A Coup in South Sudan?

Fighting has broken out in South Sudan between rival factions of the country’s armed forces, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). According to some reports, heavy machine guns and mortars were used during the violence, which began in the early hours of December 16 in the capital, Juba. President Salva Kiir said an attempted coup d’état had been launched by supporters of Riek Machar, the country’s former vice president who was fired in July. President Kiir said the government was in full control of the situation, but sporadic gunfire could still be heard in parts of the capital more than 24 hours later, and Dr. Machar’s location remained unclear. A nighttime curfew was declared, Juba Airport was closed, the country’s mobile phone network went down, and the U.S. embassy warned citizens living in the country to stay indoors.

Q1: What do we know about the events of December 16?

A1: The picture is confusing and limited information has filtered through. President Kiir, dressed in military fatigues, gave the official version in a television address. He said that soldiers loyal to Riek Machar had launched an attack on the headquarters of the SPLA that was repulsed after several hours. The attackers were pursued, and hours later an SPLA spokesman said the army had pinned down two groups of fighters, numbering approximately 300 in total. Meanwhile, soldiers raided Dr. Machar’s home in the city, destroying most of the building. Although Machar’s location was unknown, the authorities arrested 10 other senior political figures and said they were searching for 5 more. The number of casualties from the violence is unclear but South Sudan’s Ministry of Health said that more than 110 people had been admitted to Juba’s main civilian hospital with gunshot wounds, and a doctor at a military hospital said at least 66 soldiers had been killed. As many as 16,000 civilians were seeking shelter with the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).

Q2: What is the background to the fighting?

A2: Political tensions have been rising in South Sudan for many months. They reflect ethnic, regional, and political rivalries that go back much further, to the days of the civil war with the north that eventually brought about South Sudan’s independence in July 2011. The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), which now holds power in Juba, spearheaded the struggle against the northern government in Khartoum, but it was a sharply divided movement. The factionalism was so bad that Sudan’s civil war became a conflict among southerners as well as a clash between north and south. One of the most important fault lines was between the biggest ethnic group in the south, the Dinka, and the second-largest group, the Nuer. The leader of the SPLA during the civil war, John Garang, was Dinka, and so too is the current president. Riek Machar is Nuer. Machar was one of three SPLA commanders to break away from Garang in 1991, launching a rival faction that sought to challenge their leader’s “dictatorial tendencies” and push for more internal accountability within the guerilla movement. Although Machar was ultimately reunited with the SPLA, many Dinka refuse to forgive his treachery and only accepted his elevation to vice president in 2004 because they saw it as a necessary price to pay for peace with the Nuer.

While the uneasy relationship lasted through independence, tensions resurfaced soon afterward. President Kiir views his deputy as his chief political rival, and both men have been positioning themselves with one eye on elections, scheduled for 2015. In July, President Kiir fired his entire cabinet, including Vice President Machar. While the move was in accordance with the interim constitution, which grants the executive wide-ranging authorities, many observers saw the action as a preemptive move to weaken his leading political opponents.

Q3: What’s Riek Machar been up to since he was fired in July?

A3: Riek Machar declared his intention to challenge the president in South Sudan’s next elections, which are tentatively scheduled for 2015. In recent weeks, he stepped up his criticism of President Kiir, notably on December 6, when he held a press conference to air his grievances. In many ways Machar’s complaints about Kiir’s conduct are an echo of his earlier critique of Garang’s leadership. Machar, who remains first deputy chairman of the SPLM, accused the president of ignoring the views of the party and allowing his decisions to be dictated by “regional and ethnic lobbies and close business associates.” He urged President Kiir to convene a meeting of the SPLM’s executive body so that an agenda could be set in advance of a party conference in mid-December. That request was ignored, and it was while the conference was wrapping up in Juba that gunfire broke out.

In his public critique of President Kiir, Riek Machar and his supporters are trying to portray themselves as the true heirs of Garang’s legacy. In a statement released to the press, they claimed that Kiir was thwarting attempts to transform the SPLM from a liberation movement into a mass based political party. They went even further, accused him of trying to turn the Presidential Guard into his own private army and seeking an alliance with the regime in Khartoum, the National Congress Party.

What is noticeable about the critics of President Kiir is that they are a broad and influential group that crosses ethnic lines. Those in attendance at the press conference included several prominent personalities with grudges against Kiir, such as Deng Alor and Pagan Amum, former leading government figures who are under investigation for corruption. But it also included Garang’s widow, Rebecca Garang. Many of this same group were arrested in the immediate aftermath of the December 16 violence. Of the 10 people detained, 8 are former ministers, 1 was a state governor dismissed by President Kiir at the turn of 2013, and the other was the former ambassador to the United States.

Q4: So should we believe President Kiir when he says an attempted coup took place?

A4: The coup story allows President Kiir to portray Machar as a man who cannot be trusted, as someone who ultimately acts in his own interests rather than those of the country. In his televised statement, Kiir referred to the events of 1991 and described his rival as a “prophet of doom” who “continues to persistently pursue his actions of the past.” Because of the evident self-interest that Kiir would have in discrediting his main political rival, we should be very cautious in accepting his depiction of events at face value. While Machar is undoubtedly ruthless and ambitious, he is also a canny political operator, and it is hard to imagine that he would give his blessing to an armed uprising at a time when—despite his loss of high office—his message appears to be gaining some resonance with the public.

But the events of December 16 suggest there is more to the story than Machar alone. The mass arrests of so many senior SPLM figures in the immediate aftermath of the armed violence give rise to two alternative explanations. The first is that President Kiir was confronted with a conspiracy of truly wide-ranging proportions. The second is that he has used the chaos unleashed by armed hotheads in the military as an opportunity to conduct a thorough sweep of his rivals. If the latter scenario is true, the president risks overplaying his hand and increasing the chances that his talk of a coup becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Q5: The United States has been a strong supporter of South Sudan. What can it do to prevent further bloodshed?

A5: The U.S. embassy has called for a peaceful resolution of hostilities through political dialogue and says it has been in contact with protagonists on both sides. The problem is that since independence, its ability to influence events beyond making appeals for calm has been fairly limited. This is difficult to understand given the important diplomatic role played by the United States in ending the civil war that placed South Sudan on the road to independence and the continued financial and technical support it gives to the new country’s development. U.S. appeals for South Sudan’s government to respect human rights, consolidate democratic development, and nurture civil society rather than treat it as a threat consistently fall on deaf ears. The government in Juba appears to believe that U.S. support will continue regardless of its conduct; that Washington will not walk away from a country in which it has invested so much time and capital. These latest events also underscore the difficulties of the ongoing effort to help South Sudan’s security forces overcome their ethnic fissures and transform themselves into a professional fighting force under civilian control.

Richard Downie is a fellow and deputy director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

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Richard Downie