South Sudan purge leaves two in charge

Salva Kiir dissolved his administration following criticism about corruption. (AFP)

Salva Kiir dissolved his administration following criticism about corruption. (AFP)

The world's newest state continues to be ruled by just two men, after South Sudan's President Salva Kiir dissolved his entire government and sacked the chairperson of the ruling party.

The former guerrilla leader, who shocked observers with the unexpected clear-out last week, has promised to appoint a new "inclusive government" amid fears that the political crisis could open ethnic divisions in the two-year-old state.

Since dissolving the administration, Kiir – whose trademark is a dark cowboy hat – has appointed only his former spokesperson as ­foreign minister. The wave of dismissals, announced without any warning on state television on July 23, came only a fortnight after the second anniversary of country gaining independence from the north.

It was an unhappy birthday, marked by an open letter from

several of the south's most influential United States backers bemoaning corruption and human rights abuses, warning that the country was veering off course.

Meanwhile, another row between the Sudans has halted oil production, which provides almost all the fledgling state's budget. The north accuses South Sudan of providing support to rebel groups inside the southern border – in Blue Nile state and South Kordofan – a charge the south denies.

Despite these woes, few observers had expected such a dramatic response from a president sometimes accused of plodding.

The sackings have pushed the fierce power struggle inside the ruling party into the open.
The Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) grew out of the guerrilla army (SPLA) that fought a 20-year civil war with the north, and has struggled with the transition to civilian rule. It is riven by ethnic divisions, with the most dangerous rivalry between the two largest groups, the Dinka and the Nuer.

The sacking of many may be cover for the ousting of one man, ambitious vice-president Riek Machar. He hails from the second most numerous group, the Nuer, while the president is Dinka. The more nimble and charismatic Machar openly covets the top job and was stripped of many of his powers by Kiir in April in an attempt to clip his wings. The wholesale clear out may be intended to avoid the impression that the Nuer were being unfairly sidelined.

Machar has so far responded to his exit from government by calling for calm and saying he has "chosen to handle everything politically".

He has since confirmed that he will challenge the president in the next elections, saying that the country cannot tolerate: "one man's rule or it cannot tolerate dictatorship".

With elections expected in 2015, the SPLM succession battle has been raging behind the scenes in a country that has been propped up by aid money and patronage, but whose next generation of leaders will control significant oil revenues.

Kiir has made several statements condemning corruption inside his own government.

United Nations officials admit privately that many of the military commanders of the civil war era have been receiving payoffs in return for keeping the peace. This approach, which has fuelled corruption and created fierce competition for state patronage, may have run its useful course, said a source close to the presidency.

One of the authors of last month's  open letter to the president, US academic Eric Reeves, said the dissolution of the government was an indication that Kiir felt he had no broadly acceptable replacement and feared that his vice-president would prove too divisive a figure were he to take over.

"The president is exhausted after eight years of running the country [two as an independent state] and dealing with perpetual crises," said Reeves. "The fact that Riek is moving as aggressively as he has been recently may account for the timing."

The tussle between the pair evokes painful memories of the civil war, when Machar broke away from the SPLA midway through its battle with the Arab-led north. This triggered the most murderous chapter of the struggle, with clashes between the Nuer and Dinka remembered by many as the "civil war within the civil war".

This period also included an alliance between the Nuer strongman and Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, a betrayal that many southerners still view as unforgivable.

The risk of ethnic division escalating into full-scale conflict has been underlined by deadly clashes in South Sudan's Jonglei state, where the security forces have been accused of siding with Lou Nuer tribesmen against their local rivals, the Murle, in fighting over land and cattle which has left hundreds of people dead.

There is a long tradition of clashes between the two groups, but they have been given a more lethal aspect by the suspicion, supported by video evidence, of the involvement of national army commanders in attacks on Murle civilians.

Moreover, hopes of resolving the oil impasse have also been set back by the firing of Pagan Amum, the chairperson of the SPLM and its lead negotiator with the north. He has been accused of corruption, along with several other ministers, a charge he has denied and claimed was politically motivated.

A leaked World Bank report last year suggested that as much as $4-billion has been lost to graft since South Sudan attained self rule.

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