Andreea Campeanu/Reuters
(From L-R) Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, Somalia's President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, South Sudan's Vice President Riek Machar, and South Sudan's President Salva Kiir gather during the celebration of the 2nd anniversary of South Sudan becoming an independent state, July 9, 2013. Mr. Kiir fired Mr. Machar and the rest of the country's government on July 24.

Why did South Sudan's president dissolve his government?

South Sudanese President Salva Kiir sacked his vice president and all of his ministers Tuesday – an unexpected move from a man who's built his career on compromise.

•A version of this post originally appeared on the author's personal blog. The views expressed are her own. 

South Sudanese President Salva Kiir sacked Vice President Riek Machar and dissolved the government Tuesday, 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 Mr. Kiir and Mr. Machar had been heating up since the spring, I don’t know that anyone had been anticipating anything this drastic. Indeed, national and international observers expected Kiir to eventually fire Machar, but I don’t think anyone expected him to nuke his entire cabinet.

For those unfamiliar with the history between these two men: Machar and Kiir were both senior commanders in the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army (SPLA) during Sudan’s Second Civil War (1983-2005). In August 1991, Machar, along with Lam Akol and Gordon Kong, issued a paper entitled “Why John Garang Must Go Now, ” criticizing the leadership of the head of the SPLA and launching a breakaway faction of the movement.

(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 there went away when that regime fell in May 1991, leaving the SPLA extremely vulnerable.

Thus, on top of the crisis of losing Ethiopia’s support, the 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 Mr. Garang within the SPLA, so over the next decade Machar 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 Kiir's vice president upon Garang’s death in July 2005.

Due to Machar’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 Machar 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 Machar or collectively, the Nuer, for marginalization. Note that Deng Alor (former Minister of Cabinet Affairs, and previously Foreign Minister and a Dinka) had already 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, I highly recommend the International Crisis Group‘s April 2011 report, Politics and Transition in the New South Sudan. By many accounts, comparisons between Kiir and his predecessor, Garang, distinguish between Garang’s authoritarianism and Kiir’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 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, 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, however, doesn’t track with anything he’s done as a leader thus far.

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