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  • The Political Crisis in South Sudan
  • Douglas H. Johnson (bio)
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 conflict 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, personal 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).1 [End Page 167]

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 entrenching 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 informal 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 brokered 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 administer 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...


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pp. 167-174
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