Institute for Security Studies (Tshwane/Pretoria)

20 December 2013

South Sudan Mishandles the Pro-Machar 'Coup'

interview

The on-going security situation in South Sudan has raised serious concerns about the future of Africa's newest nation. Andrews Atta-Asamoah, a senior researcher at the ISS, talks about the causes of the fighting and how the situation can be addressed.

Why an alleged 'coup' so early in the history of South Sudan?

First of all, I feel it is important that we clarify whether what has happened constitutes a coup d'état or not. This is because the definition will have implications for how those arrested will be seen by the current leadership of South Sudan.

My interpretation of the situation as per information available seems to point to a mutiny among the presidential guards along the lines of existing loyalties to the two main political protagonists in South Sudan - President Salva Kiir and Dr Riek Machar.

It was therefore, at least initially, not an attempt to wrestle political power by violent means, as first announced by the president in his press conference on 16 December 2013.

It might be an accidental situation that developed as a result of the nature of the response of the pro-Kiir elements within the army to the initial fighting.

So far, Dr Machar has denied any involvement in and knowledge of a coup in the country. If the government wants to continue marketing the situation as a coup meant to take power by violent means, it needs to provide a much more convincing narrative.

Based on what you have just said, do you think that the government has handled the situation in the best of ways?

In my view, by rushing to call the situation an attempted coup, directly blaming his former vice president and interpreting events against the backdrop of the 1991 split within the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement (SPLM), President Kiir virtually set the stage for the situation to worsen.

Even by appearing in a military uniform, his demeanour over-militarised the situation and set the tone for the events we have witnessed in the last couple of days.

By rushing to call it a coup and saying that his government was in charge, he immediately politicised the situation. Subsequent responses in arresting people who are popularly known to be his political opponents then directly fed into Dr Machar's narrative that the president was using the situation to deal with dissenting voices in the SPLM.

If it had been well handled, it could have remained limited to fighting in the military barracks rather than turn into fighting between pro-Kiir and pro-Machar elements and ethnic groups in the manner we have seen over the last couple of days.

What would you blame for the current unrest in South Sudan?

The current unrest has its immediate roots in the growing tensions within the SPLM in preparation for the 2015 presidential elections.

There are people in the party who feel President Kiir has surrounded himself with anti-reform elements and is therefore growing increasingly dictatorial in his dealings with the party.

According to these elements, including former vice president Machar and Pagan Amum, the deposed secretary-general of the SPLM, the president's actions are stifling internal party democracy and making party structures dysfunctional.

These criticisms are held by majority of the members of the former cabinet who were dismissed en masse along with the former vice president in July this year.

Since then, these issues have continued to stoke tensions in the party. Dr Machar has declared his interest in the chairmanship of the SPLM and this is certainly a threat to President Kiir following indications that Dr Machar is making inroads in winning support within the decision-making structures of the party. The associated tension between the two camps in the party has fed the current situation.

However, the situation worsened because of the extent to which the two political protagonists have support bases in the army and along ethnic lines.

It was thus easy for the tensions to feed on existing cleavages in South Sudanese society along the lines of inter-tribal suspicions within the army, between the largely Nuer pro-Machar group and dominant Dinka pro-Kiir elements.

Now the situation has worsened beyond the capital, also fuelled largely by historical fault lines of ethnic suspicions, over-militarisation of the political landscape, and longstanding splits in the political and military leadership of the country.

In my view, these issues were worsened by the nature of the response by the pro-Kiir elements of the army, once the president declared it an attempt to take power through a coup d'état.

What is the danger ahead?

At the moment, the situation has been ethnicised. Unfortunately, it has become a Nuer and Dinka issue, despite the efforts by the government to create a different narrative.

My biggest fear is that the situation has worsened existing ethnic cleavages in the new country and that South Sudan will never be the same.

In the same way that a bitter narrative exists around the Bor Massacre in 1991 among some of the ethnic groups, so too will a new narrative emerge among the Nuer about this December 2013 incident.

This will entrench the existing suspicion between the Nuer and Dinka and particularly the fear of Dinka dominance in the history of the country.

We also need to watch how the government handles the politicians who have been arrested. They represent important political and ethnic constituencies in the country. As such, anything that happens to them might define how the efforts at cohesion are received after this situation is contained.

How should the situation be handled at the moment?

Restraint on the part of pro-Kiir forces is important amid the confusion in the country. Any push by this group against pro-Machar elements will be misconstrued as an attack on the Nuer and will continue to ethnicise and worsen the situation. Restraint on the part of the government is therefore very important.

The government might also need to renounce its much-publicised intensions to arrest Dr Machar. Instead it might consider inviting him through a respected regional or international mediator for dialogue.

But there are questions around this move, because Dr Machar has so far denied all knowledge of and association with any coup, so how does he then become a representative for the confusion created by the situation?

That said, I think Dr Machar will do his reputation a lot of good if he not only distances himself from the situation but also condemns the use of violence and calls for calm among his loyalists as a matter of priority, and in the interest of peace.

In the same way, the government will need to consider whether the interests of peace will be served by keeping those arrested in custody.

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