Armed clashes in South Sudan have highlighted the increasing fragility of the world’s youngest state. It is not clear how much this was the result of a coup attempt or of ethnic tensions. But what is certain is that President Salva Kiir will use this incident to crack down on his political adversaries.
Hundreds of people have been killed during in-fighting among the armed forces. The government now claims to be in control of security in the capital, with a dusk-to-dawn curfew in place.
Appearing on national television in military uniform, President Kiir announced that a coup led by Riek Machar, the former vice-president, had been repelled. Security forces raided the home of Machar, who has denied any connection with a coup, and his whereabouts are unknown.
Opposition to the president’s leadership has grown stronger since his decision to dissolve the entire cabinet in July. After being dismissed, Machar indicated he would challenge Kiir for the leadership of the ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM).
The government reshuffle was presented as an attempt to improve the functioning of the state and to resolve succession issues ahead of the SPLM convention in 2014. In what is a de-facto one-party state, Kiir’s re-election as party chairman would cement his hold on the presidency beyond the national elections in 2015. But his actions appear to have bolstered and perhaps unified his opponents instead.
On 6 December several senior members of the SPLM’s political bureau held a press conference in which they accused Kiir of ineffective leadership and increasing authoritarianism. The suspension of the party secretary-general, Pagan Amum, and the removal of two elected state governors earlier in the year were two examples given of politically motivated and unconstitutional presidential actions. This was the first public show of united opposition to Kiir from within the party, challenging his continued leadership.
In order to prevent the spread of tensions outside the capital, the government has downplayed tribal power struggles as the reason for the fighting. President Kiir is from the largest ethnic group, the Dinka, representing approximately 20 per cent of South Sudan’s nine million people, while Machar belongs to the country’s second-largest ethnic group, the Nuer. However, reports of simmering ethnic conflict should not be overplayed, despite the complex tribal nature of politics in South Sudan and the fact that the hostilities involved two divisions of the Republican Guard closely associated with the two groups.
Since South Sudan’s independence, internal and external crises have increased pressure on the SPLM as it transitions from a liberating force into a governing party. Calls by its supporters for dialogue between opposing groups within the party’s leadership have so far fallen on deaf ears.
The political fallout of this week’s events is uncertain, although the standoff between the president and his opponents is likely to continue. It may require foreign actors to broker peace. There will be concern about a narrowing of political space and freedoms in a country that the donor community is heavily invested in. Ethiopia and China have mediated between Sudan and South Sudan but it is uncertain whether they could facilitate compromise in the SPLM leadership struggle.
Sudan could take advantage of the deepening internal conflicts in Juba, despite previous assurances that any deals between the countries will not be impacted by political crises in South Sudan. However, in a call to Kiir, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir emphasized the importance of security and stability in South Sudan for the interests of the neighbouring countries.
Internal politics in South Sudan, as elsewhere in the region, is dominated by elite personalities between whom conflicts are commonplace. While this is set to continue, the extent of erosion of the fragile state, the responses of non-state actors and external influences will be significant factors in shaping political behaviour should instability in South Sudan continue.
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