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The Political Crisis in South Sudan
Douglas H. Johnson
African Studies Review / Volume 57 / Issue 03 / December 2014, pp 167 - 174
DOI: 10.1017/asr.2014.97, Published online: 02 December 2014
Link to this article: http://journals.cambridge.org/abstract_S0002020614000973
How to cite this article:
Douglas H. Johnson (2014). The Political Crisis in South Sudan. African Studies
Review, 57, pp 167-174 doi:10.1017/asr.2014.97
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The Political Crisis in South Sudan
Douglas H. Johnson
Key Words : South Sudan ; SPLM/A ; civil war
The political crisis in South Sudan is now more than a year old, with no
immediate end in sight to the fighting between armed factions. What began
as a power struggle within the ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation
Movement (SPLM), reignited factional fighting within the army, the Sudan
People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), in December 2013. Both the political
and military crises had their origins in unresolved tensions following
the split in the SPLM/A in the 1990s and the incomplete integration of
opposed factions into the army following the signing of the Comprehensive
Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005 (see Johnson 2014 ). Many South Sudanese
expected that these tensions would eventually erupt in some form of con-
flict following independence in 2011, but the rapid escalation and intensity
of fighting has still taken them by surprise.
This commentary can give only the barest outline of a complex
series of events motivated by a mixture of political disappointment, per-
sonal ambition, and ethnic rivalry. A more detailed reporting of various
aspects of the crisis can be found in the updated reports of the Human
Security Baseline Assessment (HSBA) for Sudan and South Sudan and
human rights reports by Amnesty International, the United Nations
Mission in South Sudan, and the South Sudan Human Rights Commission
( 2014 ).
African Studies Review , Volume 57, Number 3 (December 2014), pp. 167– 174
Douglas H. Johnson is an independent scholar and the author of The Root Causes of
Sudan’s Civil Wars: Peace or Truce ( James Currey, 2011) . He was a member of the
Abyei Boundaries Commission . E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
© African Studies Association, 2014
168 African Studies Review
The CPA was constructed around the assumption that John Garang
would remain the leader of the SPLM/A, the head of the Government
of South Sudan (GoSS), and the first vice president in the power-sharing
Government of National Unity (GNU) with the National Congress Party
(NCP) throughout the six-year interim period leading up to the South
Sudanese independence referendum in 2011. His death in July 2005, three
weeks after his inauguration as first vice president, catapulted two men
into unexpected positions of power: Salva Kiir Mayardit, Garang’s deputy,
assumed the leadership of the party and his two constitutional positions,
while Riek Machar, occupying the third highest position in the party,
became vice president in the GoSS. Had Garang lived, it is unlikely that
either man would have remained in their initial positions, as Garang was
adept at moving potential rivals around, preventing them from entrench-
ing themselves in positions of power within the party or the army.
Salva Kiir, a veteran guerrilla of the first civil war, was, along with
Garang, the last surviving founder of the SPLM/A, all others having been
killed in the fratricidal warfare that engulfed the SPLM/A during the 1990s
(see Johnson 2011 :ch.7). His survival was due, in part, to having kept aloof
from the internal politics of the movement, seeing himself as a soldier
rather than a politician. Tensions had arisen between him and Garang
at the end of 2004, just before the signing of the CPA, and his future in
a Garang-led government was uncertain.
Riek Machar had joined the movement from a civilian, rather than
a military, background and broke with Garang in 1991 over personal and
ideological differences. His attempt to lead a reformed movement failed,
and in the end he was forced to fall back on the support of sections of his
own Nuer people, a significant proportion of them coming from Khartoum-
backed militias. Machar soon lost control over both the formal and infor-
mal armed bodies under his command. His rebellion disintegrated into
internecine fighting among Nuer, with civilians being the main targets,
a pattern that was to reemerge in his current rebellion (see Johnson 2009 ,
2011 :ch.8). He reconciled with Garang in 2002, just as internationally bro-
kered peace negotiations with Khartoum began, and was elevated to the
number three spot in the movement’s hierarchy.
Salva Kiir faced many challenges in forming a government to adminis-
ter southern Sudan during the interim period prior to the independence
referendum. As leader of the army, the party, and the government, he first
appointed persons closer to himself than to Garang, some with strong ties
to Khartoum, leaving many of the SPLM stalwarts—“Garang’s Orphans”—
marginalized within the party and government (see Nyaba 2011 ). A number
were brought back into central positions midway into the interim period as
relations between the SPLM and the NCP in the GNU worsened over issues
of oil, the undefined North–South boundary, and the disputed Abyei area
(see Johnson 2008 , 2010 , 2012 ). As far as internal security was concerned,
the president sought to conciliate the Khartoum-backed mainly Nuer mili-
tias by absorbing them into the SPLA with offers of promotions to their
Commentary: The Political Crisis in South Sudan 169
officers and salaries to the rank and file. Initially successful, this strategy
only stored up problems within the army as former enemies remained only
incompletely integrated, the balance of loyalties shifted, and mini-rebellions
were contained only by offering the same inducements of promotion and
cash (see LeRiche & Arnold 2012 ).
The SPLM’s political priorities shifted under Salva Kiir, away from
Garang’s vision of a “New Sudan” united under a secular state and toward
the independence of South Sudan only. This involved the decision that
SPLM candidates would not contest the 2010 presidential and national par-
liamentary elections and outwardly abandoning the members of the SPLM
and SPLA stationed in neighboring South Kordofan and Blue Nile, states
that were not included in South Sudan’s independence referendum. It also
meant keeping the SPLM’s own internal divisions quiet in a show of unity
prior to the independence referendum.
With the referendum out of the way and independence internationally
recognized, discontent within the party became more visible and vocal.
John Garang’s widow, Rebecca Nyandeng, was quite open in voicing her
dissatisfaction with her husband’s successor as leader of the SPLM/A. Riek
Machar had announced his ambition to become president of the indepen-
dent nation as early as 2008. He argued for presidential term limits to be
written into the transitional constitution, but the new constitution gave the
president considerable powers, while the office of vice president remained
an appointed, not an elective, position. Some disappointed candidates in
the 2010 elections formed their own breakaway movements, supplied with
arms by Khartoum, and there were mini-rebellions in the oil-owning states
of Upper Nile, Unity, and Jonglei. Battles of increasing brutality escalated
between groups of armed civilians, especially between the Nuer and Murle
of Jonglei, and the government responded with heavy-handed disarma-
ment campaigns wherever they could not buy off the antagonists with fur-
ther incorporation into the army.
Discontent with the lack of development, corruption within the party
and the government, and continued insecurity in parts of the country
became increasingly public in 2012–13 as the party carried out national and
internal consultations to prepare its basic documents prior to its national
convention scheduled for May 2013. Uncertainty about whether Salva Kiir
intended to stand for reelection prompted not only Riek Machar, but also
Rebecca Nyandeng and Pagan Amum, the party’s secretary-general, to
announce their intention to stand for election as party chairman, which
would automatically make the winner the party’s candidate for president.
Many other officials were also dissatisfied with the sense of drift in both the
party and the government and supported, with varying degrees of warmth,
reforms proposed by Riek Machar and the other contenders for the
Relations between the president and vice president deteriorated, with
the president beginning to feel isolated within the party: he viewed as dis-
loyal anyone seen to be supporting the vice president’s agenda. In a series
170 African Studies Review
of moves throughout the first half of 2013 Salva Kiir stripped Riek of his
delegated powers, removed various critics from positions of power within
the government, dismissed Riek’s cousin-in-law, Taban Deng Gai, as governor
of the strategic oil-producing Unity State, and finally, on July 23, 2013, dis-
missed Riek and his entire cabinet and suspended Pagan Amum as secretary-
general of the SPLM. This was followed in November by an announcement
dissolving all political structures of the SPLM except for the chairmanship
and the secretariat, thus depriving the president’s critics not only of their
positions in government, but in the party as well.
Salva Kiir’s new cabinet included many nonmembers of the SPLM,
persons who had no real power base in the party, and others whose main
qualification was that they came from the same region as the president and
were entirely dependent on him for advancement. Some were seen still to
be close to Khartoum, and relations with the NCP government of Sudan
began to improve, especially over security issues and ending Juba’s support
for the SPLM/A-North.
This political housecleaning paralleled an earlier large-scale forced
retirement of senior officers within the SPLA, many with strong links to
their former comrades-in-arms in the SPLM/A-North, now engaged in
open warfare with Khartoum in Blue Nile and South Kordofan states.
Some of the remaining Khartoum-backed rebel movements along South
Sudan’s border with Sudan made their peace with Juba and were brought
into the army. The balance of loyalties in the army was now skewed away
from long-term veterans of the movement and toward defectors with a his-
tory of disaffection.
These dismissals created a new coalition of internal opposition within
the SPLM. Riek Machar, as the most prominent dissenter, became its figure-
head, but the coalition was more united in its dissatisfaction with Salva Kiir
than in support for Riek Machar’s ambitions. Many, in fact, were old
opponents of Riek, forced into an alliance by Salva Kiir’s increasing author-
itarianism and intransigence. They included former governors of Unity,
Northern Bahr el-Ghazal, and Lakes states as well as a defeated gubernato-
rial candidate from Central Equatoria; former ministers and senior figures
in the army; members of John Garang’s family and one-time close associates
of Garang such as Deng Alor Kuol from Abyei. Ethnically they were
diverse, coming from the three largest Nilotic groups of Dinka, Nuer, and
Shilluk, as well as some Equatorian peoples. Nevertheless, the majority
were drawn from Jonglei, Upper Nile, and Unity states, the former strong-
holds of pro-Khartoum militias and Riek Machar’s 1990s breakaway group.
It was an unlikely alliance and proved to be an unstable one.
The events that led up to an outbreak of fighting in December 2013 are
still disputed. On December 6, 2013, the dissident group held a press con-
ference criticizing Salva Kiir’s leadership of the party and the government.
Some of the main criticisms, such as the marginalization of Garang’s closest
supporters and collusion with Khartoum, motivated the SPLM stalwarts
in the group more than Riek, since he had once been Khartoum’s chief
Commentary: The Political Crisis in South Sudan 171
collaborator. Other issues, such as the president’s increasingly autocratic
behavior, policy drift, and a failure to combat corruption, were more
broadly supported, though many of the dissidents themselves were accused
of corruption. They called upon the president to convene a meeting of the
SPLM Political Bureau (now dissolved) and announced a public opposi-
tion rally to be held in Juba on December 14. The SPLM Secretariat then
announced that a meeting of the National Liberation Council (NLC) would
be held on the same day. The public rally was postponed and the NLC
meeting was opened by the president, who attacked Riek in his opening
address, reminding the audience of his role in splitting the SPLM/A in the
1990s. Motions proposed by the dissident group were voted down and they
boycotted the meeting the next day when the party’s policy documents
were passed without substantial debate.
On December 15 the president ordered the disarmament of the
presidential guard, a combination of SPLA veterans and recently integrated
Nuer militiamen, during which fighting broke out between largely Nuer
and Dinka soldiers and spread to other garrisons around Juba. On
December 16 Salva Kiir announced on television that an attempted coup
had been foiled, and throughout the next few days security forces, including
specially recruited troops from the president’s home area, combed through
different neighborhoods in Juba targeting Nuer civilians and arresting the
opposition politicians. Mutinies of largely Nuer units in Jonglei, Upper
Nile, and Unity states followed in close succession and Riek Machar, now
based in Jonglei, called on the army to overthrow Salva Kiir. Large groups
of armed Nuer civilians were recruited into Riek’s forces, and during
several months of seesaw fighting in the three states large numbers of
civilians were killed, often brutally. The SPLA received help against
Riek’s forces from units of the Ugandan army, already based in South Sudan
as part of an anti–Lord’s Resistance Army force, as well as the SPLA-
North from neighboring Blue Nile state and the Darfur Justice and Equality
Movement (JEM) allied to the SPLA-North in neighboring South Kordofan.
The involvement of the latter led to the massacre of hundreds of Darfuri
traders in Bentiu when it was briefly retaken by Riek’s troops in April.
Under intense international diplomatic pressure the opposing sides signed
two cessation-of-hostilities agreements in Addis Ababa; both were repeat-
edly violated. Fighting paused only with the onset of the rainy season in May.
Salva Kiir and Riek Machar each accuse the other of initiating the
fighting. Riek has denied that he attempted a coup, and the government
has failed to provide compelling evidence to substantiate this claim. All the
other alleged coup plotters among the political detainees were released,
though the government claimed that it had not dropped charges against
them. There is also very little hard evidence of an active coup plot, as opposed
to an attempted coup. The counter claim is that the president planned
a purge of political and military opponents through the recruitment of
a special force from his home area, kept separate from the SPLA military
command, and that the confrontation at the NLC in December was the
172 African Studies Review
excuse for releasing them into Juba—“ Interahamwe style” as one former
political detainee put it—targeting Nuer civilians and the families of Nuer
There can be no serious dispute of the role of government security
forces in the murder of large numbers of unarmed civilians in Juba in
December 2013, whether as a separate force under the president’s com-
mand or as part of the SPLA. That there was no active coup attempt is also
indisputable. But this does not mean that there was no threat of some sort
of military intervention against the government. After his dismissal as gov-
ernor of Unity state in July, Taban Deng Gai is reported to have gone to
Khartoum to raise support for Riek, repeating his role as Riek’s liaison with
Khartoum during the early years of the SPLA split. Oil money that was sup-
posed to be paid to Unity state during Taban’s governorship is now alleged
to be supporting the activities of Riek’s SPLM-in-Opposition (SPLM-O).
During the same period at least one member of the opposition to Salva Kiir
spoke openly about keeping “all options on the table,” including some
form of armed struggle. The speed with which a series of senior Nuer field
commanders mobilized their forces against the government also suggests
that at the very least some opposition military network had been put in
place. We need no reminder in this centenary year of the outbreak of the
First World War that planning for military contingencies can lead to miscal-
culations on all sides with catastrophic consequences.
Despite the comparison with the Interahamwe cited above, South Sudan
is not yet on the brink of a Rwanda-style genocide, with all Nuer fighting all
Dinka. Fighting has largely been confined to the three states of Jonglei,
Upper Nile, and Unity where the legacy of interethnic fighting within the
SPLA during the 1990s is strongest. There have been some revenge killings
outside those states, but Nuer continue to serve in the SPLA, the govern-
ment, and the civil service. A former Nuer militia in Unity state has been
instrumental in supporting the SPLA against invading Nuer forces from
Jonglei and Upper Nile. There have been opportunistic cattle raids between
communities of neighboring states, but Nuer refugees have found protec-
tion in Dinka communities and vice versa.
Riek has committed some of the same mistakes that doomed his break-
away movement in the 1990s. He very quickly lost control of his forces in
the field by recruiting ill-disciplined armed civilian militias who have been
responsible for some of the worst atrocities against civilians. Publicly he has
proclaimed himself in favor of democracy and against dictatorship, but his
main appeal has been to a sense of Nuer entitlement, cloaked in semireli-
gious references to the nineteenth-century Nuer prophet Ngundeng. After
the massacres of Dinka, Shilluk, Nuer, and Darfuri civilians by his forces in
Malakal and Bentiu, he has very little that is positive to offer other South
Neither the government nor the opposition enjoys firm widespread
support. Salva Kiir’s greatest appeal has been to his own Awan-Mou Dinka
community from Northern Bahr el-Ghazal state, but Dinka from other
Commentary: The Political Crisis in South Sudan 173
communities continue to be among his strongest critics. The governors of
Western, Central, and Eastern Equatoria, three of the states least touched
by continuing ethnic violence, have pledged their support for the govern-
ment, less out of loyalty to the president or the party and more in opposi-
tion to violent regime change. Nuer support for Riek has declined as they
count the mounting cost of their own casualties. Most of Riek’s former allies
among the now released political detainees have distanced themselves from
his armed rebellion and have refused to join the SPLM-O, preferring to
remain as a third force. The satirical website “Saakam!”—South Sudan’s
answer to The Onion and Private Eye (motto: “Sharing news like it never hap-
pened, making you think like you count”)—has highlighted the dilemmas
of the political actors with fake headlines such as “SPLM to tighten mem-
bership rules, making resignation harder but more profitable,” “Rebels to
be more selective in welcoming white-collar defectors and ‘armyless’ gen-
erals,” and “Earthquake rocks South Sudan capital, Equatoria governors
Both sides face increased diplomatic isolation. Riek’s supporters pre-
sent his recent tour of regional capitals as proof of his growing reputation
as a state leader. Yet diplomatic sources cite his request for military support
from Kenya and South Africa as evidence both of his lack of awareness of
international realities and the extent of his self-delusion. Diplomatic sup-
port for Salva Kiir personally is also weakening. Even Uganda, his strongest
regional backer, is now seeing him as a liability (see Radio Tamazuj 2014 ).
So far tentative U.S. and E.U. sanctions against individuals have had little
effect, but more robust sanctions against the main protagonists, if sup-
ported by neighboring countries, could have a sobering effect.
Prospects for an immediate peace seem as remote as ever. A CPA-style
“power-sharing” agreement is unlikely to hold, considering that the cur-
rent conflict is the result of the breakdown of a de facto internal power-
sharing arrangement. Both Salva Kiir and Riek Machar stand accused of
ultimate responsibility for widespread human rights abuses against civil-
ians by their forces. This has undermined their legitimacy as national
leaders in the eyes of many South Sudanese, yet an interim arrangement
without them is, at present, unrealistic. A more practical approach might
be to put in place an internationally enforced ceasefire first, giving time
for a new political arrangement to be negotiated through a nationwide
constitutional convention that includes more than just the current com-
batants. Ironically, before 1989 this was the SPLM’s preferred option for
ending its war with Khartoum and ushering in the “New Sudan.” It is time
for the SPLM’s fractured leadership to work out how they can best create
a “New South Sudan.”
Amnesty International . 2014 . “Nowhere Safe: Civilians Under Attack in South
Sudan.” London: Amnesty International . www.amnesty.org .
174 African Studies Review
Johnson , Douglas H . 2008 . “ Why Abyei Matters: The Breaking Point of Sudan’s
Comprehensive Peace Agreement? ” African Affairs 107 ( 426 ): 1 – 19 .
——— . 2009 . “ The Nuer Civil Wars .” In Changing Identification and Alliances in North-
East Africa , vol. 2 , edited by Günther Schlee and Elizabeth E. Watson , 31 – 47 .
New York : Berghahn Books .
——— . 2010 . When Boundaries Become Borders: The Impact of Boundary-Making in
Southern Sudan’s Frontier Zones . Nairobi : Rift Valley Institute .
——— . 2011 . The Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil Wars: Peace or Truce . Revised edition.
Woodbridge, U.K. : James Currey .
——— . 2012 . “ The Heglig Oil Dispute between Sudan and South Sudan .” Journal of
Eastern African Studies 6 ( 3 ): 561 –69.
2014 . “ Briefing: the Crisis in South Sudan .” African Affairs 113 ( 451 ):
300 – 309 .
LeRiche , Matthew , and Matthew Arnold . 2012 . South Sudan from Revolution to
Independence . London : Hurst & Co .
Nyaba , Peter Adwok . 2011 . South Sudan: The State We Aspire to . Cape Town : Centre for
Advanced Study of African Society .
Radio Tamazuj . 2014 . “Museveni Seeking South Sudan ‘Exit Strategy.’” July 21 .
Small Arms Survey–Sudan . 2014 a. “Timeline of Recent Intra-Southern Conflict.”
June 27 . www.smallarmssurveysudan.org .
South Sudan Human Rights Commission (SSHRC) . 2014 . “Interim Report on South
Sudan Internal Conflict: December 15, 2013 to March 15, 2014.” Juba: Southern
Sudan, Sudan . www.gurtong.net .
——— . 2014 b. “The SPLM-in-Opposition.” May 2 . www.smallarmssurveysudan.org .
United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS) . 2014 . “Conflict
in South Sudan: A Human Rights Report.” May 8. Bahr al Jabal, South Sudan:
1. See, e.g., Amnesty International ( 2014 ); UNMISS ( 2014 ); SSHRC ( 2014 ). For
reports of the HBSA see, e.g., Small Arms Survey–;Sudan ( 2014a , 2014b) and
specific shorter reports from the same source on the conflicts in Upper Nile,
Unity, and Jonglei states.
2. Loosely translated from Juba Arabic, “Saakam!” means “Say what?” See saakam.