29 July 2013
Ahmed Soliman

Ahmed Soliman

Research Associate, Horn of Africa, Africa Programme


The high expectations that came with South Sudan's independence in July 2011 have been quick to erode. Inadequate progress in development, ongoing insurgencies and concerns about governance and military influence have increased fears of state failure. Political crisis marked the country's second birthday when President Salva Kiir dissolved the entire cabinet. The constitutional 'major reshuffle' was by presidential decree. 

There is broad consensus among the population and in parliament over the need for more streamlined government and the president's actions can in part be seen as an attempt to improve the functionality of South Sudan's ruling party, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM). However, this is complicated by the dismissal of two of the government's most prominent members – Vice President Riek Machar and Secretary General Pagan Amum. Their sackings are linked to factionalism within the SPLM. Ahead of elections in 2015, an escalating power struggle has seen each advance their cause to be named SPLM chairperson. From the outside, Salva Kiir's pre-emptive move seems overly defensive: preventing two potential political opponents from challenging him, pushing them down the party's pecking order and paving the way for his leadership to continue. Riek Machar accepted the decision and confirmed his intention to contest for the presidency from within the SPLM.

President Kiir will aim to name a new cabinet soon. But the lack of ministerial capacity will mean no important decisions will be made until the new government is formed. A reduction in the number of government ministries from 29 to 19 will reduce his options for maintaining alliances in the SPLM. How long it takes the president to form the cabinet and the strength of his appointments are likely to determine whether he successfully resolves the issue of succession ahead of the party convention later this year.

Still in transition

The SPLM has yet to shed its militaristic tendencies in favour of civilian-led governance. Its leadership still values rigid army seniority above the promotion of individual and collective merit. President Kiir is aware that despite the SPLM's declining legitimacy, it retains much public loyalty having secured the right to self-determination and there is no sign yet of a viable opposition party or candidate. 

Corruption and mismanagement also explain the president's political shake-up. Last year, Kiir wrote to South Sudanese officials asking for the return of stolen funds estimated to have cost the country $4 billion since 2005. The suspension of Cabinet Affairs Minister Deng Alor and Finance Minister Kosti Manibe in June 2013 over corruption allegations and the subsequent appointment of SPLM tribunals are a step towards addressing the issue. However the tribunals – and that for Pagan Amum – risk being seen as politically motivated, thereby constituting an abuse of executive power. 

Planning ahead

With two years until the next election and the economy rapidly deteriorating, there is an opportunity for Riek Machar and Pagan Amum to bide their time within the party and build support from within to challenge Salva Kiir. Alternatively, they could carve their own separate factions from the SPLM and attempt to run as opposition candidates. Current restrictions against political opposition in South Sudan would be challenged if the prominent figures joined forces – as former opponents Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto did in Kenya. A standoff between the president and his opponents is likely to continue for some time.

The collapse comes at a critical moment during talks with Sudan. Khartoum has threatened to shut down Red Sea oil export pipelines on 22 August unless the SPLM ends its support for rebels in Sudan's Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan regions. South Sudan denies aiding the rebels and has threatened its own shut down of oil production, alleging that the rebellion led by David Yau Yau in Jonglei is backed by Sudan. 

Negotiations with Sudan will be weakened by the absence of chief negotiator Pagan Amum. Sudan is well placed to take advantage of the situation despite assurances that any deals with Juba will not be impacted by the political crisis. Senior diplomats are consulting between the two countries, including Thabo Mbeki who heads the African Union's High-Level Implementation Panel. Ethiopian Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom and China’s Africa Envoy Zhong Jianhua have intervened to help progress on the joint cooperation agreement that aims to continue the flow of oil that is vital to both countries' economies.

Oil shutdown

The shutdown of oil production in January 2012 immobilized 98% of government income for over a year; another extended closure risks corroding the pipelines. South Sudan recently became a member of the IMF but government paralysis may hinder its ability to meet the first loan repayments taken to cover the loss of earnings from oil. Austerity is being felt across South Sudan, with cuts of 30% to government consumption, transfers to the country's ten states and the development budget. Public sector salaries have been mostly untouched, but the government is struggling to pay them. In 2012, food and fuel price increases were as high as 170% in some states. A similar period without oil revenues coupled with a protracted political standoff would cripple the economy and push households further into destitution.

The government has been unable to use independence and its liberated oil fields as a catalyst for progressive change. Internal and external crises have increased pressure on the SPLM, still transitioning from a liberating force into a governing party. Evolution is possible; a split in the SPLM could be positive if it led to the emergence of new political parties. However, this could be tempered by the tendency towards factionalization rather than democratization, escalating ethnic divisions, paralyzing the SPLM and potentially lead the country towards more violence. 

The international community must offer its support to ensure that domestic and cross-border political stalemates do not worsen. For President Salva Kiir, the choice is between the interests of the nation and those of power. Focus on the former is essential to South Sudan's future; it now needs a government that can prioritize service delivery in the interests of the South Sudanese people.