Recent political developments in South Sudan have raised concerns about the new nation’s current stability and future peace. USIP’s Susan Stigant discusses the latest.   

South Sudan’s Political Turmoil
Photo Credit: Flickr/Al Jazeera English

On July 23, 2013, Salva Kiir Mayardit, president of the government of South Sudan, relieved the vice president, ministers and deputy ministers of their positions. The undersecretaries, who are the highest-ranking civil servants in each ministry, were tasked with continuing the work of the government until the formation of a new cabinet. President Kiir also signaled his plans to reduce the size of government from 27 to 19 ministries.

On the same day, President Kiir, in his capacity as the chairperson of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), suspended the party’s secretary-general, Pagan Amum. President Kiir established a committee to investigate the secretary general for allegations of mismanagement, insubordination, incitement of tribal sentiments and deliberate attempts to cause divisions within the party.

Signs of tension within the governing SPLM had resurfaced even before the upheaval. In anticipation of the 2015 national elections, prominent members of the SPLM have signaled their desire to lead the party, most notably Dr. Riek Machar, the SPLM deputy chairperson and former vice president.  Since being removed as vice president, Dr. Machar has stated publicly his intention to run as SPLM party chairperson and for president. President Kiir has also made clear his intention to run for another term.

Through a televised announcement on July 31, the president nominated 18 cabinet ministers, including two women, and 10 deputy ministers. Several positions remain to be filled, most notably vice president. In the initial list, few of the previous cabinet members have been returned, including Dr. Machar.

Why are these developments significant?

When South Sudan celebrated the second anniversary of independence on July 9, 2013, the country was already facing significant challenges. Under the best of circumstances, the government of South Sudan has an overwhelming task to establish and govern a new country: build its own institutional capacity; fulfill basic development needs such as clean water, education, basic health and roads; provide protection and security to its citizens; address widespread corruption; foster inclusive, democratic and multiparty political processes; and, manage its relationship with Sudan.

Without focused, committed and collaborative leadership within the government and within the governing SPLM, these tasks will be even more difficult.

Security, for example, remains one of the most urgent challenges and requires effective and focused leadership. Despite successful amnesty negotiations with some of the armed groups, violent conflict continues and has reached particularly alarming levels in Jonglei state. Since the beginning of the year, more than 100,000 people have been displaced and remain inaccessible to humanitarian assistance and protection. Of even greater concern, reports from human rights organizations indicate that the army has not only failed to protect civilians but also targeted women and children from a particular ethnic group.

South Sudan’s political transition process is another example of the significant tasks requiring effective and collaborative leadership. South Sudan’s next elections are anticipated no later than July 2015. The elections will determine the composition of the new parliament, which will have among its responsibilities the review and adoption of a new constitution. These elections will be the South Sudan’s first since independence and will be regulated by a new election law and a new political party law. In short, the elections will be a test of the guarantees for multiparty competition, campaigns and debates on policy issues.

The recent events demonstrate that elections will also be a test of the SPLM’s ability to manage internal decision-making and selection processes in a democratic and peaceful manner. Beyond the top party leadership, these contests will take place at the local level as candidates are nominated through the county, state and national structures. In the lead-up to the 2010 elections, frustration with a centralized nomination process resulted in more than350 SPLM members running as independent candidates. Without revised procedures and transparent decision-making process, the risk of similar tension remains high, as does the possibility of conflict.

Despite unity of purpose in the lead-up to the referendum on self-determination, a strong sense of national identity and vision has yet to emerge. Tribalism and ethnicity remain strong sources of identity; they also remain a source of division. In the case of the tensions within the SPLM, there are immediate concerns about a repeat of the historical split between the Dinka (President Kiir’s ethnic group) and the Nuer (Dr. Machar’s ethnic group).

What should be watched in the weeks ahead? What are the major points of concern?

Many analysts and observers have already started to speculate about what the recent political developments mean for the future of the SPLM and for South Sudan. However, it is too early to analyze to draw any conclusions. It is possible to identify some principles and questions that will help to analyze and understand developments in the short to medium term:

  • Inclusiveness in the new cabinet. South Sudanese citizens look at the degree of tribal balance in government as one indicator of inclusive government, according to public opinion research conducted by the National Democratic Institute (link: . South Sudan’s constitution requires that governments reflect ethnic, regional and social diversity to promote national unity, as well as a guarantee for at least 25 percent women’s representation.  Inclusion of other political parties in the cabinet has also been a signal of the commitment to multiparty democracy and inclusiveness;
  • Legislative confirmation of the cabinet and vice president. The constitution requires that the national legislative assembly confirm the nominee for vice president by two-thirds (2/3) majority and the cabinet by simple majority of all members. While the SPLM holds more than 2/3 majority of the seats in the national legislative assembly, it will be important to monitor the deliberations, particularly over the position of vice president which requires such a high approval threshold;
  • Commitment to address protection and security concerns. South Sudanese and international observers will be watching to see whether protection of civilians, access for humanitarian assistance and discipline within the security forces will be a policy priority of the new government. Up to the point where the new cabinet is confirmed and sworn in, observers will look to the president, the SPLA leadership, the relevant undersecretaries and the national legislative assembly to take action, provide direction, and implement and oversee decisions;
  • Ability to manage the relationship with Sudan. The relationship with Sudan requires ongoing engagement and communication. Will the government ensure continuity of relationships and expertise on the negotiation team? Will the new government and structure of the negotiation team reflect a commitment to resolve outstanding issues, particularly the final status of Abyei?
  • Ability to manage internal SPLM tensions, investigations and leadership discussions in line with the SPLM constitution and the national constitution. Questions have already been raised about the procedures for suspension of the secretary general and the constitutionality of orders to limit his movement and interaction with the media. Other questions to consider include: who is serving as the acting secretary general to ensure that the day-to-day party work is not stalled? Once the investigation committee provides its report to the chairperson, what action will be recommended to the SPLM National Liberation Council? How will the tensions within the senior leadership impact on the plan for a national convention, which must be convened to adopt amendments to the party constitution and documents before the SPLM can register under the new political party law?
  • Commitment to South Sudan’s political roadmap. South Sudan’s constitution requires national elections no later than July 2015. In parallel with the election preparations, a constitutional process is underway that should include nation-wide outreach, civic education and consultation to prepare a draft that will ultimately be reviewed and adopted by the new legislature. How will the SPLM manage its internal challenges while upholding the elections and constitutional timeline? How can the government help to ensure that there is opportunity for free, open and honest dialogue about election and constitutional issues?
  • Preparations to ensure peaceful elections. What are the possible drivers of conflict in the lead up to the elections? How can steps be taken to ensure that risks are mitigated through support to political parties, electoral institutions and civil society?
  • Remaining focused on citizen priorities and local realities. The focus on the political developments in Juba risks distracting the government, governing party and international partners from necessary focus on the development and security needs of South Sudanese. Citizen priorities for clean water, basic health, education and roads, along with protection and security, should remain the focus of discussion and debate, particularly in the lead-up to elections. There is also a risk that the tensions within the SPLM or the government could aggravate some of the divisions and cleavages at the local level. Overall, the impact of the political developments needs to be analyzed through this local lens and dialogue led by and among South Sudanese citizens, civil society and political parties.

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