In July 2013, South Sudan President Salva Kiir axed his entire cabinet, apparently to downsize government. But the shake-up, during infancy of the country’s nationhood, proved ominous. Yet Kiir should perhaps have known better. He was SPLA’s Chief of Staff in 2004 when rumours of his impending ouster nearly sparked a mutiny.
Kiir’s fallout with erstwhile comrades partially mirrors the Blair-Brown debacle. In 2006, UK premier Tony Blair and cabinet colleague Gordon Brown feuded acrimoniously. Brown suspected Blair of plotting to wriggle out of a tacit pledge to relinquish power. In response, he extracted a time frame for transition. The spectacle engulfed the entire Labour Party, with ‘Blairites’ branding Brown’s eventual takeover a coup.
Resolving such internal strife requires tact, compromise and viewing the big picture, not high-handedness. By dismissing colleagues en masse, Kiir took a frustratingly ineffective “lone wolfish” path. At the outset of the current conflict, the UN repeatedly stressed its political nature. And the fact that Rebecca Garang (from Kiir’s Dinka tribe) and Riek Machar (a Nuer) stand jointly accused of plotting Kiir’s downfall, undermines claims that genocide loomed.
Still, Rwanda’s horrific 1994 experience just about validates precautionary armed external intervention. Importantly, however, Rwanda today is proof that political harmony is a target well outside the range of military marksmanship and much harder to nail; that the tone leaders set can impede creation of an atmosphere conducive for enduring peace and security for all.
Kiir shows tremendous humility to and appreciation of external allies. But he risks losing relevance altogether if he cannot wisely utilise authority he holds in trust for his compatriots. He must place South Sudanese’s priority needs highest and pursue them diligently and cost-effectively.
Kiir could and should have attempted earnestly to defuse simmering tensions timely. Instead, ignoring raw emotions and jarred nerves from a bitter past, he responded provocatively to the brewing crisis, thus igniting war anew.
Ironically, he must now talk to his challengers amidst suffocating mistrust, in the blinding glare of global spotlight!