Salva Kiir’s Responsibility in the South Sudanese Civil War

Coup-proofing may deteriorate military capabilities and alienate part of the population, facilitating the onset of a rebellion.

Civil wars are common phenomena in today’s world, and so are authoritarian regimes. Explanations for the outbreak of civil wars have usually been based on socio-economic factors, neopatrimonialism, weak states, or ethnic violence. These “underlying factors”, however, are vague and present in full or in part in many countries, thus unable to really predict when and where a civil conflict will happen. Looking at the dynamics of authoritarian regimes could help us better predict civil conflicts beforehand rather than merely understanding their causes in hindsight.

The eruption of civil war in South Sudan in December 2013 demonstrates the difficulty for newly independent states to obtain political stability. South Sudan presents most of the classical attributes of countries prone to civil war, such as endemic poverty, weak state institutions, neopatrimonial politics and a rough terrain amongst others. However, direct causes for the outbreak of the civil war can be found looking at elite rivalry inside the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the governing political party. Throughout 2013, public contestation was voiced by senior members of the SPLM, among which Riek Machar (the then Vice-President) who stated his intention to contest the political leadership of Salva Kiir, the President of South Sudan. Fearing a coup, Salva Kiir accused Riek Machar and several senior officials of the SPLM of plotting a coup on the 16th of December and purged the government, arresting eleven alleged coup plotters. Riek Machar managed to escape the capital Juba and called on armed action against Salva Kiir, which marked the beginning of the civil conflict.

A fragmented South Sudanese military

The most immediate and violent threat to authoritarian leaders is the removal through a coup d’état, which often leads to death or imprisonment for the leader. Therefore, many authoritarian leaders engage in coup-proofing strategies. These aim at diminishing elite rivals’ abilities to overthrow the sitting leader. They include weakening the army, rotating cabinet positions and excluding ethnic rivals from government positions. Salva Kiir used a number of coup-proofing strategies the years before, which could have predicted the outburst of the civil conflict. First, the military in South Sudan is hardly able to fight large-scale insurgencies and is deeply fragmented as a result of the ‘Big Tent’ policy. The Big Tent policy was in theory designed to build a unified South Sudanese army with the integration of the South Sudan Defense Forces (SSDF), a competing Nuer rebel group, into the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). This policy, combined with various amnesty phases, was aimed at co-opting armed groups and militias to avoid further fighting. However, while the policy succeeded in ending numerous armed conflicts, the army became large and fragmented with former leaders given the opportunity to join at a senior level (thus gaining privileges and high salaries), but without the corresponding military forces. Moreover, it actually incentivised armed groups to rebel in order to get a better deal: small militias were often not offered the opportunity to join because they did not represent a threat to the regime, whereas larger armed groups were offered a good deal to integrate in the SPLA. Another significant decision by Kiir was to increase the Presidential Guard’s capabilities and to move its reporting lines from the military high-command to the president. Additionally, he reinforced the Presidential Guard with Dinka (Kiir’s ethnic group) youth members particularly loyal to him, therefore transforming the Presidential Guard along tribal and ethnic lines and dropping the ideal of a multi-ethnic force. Kiir was protecting his position by deliberately leaving a divided and poorly-equipped SPLA, co-opting insurgents able to threaten his rule and protecting himself by transforming the Presidential Guard into a loyal militia.

Ethnic tensions

Secondly, ethnic exclusion can also be found in the years preceding the civil war. As mentioned above, Kiir favoured ethnic Dinka for positions in the Presidential Guard, alienating other ethnic leaders. The dismissal of Vice-President Riek Machar alienated the Nuer, which is the second largest ethnicity after the Dinka. While the dismissal was a powerful symbol, it seems too simplistic to say that Kiir’s only intention was to proceed with a careful ethnic exclusion of the Nuer. Indeed, several dismissed cabinet member have various ethnic origins and some of them belong to Kiir’s own Dinka ethnic group.

Removal of key personalities

Thirdly, the ‘revolving door’ policy had clearly been implemented by Kiir before the outbreak of the civil war in 2013. On the one hand, the dismissal of influential cabinet members prevented them from using state resources and networks to consolidate their power. It opened new positions to which Kiir was able to reward his loyalists with new appointments. Indeed, most vacant positions were replaced by outsiders. Reshuffling the cabinet giving outsiders key positions can be seen as the most secure option for Kiir in the short term. Newcomers will benefit greatly from new rents and are unlikely to rebel against Kiir in the short term. While the government justified the changes as a way to save resources, they also resulted in heightened tensions among the SPLM leadership. On the other hand, Kiir tried to consolidate his power by coup-proofing the military, replacing the deputy chiefs of general staff and retiring 118 brigadiers general by placing them on the reserve.

A bleak future

The South Sudan civil war could have been predicted by the different strategies used by Salva Kiir to prevent coups and strengthen his rule. Coup-proofing may lead to a deterioration of military capabilities and alienation of part of the population, facilitating the onset of a rebellion. The Big Tent and amnesty policies led to a poorly trained and equipped SPLA with strong internal divisions, along ethnic and tribal lines. Moreover, Kiir used to a certain extent ethnic exclusion against political opponents, often alienating Nuer and other minorities. The dismissal of army officers and important cabinet members in 2013 exacerbated those divisions. The combination of these measures may have resulted in the outbreak of the civil war in December 2013.

Civil wars can have disastrous consequences. The United Nations, through the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, released a statement highlighting the worsening conditions and the possibility of ethnic cleansing, potentially leading to a genocide. On 20 February 2017, the UN declared a famine in the country with 4.9 million in need of urgent food assistance. Civil war research of the kind exemplified in this article is needed to better inform policymakers who can then in turn prevent such harmful events from happening. Looking at elite rivalry and the tools used by authoritarian leaders can help better predict the occurrence of civil conflict.

Photo by World Humanitarian Summit 2016