The Rumble in Juba

Salva Kiir dons military fatigues and announces that he’s successfully quelled the coup. Two days later he puts on his suit and distinctive cowboy hat and announces he’s willing to talk to his opposition.

He knows there was no real coup, and he knows that the opposition is too strong and that force would only exacerbate the fledgling country’s problems.

Most reports mention that the “coup” started out as an exchange of fire in a Juba military camp between two disgruntled groups of soldiers, whose loyalties are based on tribal lines. The exchange of fire spreads, and anyone who’s lived in Egypt, or elsewhere where there was civil strife, will know that rumours fly faster than the sound of speeding bullets. Before you know it there is strong conviction of a coup, an ethnically driven struggle, a small genocide in an area of the city. Troops start rallying to defend their  kin, the chain of command breaks, panic stricken civilians rush for shelter in UN camps or elsewhere where they meet feel safe, and in the madness a few hundred people are felled.

Conjectural evidence supports the idea that this wasn’t a deliberate and organized coup attempt, simply because it didn’t seem very organized, the firing was initially limited to parts of Juba and no where else in the country, and it died down on the first day almost as quick as it erupted. That’s not to say thought that what started out as an accident cannot develop into a sustained armed rebellion by parts of the military loyal to the dissident members of the SPLM antagonized by Salva Kiir’s rising autocracy. This is perhaps why the South Sudanese President expressed his wishes to end the matter amicably, before there really is a dignified coup attempt.

Nothing of this sort happens out of the blue. For months top leaders of the SPLM have been voicing their differences with Slava Kiir, announcing his tendency towards hording the decision making process and his transformation into a common variety dictator. He on the other hand has accused members of the cabinet with corruption, insubordination and undermining the President’s authority by bad-mouthing him in Public and abroad.

It is very likely that the allegations of both sides are correct. Kiir sacked the entire cabinet in June, flew off the handle when Riek Machar announced he might run for President in 2015, and his forces have been increasingly tightening the grip on the media and censoring what it reports.

On the other hand, There is a substantial amount of evidence that supports the corruption charges against long time SPLM heavy-weights such as Kosti Manibe (former Finance Minister), and Deng Alor (former Minister for Cabinet Affairs).

It is disappointing to read most of the reporting that points a finger exclusively towards ethnic tensions and Riek Machar. The officials who were deposed of in the July cabinet shuffle represented a wide range of ethnic backgrounds and by no means shared Machar’s affinity to the Lou Nuer. It is dismissive of the complex nature of events in South Sudan, as well as pejoratively reductionist, to portray this power struggle as an ethnic divide. Of course ethnic divides will be played upon and used as a tool by the protagonists of the current debacle, such as religion is used by everyone in Egypt, but the truth of the matter is that there are deeper grievances. Kiir’s czarism and the corruption of high-level officials are part of these grievances, and so are the anti-human rights excesses of the SPLA especially in areas like Jonglei State. The Murle insurgency of David Yau Yau, and the Bur Nuer rebellion of Peter Gatdet are not merely ethnically driven. They also have economic underpinnings and they have been fueled by a lot of bad decisions on behalf of government forces working in the area who often mistreated locals and showed a disregard for basic rights. This sort of behaviour, while by no means acceptable, is not unexpected from a militia that still has a long road ahead in its transformation from a rowdy rebel group into a professional army.

Causes for the current situation also include a long-standing resentment against the half-educated, rough-around-the-edges Salva Kiir who rose to prominence and became the country’s president, and the clan of well-educated, stately members of the SPLM who share an elitist view of themselves, and who think they can run the country better than Kiir if they were only given the chance. There is an intellectual, almost classist, rift between the antagonistic camps which is under-reported by international media. SPLM stalwarts who were arrested or wanted for arrest, and who are now accused of supporting “the coup” have nothing in common with Machar (definitely not ethnicity) other than the fact that they are corrupt, or that they all have that elitist more-educated-than-thou air about them. And to say that Kiir is afraid of Machar’s bid for presidency in 2015 completely disregards the amount of resentment most South Sudanese carry for the former vice-President. Machar is not only remembered for his heinous Upper Nile Massacre of 1991 (when his forces murdered 2000 Dinkas), he is also held responsible for facilitating the Sudanese unrightful evacuation of ethnic Dinkas from Unity State between 1998 and 2001, to clear the way for oil exploration in their ancestral homes. Any dreams Machar has of becoming President are wholly unrealistic, and are only utilized to add pressure on Kiir to open up the decision-making process and perhaps delegate more authority and financial autonomy to the individual states.

Difficulties facing the new country abound, and it is in no one interest for the conflict to continue. Ethnic divides are being used as a tool to draw more people into the conflict, however they are not themselves the cause of the current crisis. The media, political commentators, and state officials, should refrain from portraying the problem along ethnic lines. Machar is ethnically different from Kiir, and has political ambitions, but he has no chances of becoming the head of the state, and he is also at odds ethnically and politically with all the South Sudanese figures now under arrest or wanted for their role in the attempted coup. Kiir has a right to hold officials accountable for corruption and mismanagement charges, but he also needs to realize that there can be now way forward for the country without devolving political power to the states and to government ministries, and without restoring confidence in a truly democratic political process. And finally, the trouble in Jonglei has roots that run far deeper than the recent coup attempt, and it requires a whole of government approach with massive help from the international community to pave the way for development, and for the reform of the armed forces.

One thought on “The Rumble in Juba

  1. “We must be cautious against viewing the latest violence [in South Sudan] as a purely Dinka-Nuer clash. Many Dinkas are being arrested as well. The Dinkas are not unified and there is no strong solidarity within the SPLM politicians. It’s being manipulated by all sides and people are instrumentalising ethnic identity to achieve political ends”.

    Cedric Barnes, Horn of Africa Project Director, France24, 18 December

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