A Critique of South Sudan’s Presidency

President Salva Kiir
President Salva Kiir

When it comes to resolving South Sudan’s conflict, peace advocates continue to ignore the elephant in the room: The President simply holds too much power.

Without the guns falling silent, peacebuilding will be impossible. But even with a ceasefire and some sort of a return to the provisions of the Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan (ARCSS), or an equivalent initiative that embraces new armed groups, any resumption of the peace process will likely be illusory, ineffective and short-lived.

This is because the underlying driver of conflict will persist. Any peace process will ultimately collapse unless it addresses, head on, the annexation of political power and authority by South Sudan’s Presidency. The “king of the hill” type politics, championed by President Salva Kiir Mayardit, will inexorably drag the country back towards conflict.

From independence, South Sudan’s ostensibly progressive political system has been systematically subverted. The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) has become a vehicle by which the ruling elite have sought to entrench their monopoly on power and associated opportunities to accumulate wealth. Most prominent among these is President Kiir, who has over the years consolidated his personal authority by significantly extending the powers of the Presidency to the detriment of all other state institutions.

Consequently, all other institutions have been emaciated to the extent that South Sudan is now run almost entirely from the Office of the President. Without any meaningful oversight and with unrestricted access to state finances, this over-centralisation of authority has enabled deeply disruptive patronage networks to develop, thrive and ultimately undermine the rule of law, institutional capacity and effective governance.

In this context, a power struggle within the ruling elite was inevitable. The Office of the President had simply become too great a threat to some, and too tempting an opportunity to others. The Presidency will continue to be a driver for conflict in South Sudan. It has now become the single most destabilising factor in South Sudan’s social, economic and political environment.

And yet, despite a devastating civil war, triggered by an unbalanced political order, President Kiir continues to hoard and jealously guard political privileges.

It’s worth reviewing some of the milestones in this creeping annexation of power by President Kiir.

Controlling the legislature and the judiciary

In 2011, shortly after independence, the Interim Constitution of Southern Sudan was amended, granting significantly more power to the President.

The resulting Transitional Constitution of South Sudan gave the President the power to appoint or dismiss virtually all key constitutional post holders – including legislators, judges and elected state governors. The President could declare a state of emergency with no requirement to adhere to the principles of proportionality in its application.

The President was also given de-facto authority over the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) – whose main duties ostensibly included oversight over the executive. The President could directly appoint 60 members of the NLA. This was a staggering 35% of legislators at the time, and only 26 members short of a simple majority in the house. He could convene, suspend and dissolve the legislature. Additionally, the President was granted powers to prioritise his legislative and constitutional requests over any other business of the bi-cameral house.

The process of constitutional reform was controversial, in as much as it was conducted without any public consultation. The constitutional review body was packed with members primarily drawn from or strongly affiliated with the SPLM. This led some to brand it as a constitution written by the government, for the benefit of the government.

In 2013, President Kiir successfully bullied an uncharacteristically assertive NLA into getting his own way. He threatened to dissolve the NLA, by sacking a significant number of assembly members, if they failed to endorse his appointment of James Wani Igga as Vice President.

An unnamed parliamentarian told Sudan Tribune that “the president came in with bad mood and introduced to us Cde James Wani Igga for his nomination as the new Vice President. Then he started to threaten us with dissolutions and dismissals. After he finished with his threats nobody spoke and the meeting ended like that.”

The implications were clear to all observers. A severely chastened NLA demonstrated that it could no longer discharge its constitutional obligation of holding the Presidency to account.

Similarly, the judiciary has been cowed by the constitutional reform. The Chief Justice is another political appointee of President Kiir. Consequently, the judiciary has been consistently uninterested in challenging repeated power grabs by President Kiir. Nevertheless, President Kiir recently demonstrated the extent of his control over the judiciary by directly sacking, via presidential decree, twelve judges who had gone on strike over better pay and working conditions.

Controlling state governors

With the legislature and the judiciary effectively subordinated to the executive, President Kiir turned his sights on the state governors, who, via their electoral mandate, represented a significant counter-balance to the Presidency.

In January of 2013, in what many believe was a watershed moment, Salva Kiir fired the democratically elected governor of Lakes State on the grounds of national security and appointed a caretaker governor. He went on to ignore calls to hold fresh gubernatorial elections within the constitutionally mandated period of 60 days.

This unconstitutional behaviour was swiftly condoned by Salva Kiir’s own legal advisors, who shockingly invoked the widely discredited “doctrine of necessity”, as sufficient basis for the inaction. A supine Judiciary failed to challenge this shaky assessment in the courts.

This action was the first in a series of attacks aimed at abrogating the autonomy of the state governors. It would end in the dismissal of the majority of elected governors, under similar grounds, followed by their replacement with loyalists appointed by the President in 2015. This action was preceded by another constitutional reform package that granted the President the power to appoint and dismiss governors.

The upshot is that state governors are no longer accountable to their constituents. Instead, they are now directly accountable to the Presidency alone.

Silencing the press

Unfortunately, the outbreak of civil war in December 2013, has enabled Salva Kiir to further extend his grip on power, under the pretext of a state of emergency. South Sudan’s National Security Service (NSS) reports directly to the President. Over the years, the service has been accused of abuse of power, intimidation, unlawful detention and forced disappearances of citizens. Their direct association with the Presidency has made the service and its agents virtually unaccountable and above the law.

Since independence, journalists have been subject to harassment and arbitrary detention by security services. NSS agents have regularly threatened media houses and raided their premises to confiscate print runs that the service had deemed unsuitable for publication.

Hostility towards journalism increased considerably under war-time conditions. In 2014, Journalist George Livio, who had worked for the UN sponsored Miraya FM Radio station, was arrested and detained by security services, without charge, until his release this spring.

That same year, Salva Kiir’s administration introduced, via the legislature, controversial measures that increased state control over South Sudan’s media, effectively formalising the involvement of the NSS in providing oversight of journalistic output.

In a sign of the increasingly repressive political environment in South Sudan, journalist Moi Peter Julius was shot and killed in 2015 in what many believe was an extra-judicial killing, following an inflammatory speech by Salva Kiir, during which he directly threatened journalists unwilling to toe the official line.

Even state-owned institutions haven’t evaded the crackdown. In July 2017, Adil Faris Mayat, the head of South Sudan’s state television service, the South Sudan Broadcasting Corporation was arrested and is being detained, without access to his family, for failing to broadcast an Independence Day speech given by President Kiir. According to his wife, authorities have interpreted his failure to broadcast the speech as “insurrection”.

This antagonistic relationship between President Kiir’s administration and journalism has deteriorated to the extent that the South Sudanese authorities have recently banned an unprecedented number of foreign journalists from entering the country and blocked two prominent news websites, Sudan Tribune and Radio Tamazuj. They have also blocked the popular opinion and essay publisher, PaanLuel Wël and the opposition website Nyamilepedia.

This has prompted veteran journalist, Opoka p’Arop Otto, who is now living in exile, to comment on social media that “Most newspapers are edited at the printer (and blank pages are the norm). Radio stations across the country have understood the threats and have self-censored to the core.” He went on to raise concerns that Facebook and Twitter might be next in the firing line.

Unleashing the security services

Along the same vein, legislation was approved, under dubious circumstances, granting the NSS wide-ranging powers of surveillance and detention without judicial oversight. Many believe that this legislation is intended to provide legal cover for rampant abuses by an overzealous security service given free license by the President.

The empowerment of the NSS is perhaps a reflection of Salva Kiir’s personal preference for coercion over persuasion. In itself, this would be a serious character flaw for the leader of any country. But when coupled with the sweeping powers and disproportionate influence that the Presidency now commands, this character flaw risks accelerating the collapse into a repressive police state, shockingly reminiscent of the old Sudan.

Undermining multi-party democracy

In his 2016 speech at the inauguration of the Transitional National Legislative Assembly (TNLA), Salva Kiir went on to criticise multi-party politics, branding it a disruptive influence on the South Sudanese political scene.

This attack on multi-party democracy was quixotic, given that nine in ten legislators in the Assembly he was addressing were members of the SPLM. It is a state of affairs that has persisted since South Sudan’s only general election in 2010, where allegations of vote rigging and intimidation of non-SPLM candidates were widespread.

Salva Kiir’s comments betray a strong preference for a one-party state, with him as its undisputed head. This doesn’t bode well for stability in a country whose inhabitants were described in a recent paper by Francis Mading Deng, for the Sudd Institute, as “segmentary, acephalous, decentralised, self-governing and fiercely antagonistic to centralized authoritarian rule.”  

Co-opting the private sector

As Alex de Waal noted in an article describing his theory of the political marketplace in the context of South Sudan, “There was no domestic business class independent of the government and military”.

Unsurprisingly, South Sudan’s oil dependent and import-led economy has effectively collapsed. It has laboured under the dual strain of depleted currency reserves and a chronic underinvestment in the services and infrastructure that would facilitate a semblance of economic diversification.

Both ailments are a direct consequence of the gross mismanagement of public funds by a corrupt ruling elite, too devoted to satisfying their own rapacious appetites, and maintaining their lucrative patronage networks, to notice that they had all but emptied the state’s coffers.

The South Sudanese private sector has developed into a vehicle for rent-seeking SPLM party officials and SPLA senior officers. The Sentry has gone some way to shedding light on some of these practices. Their two reports “The Nexus of Corruption in South Sudan” and “War Crimes Shouldn’t Pay”  explore corruption in South Sudan and attempt to expose some of its principle beneficiaries.

Despite South Sudan’s economic collapse, the Presidency maintains its central role in orchestrating patronage, albeit to a greatly reduced network of beneficiaries.

Under the stewardship of President Kiir, the Office of the President’s own spending in 2014 was reported to have exceeded the budget of medium to large state. In so doing, the Office of the Presidency is alleged to have exceeded its budget by 345%. It’s worth noting this figure doesn’t include spending on the NSS and only includes “on book” spending.

Having blunted oversight from the legislature and the judiciary, this over-spend persists unchallenged.

The correlation between rising Presidential power and rising insecurity

What many describe as a senseless civil war begins to make sense when viewed through the prism of the annexation and monopolisation of power by President Kiir.

It is worth noting that South Sudan is a fractious country whose sole unifying narrative is predicated on the fierce resistance to marginalisation and repression. Having closed all avenues for political expression, and stifled space for genuine discourse, President Kiir has all but guaranteed a continuation of the terribly disruptive conflict in South Sudan.

By way of an example, Equatorian demands for greater federalism, now hardening into calls for confederacy, have often been misconstrued as expressions of Equatorian particularism. President Kiir has himself equated these calls with Kokora, and had vowed to confront them. The demand for federalism can be better understood as a push back against the stifling control exerted by President Kiir’s policy of over-centralisation.

If President Kiir wishes to emulate Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, the prevailing darling of African leaders, then the results indicate that he has neither the vision or the aptitude.

President Kiir is thought to have spent a large proportion of the resources under his direct control in maintaining his ultimately doomed “big tent” initiative, which traded loyalty in exchange for access to state resources. The initiative was incredibly damaging to the rule of law and the development of a viable private sector.

There grew a proliferation of briefcase companies, gaining contracts without due diligence, pocketing vast sums and delivering suboptimal or non-existent results. These results are rarely challenged. A good example of this is the so-called “Dura Scandal” which is estimated to have cost the country millions of dollars.

The fatal flaw of the Big Tent was that it could only generate relative stability whilst oil earnings were high. The dramatic reduction in government revenue delivered a shock from which the initiative has not been able to recover. As access to state resources dwindled, loyalty evaporated.

Similarly, intrinsic inefficiencies became entrenched in the private sector, which had seen little reason to diversify beyond lucrative government contracts, and prevented its adaptation to a greatly diminished economic environment.

Nevertheless, the region continues to pander to this increasingly destabilising political order. Whether it is for fear of instigating outright state collapse, or an ideological ambivalence to meddling in the affairs of neighbouring states, regional engagement has been light touch and disappointingly ineffective. Consequently, their involvement to date, in finding a resolution to South Sudan’s conflict, has failed to match the high expectations raised by regional leaders’ insistence on finding “African solutions for African problems”.

The recent Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) communiqué on South Sudan reinforces the conviction that regional leaders are unwilling to tackle head on the increasing centralisation of power that is at the beating heart of South Sudan’s conflict.

By focusing almost exclusively on a ceasefire, and a misguided roadmap to elections, they continue to treat the symptoms and not the disease. Without a root and branch reformation of South Sudan’s increasingly authoritarian and repressive political landscape, any ceasefire will not be sustainable and any election will not be credible.

Given past form, the National Dialogue process initiated by President Kiir, is also likely to be a tightly controlled process that reinforces the President’s authority, as author and de-facto patron of the process, rather than challenging and abrogating his significant power grab.

Similarly, those South Sudanese who condone the over-centralisation of power by President Kiir – perhaps in some misguided belief that it will bring peace and stability to the country – must be reminded of a salient quote by the Greek philosopher Plato:

“This and no other is the root from which a tyrant springs: when he first appears, he is a protector.”


1 Comment

  1. Thank you for this helpful article. As a white person with both non-Dinka and Dinka friends (to us both are simply South Sudanese) it is difficult to understand the causes of the war. We were very privileged to celebrate independence as guests of the KuKu community and are so distressed that the hoped for peace has not materialised.

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