Today, South Sudanese President Salva Kiir sacked his Vice President Riek Machar and dissolved the government, leaving undersecretaries of various ministries to run said ministries until further notice. Although there had been a few recent indications of internal fissures within the ruling Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement (SPLM) and the cold war between Salva and Riek had been heating up since the spring, I don’t know that anyone had been anticipating anything this…drastic. I mean, we all expected Salva to eventually fire Riek, but I don’t think anyone expected him to nuke his entire cabinet.
For those unfamiliar with the history between these two men: Riek and Salva were both senior commanders in the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army (SPLA) during Sudan’s Second Civil War (1983-2005). In August 1991, Riek along with Lam Akol and Gordon Kong issued a paper entitled “Why John Garang Must Go Now” criticizing Garang’s leadership and launching a breakaway faction of the SPLA. (This is a vast oversimplification of the events leading to what is called the Nasir Coup and what the implications were for the SPLA and South Sudan, so I recommend reading Douglas H. Johnson’s The Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil Wars, Robert O. Collins’ A History of Modern Sudan, and John Young’s The Fate of Sudan: The Origins and Consequences of a Flawed Peace Process.) The split within the SPLA was detrimental because up until that point, the SPLA had been beating the Sudanese military on the battlefield. (Matthew Arnold & Matthew Leriche’s South Sudan: From Revolution to Independence is a great source for understanding the ebb and flow of SPLA strength from 1983 through independence.) However the SPLA’s rear base in Ethiopia and support from the Derg regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam went away when the Derg regime fell in May 1991, leaving the SPLA extremely vulnerable. Thus, on top of the crisis of losing Ethiopia’s support, the Nasir Coup not only further weakened the SPLA, but also fanned the flames of a brutal decade of South-South (Dinka-Nuer, Nuer-Nuer) violence in the Greater Upper Nile region (present day Unity, Upper Nile, and Jonglei states) from which South Sudan is still recovering.
The Nasir Coup did not, in fact, result in an uprising against Garang within the SPLA, so over the next decade Riek went on to lead many alphabet soups worth of rebel movements and even formed a tactical alliance with the ruling National Islamic Front (NIF) / National Congress Party (NCP) regime in Khartoum. He reconciled with Garang in 2002, and became Salva’s VP upon Garang’s death in July 2005. Due to Riek’s betrayal of the SPLA in 1991 and the fact that the Nasir Coup precipitated South Sudan’s “civil war within a civil war” in the 1990s, his presence in the government had always been a marriage of convenience, and even of necessity. As a former rebel leader and a influential politician from the Nuer ethnic group (second largest in South Sudan after the Dinka), having Riek in such a high position was one of the ways to demonstrate that the Republic of South Sudan would not suffer from “Dinka hegemony.”
To fast forward to today’s events – fortunately (or unfortunately?) Salva’s entire cabinet has been sacked, so this hopefully will not be interpreted as specifically targeting Riek or collectively, the Nuer, for marginalization. Note that Deng Alor (former Minister of Cabinet Affairs, and previously Foreign Minister; Dinka) had been sacked last month and is said to be under investigation for corruption, while Pagan Amum (SPLM Secretary General, from the Shilluk ethnic group) was also part of today’s mass firing. Therefore, until we see what South Sudan’s new cabinet looks like, it’s going to be difficult to see who’s been marginalized and speculate as to what they might do about it. But just to plant this idea in your mind – the previous period of political competition in South Sudan leading up to and following the 2010 elections corresponded with a proliferation of armed groups led by or supported by individuals excluded from the country’s new political dispensation. So the recomposition of Salva’s cabinet and how the SPLM handles the runup to the 2015 elections will be critical in determining whether or not we see armed movements re-emerging.
For insight on why today’s developments are such a big deal – and to explain the title of this post – I highly recommend International Crisis Group‘s April 2011 report Politics and Transition in the New South Sudan. By many accounts, comparisons between Salva and his predecessor, the late John Garang, distinguish between Garang’s authoritarianism and Salva’s efforts to be more conciliatory towards his opponents inside and outside of the political elite. This approach, one could argue, is what enabled southern Sudan, which was emerging from South-South violence during the 1990s, to come together to vote for independence in the January 2011 referendum and to become the Republic of South Sudan just over two years ago. Conciliation and compromise on the part of Salva Kiir led to him bringing former adversaries into the SPLM/A fold – into his large tent, as the report describes it. Viewed positively, these characteristics led to the signing of the 2006 Juba Declaration, which neutralized the threat armed groups posed to the government of South Sudan in the immediate aftermath of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). Viewed negatively, Salva’s need for consensus coupled with the weakness of his government meant that he could, until recently, only pay lip service to tackling massive corruption within his government, lest his allies and former adversaries turn against him.
Throughout his time in power, Salva Kiir has played a delicate balancing act, trying to remain in control of South Sudan while bringing rebels and dissenters into the fold. Sacking the entire cabinet and dissolving the government, doesn’t track with anything he’s done as a leader thus far, which is why today’s events are such a big deal.
Yesterday, Nigeria’s The Guardian newspaper reported that President Goodluck Jonathan has ordered the withdrawal of Nigerian troops currently deployed to Mali. Nigerian troops initially entered Mali in January 2013 as part of the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA), and had come under the command of the UN’s Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), effective 1 July and authorized by UN Security Council Resolution 2100. With 4,684 troops currently participating in UN peacekeeping operations around the world, Nigeria is the third largest African contributor to such missions. In Mali in particular, as of mid-June, Nigeria had 991 troops in Mali (according to my numbers), meaning that one out of every six AFISMA soldiers came from Nigeria.
At this point, I’ve considered a few reasons that could be behind Nigeria’s motivation to withdraw from Mali:
- The first, and most likely reason Nigeria may pull out of Mali is the uptick in Boko Haram violence in northern Nigeria. In mid-May, President Jonathan declared a state of emergency in the northeastern states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe, and the government believed that the progress of the security forces’ subsequent offensive was encouraging. However, Boko Haram’s continued attacks on soft targets in northern Nigeria, such as the pre-dawn attack on a secondary school in Yobe state earlier this month may have led the Nigerian government to reconsider its commitment in Mali.
- For a second reason Nigeria may be withdrawing from Mali, recall the criticisms levied against the Nigerian military in the fall of 2012 – just before its deployment to Mali. The Nigerian military was accused of being incapable of carrying out forward operations in Mali, to which the Nigerian government rebutted that the military had proper training for an engagement in Mali, but simply required funding and logistic support. Furthermore, as the most capable military in West Africa, Nigeria had previously been successful in restoring peace to Liberia and Sierra Leone. Truth be told, all ECOWAS troop contributing nations faced significant difficulties deploying troops to Mali, so pre-deployment challenges were not unique to Nigeria, but rather a common problem that afflicts many African deployments to peacekeeping missions.
- The third, and in my opinion, least likely reason is that Nigeria was slighted by the selection of Major General Jean Bosco Kazura of Rwanda as the MINUSMA Force Commander instead of Major General Shehu Adbulkadir from Nigeria, who had been the AFISMA force commander since January. If you had been following the debates surrounding the selection of the MINUSMA force commander closely, you might recall that there had been speculation of a competition between Nigeria and Chad for the position of MINUSMA force commander. Chadian President Idris Déby sought the position for Chad as recognition of the role that Chadian troops had played in the January-February offensive to clear northern Mali of Ansar Dine, MUJAO, AQIM, et al. Allegedly, in order to avoid choosing between Chad and Nigeria, the UN chose Kazura – a force commander from neither country who has the added benefit of being francophone. Again, this seems like the least likely motivation because, quite simply put, it seems petty.
Regardless of Nigeria’s motivation for potentially pulling its troops from Mali, I believe that the impact would have been worst if Nigeria had not deployed as part of AFISMA in the first place. If you think of French, Chadian, and AFISMA roles and missions in Mali since January in terms of “clear, hold, build” the French and the Chadians were the “clear” element, while the Nigerians as part of AFISMA were the “hold” element. (I don’t think we’re at the “build” stage as yet.) If Nigeria, as the seat of ECOWAS and the largest contributor to UN peacekeeping operations in ECOWAS, had not been part of that initial AFISMA deployment, it is unlikely that the force would have gotten off the ground in the first place. So yeah, it wouldn’t be great if the Nigerians end up pulling out of MINUSMA, but in my opinion, it could have been far worse had they not contributed to AFISMA in the first place.