At a hastily convened press conference on December 16, South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir announced to a stunned nation that the army had quelled an attempted coup. Kirr, who had swapped his trademark dark suit and cowboy hat for military fatigues at the press conference, accused former vice president Riek Machar and “his group” of orchestrating the alleged coup and vowed to bring the culprits to book.
The alleged coup comes in the wake of a significant fallout between two centres of power in the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) party. One group is allied to Kiir and another, to Machar. The rift in the SPLM emerged last year when Machar, who was then a sitting vice president, openly told the president that he was going to contest for the chairmanship of the SPLM in a convention slated for this year. Machar said his decision was motivated by Kiir’s leadership failures. Pagan Amum, the powerful secretary general of the SPLM also told the president that he was interested in the top seat in the party. In essence, anyone elected as chair, automatically becomes the party’s flag-bearer in the next elections in 2015.
Miffed at the challenge, Kiir orchestrated a process of stripping the two of all powers and responsibilities in the party and government. This process culminated in Machar’s dismissal from the vice president’s position and the subjection of Amum to house arrest and restricted travel locally and internationally in July. This month, Machar and his group called for a convening of the SPLM’s top decision-making organ – the politburo – to decide the fate of the party and the leadership question. Kiir ignored the call for obvious reasons; he has little support in the politburo.
But Kiir’s reference to a coup means the consequence of the fallout among South Sudan’s ruling elite is now being manifested on the military front. This move has significant implications for the country’s future, especially with regard to security sector reform in the armed forces.
To understand this crucial dynamic, it is important to note that South Sudan’s army, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), is still in the throes of an uncompleted reform process aimed at professionalizing and de-ethnicizing the former guerilla army. Outwardly, the SPLA brags of being a national army. In reality, it is far from being a homogenous unit that answers to a central command. Within it, the SPLA is plagued by a plethora of cleavages based on ethnic, regional, and political axes. In recent years, the SPLA absorbed thousands of militia soldiers, predominantly from Machar’s tribe, the Nuer. For reasons of geography and history, the SPLA’s top echelon is predominantly from Kiir’s tribe, the Dinka. In essence therefore, the SPLA has various centres of command. The very idea of a coup, allegedly staged by Machar’s group, is proof of the disparate composition of the SPLA and a rollback for any security sector reforms enacted so far.
The disparateness of the SPLA is also encapsulated in an accusation leveled at Kiir by Machar’s group last week, in which the president was accused of forming a private army in the name of the presidential guard. Observers praised the presidential guard as a beacon of hope because of its diverse ethnic composition. However, the firefight that resulted in the coup allegation emanated from the guard. This again dispels any notion of homogeneity in the SPLA.
Kiir is increasingly under pressure for various reasons. Top on the list is the government’s utter failure on the service delivery front. The government’s failures have resulted in challenges and criticism about Kiir’s leadership from within the party and from the general population. There are signs that the government is not taking this criticism kindly. The media is increasingly coming under heavy censure by the intelligence service, of which there are two directorates that answer directly to the president’s office, rather than to the minister of interior. This is an area of contention because the intelligence service has sweeping powers and does not answer to the judiciary. Although there is a move afoot to reform the intelligence act in the National Assembly, the process is bogged down by various factors, including lack of political will.
The clampdown on Machar’s group, resulting in the detention of about 13 high-ranking SPLM members, most of them former cabinet members, is a continuation of an increased process of consolidation of powers in the office of a president under duress. For security sector reform, this may enlarge the cleavages within the SPLA and possibly exacerbate the divisions within the army.
Ultimately, an army that lacks cohesion and adherence to a central command threatens the very existence of the state. At present, there is no end in sight for the political squabbles in South Sudan and the country is staring at a bleak future on the security sector reform front.
Brian Adeba is an Associate at the Security Governance Group.