, housing and roads, and lack of investment in infrastructure and key business sectors such as agriculture. Two years after independence, 50% of the population live below the poverty line. Illiteracy rates are high. Life expectancy is 42 years.
Aid experts suggest it does not have to be this way, noting that the Equatoria region is rich farming country. “South Sudan’s agricultural potential is enormous and encompasses crops, horticulture, fish, livestock and forests … In theory, there should be no shortages,” said the Overseas Development Institute’s Humanitarian Exchange.
In fact, nearly all South Sudan’s food is imported, mostly from Uganda, and hunger and malnutrition are persistent problems. The UN and partners say 2.3 million people will need food assistance this year, and “nutritional services” will be provided to 3.2 million. By another measure, out of a population of 12 million, more than 4.6 million are “food insecure”.
Meanwhile, government spending on agriculture in 2012-13 amounted to only 5.2% of the national budget, in contrast to the estimated 25% spent on the military and security services. Roughly half of the budget is spent by the government on itself, mostly on salaries and prestige items such as ministers’ V8 Land Cruisers.
Corruption among the ruling elite is another corrosive issue. Kiir has admitted that billions of Sudanese pounds have been misappropriated and last year called on 75 unnamed officials to return cash.
Despite this month’s suspension of two leading ministers over a separate alleged scam, there have been no arrests. The anti-corruption commission is reportedly so starved of resources that it is unable to pay the office rent.
The ubiquitous but shadowy security services also stand accused, by Human Rights Watch and local journalists, of following Khartoum’s example and taking an increasingly authoritarian, “surveillance society” approach to independent media, NGOs and civil society pressure groups. These groups claim to constitute the only real opposition in the absence of effective alternative political parties.
What a community activist called a “pervasive feeling of unease” reached critical proportions last December with the fatal shooting, by unknown men widely assumed to belong to state security, of a leading newspaper columnist, Isaiah Abraham.
NGO workers also report increased numbers of detentions and disappearances in the past year. Surveillance by police and other agencies has included demands that planned meetings or workshops be cleared with them in advance.
“The government is becoming very intolerant to any alternative voices so it’s very hard to positively criticise them,” the community activist said. With a wry smile, she added: “Don’t quote my name or next time you come here you will not find me.”
“We are facing a huge challenge of democratic transformation,” said Edmund Yakani, of Community Empowerment for Progress (Cepo), an independent civil society organisation. “What is happening now is a crisis in the ruling party, a crisis of political leadership. This is reflected in the public sphere. The crisis is transferred to the state. It is not the state itself that is sick. The sickness is in the party and political system.”
Yakani said an SPLM split might prove the best outcome, as it would give voters a choice at the next election. “Then we will have proper checks and balances,” he said. Otherwise, South Sudan might go down the same route as repressive, de facto one-party states such as Zimbabwe.
Mading Ngor, a leading Juba journalist and commentator, said South Sudan was entering a critical period. “The power struggle in the ruling party is killing this country.
“The politicians think about themselves and who is in the state houses, not the good of the country. Oil may be cut off again, bilateral relations [with Khartoum] have reached a low point again, and if this happens, this nation may collapse. I hope not.”
A Juba resident who asked not to be identified said: “Many people are pessimistic about the way things are going. I remember how long was the struggle for independence. This is a consolidation. The next step will be tougher. But it is not a licence for the so-called liberators to abuse and sit on the people they liberated.
“This is a highly militarised society. We need a change of culture, a change of attitudes. It [the SPLM government] has not met expectations and our basic values are ignored. There’s no equality, no justice, no fairness. Our natural resources are concentrated in the hands of a few people.
“I never thought it would happen overnight. Freedom has to be won over and over again, as the South Africans say. But the hard work of nation-building has not started yet.”
With the US and other western countries, Britain – which helped broker the CPA – has invested heavily in South Sudan under Kiir’s leadership. UK bilateral aid stands at about £100m a year after William Hague, the foreign secretary, made the country a priority.
The UN and associated agencies appealed for $1.16bn (£761m) in 2013 to address what they called urgent humanitarian needs – the largest such appeal in the world after Somalia. As of 1 June, about 47% of the total had been raised.
So far, at least, experts classify South Sudan as a fragile state, rather than a Somalia-style failed state. But as the second anniversary of independence nears, and as the political crisis triggered by Machar unfolds, the fraying ties that bind the world’s newest country may be stretched to breaking point.
Riek Machar, the former rebel fighter ready for a new battle
South Sudan’s vice-president has ambitions to topple his leader and transform his country
Riek Machar Teny, the vice-president of South Sudan who is planning to oust the president, is probably best known in Britain for his marriage to a British aid volunteer, Emma McCune, who went to work in Sudan in 1987 during the civil war.
At the time Machar was a commander in the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) fighting the government in Khartoum. After they married, McCune threw in her lot with the southern rebels. In 1993, while pregnant with Machar’s child, she was killed in a car crash in Nairobi. Her story was later told in a book, Emma’s War, by Deborah Scroggins.
Machar’s career as a guerrilla leader brought similar vicissitudes. His quest for independence for South Sudan led him into conflict with the then SPLM leader, John Garang, who initially favoured a reformed but united Sudan in which the equal rights of non-Arabs and non-Muslims would be respected.
In 1991 Machar broke away, forming a rebel faction, the SPLM/A-Nasir. A period of complex, rival alliances based on ethnic and tribal lines followed, involving sometimes heavy fighting between Machar’s forces and the SPLA. His groups received help from the Sudanese government and in 1997, along with other disaffected rebels, he signed the ill-conceived Khartoum Peace Agreement and became an assistant to President Omar al-Bashir.
Machar eventually patched up his differences with Garang and rejoined the SPLA as a senior commander in 2002. He was subsequently involved in negotiations leading to the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which ended the civil war, and after Garang’s death in an accident he became South Sudan’s first vice-president on independence in July 2011.
Friction between Machar and President Salva Kiir has built up in the past two years as South Sudan’s new SPLM-led government has struggled to meet the daunting challenge of building a nation state from scratch. Observers in the capital, Juba, say memories of Machar’s machinations during the war and the many deaths that resulted from the split with Garang have left a residue of distrust.
In his interview with the Guardian, Machar was highly critical of Kiir’s record as president and urged him to step down, thereby avoiding a leadership contest. But he also made plain that he was ready for a fight, at the same time revealing his knowledge of British political precedents – he holds a PhD from the University of Bradford.
“Even in your own country, Margaret Thatcher had to leave after leading the Conservative party for a very long time. Tony Blair also had to leave after winning three consecutive elections and give way to the next generation,” he said. Theirs was an example that Kiir would do well to follow, he suggested. He rejected any comparison between himself and Gordon Brown.
His criticism of Kiir aside, Machar offered several reasons why the new government was underperforming. It was difficult, he said, to make the switch from guerrilla movement to governance; Khartoum continued to make problems for the impoverished new state, particularly over oil exports; and South Sudan was the world’s youngest independent country. It would take time to build institutional strength, he said.
“After independence, the expectations of the people shot up very high. They want us to turn this country into another Dubai or Korea or Malaysia, countries that have moved fast in their economic and social development … That is good, but we have to weigh and measure those expectations against the reality on the ground … We haven’t met the expectations of the people in the last two years.”
Machar rejected a suggestion the ruling party elite had become out of touch with ordinary people. “We are of the people, we come from the people. We are pastoralists, camel-herders, peasants. It would be difficult to say we are out of touch. We live with them.”