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The South Sudanese president's big gamble

Whether he is tackling corruption or strengthening his own power, Salva Kiir gives no explanation for cabinet changes.
Last modified: 28 Jul 2013 23:05

Salva Kiir is not generally thought of as a gambler. Cautious on the battlefield as a senior commander in the Sudan People's Liberation Army, and then thoughtful as South Sudan's president, Kiir's style has been to slowly build consensus before making big decisions.

One seasoned observer described him as "a tinkerer rather than a visionary" – as a man who would prefer small, careful steps rather than making big, potentially risky moves.

Last week, though, he acted with uncharacteristic boldness. In a series of decrees issued late on Tuesday evening, the president swept out his entire cabinet, including his deputy Riek Machar. He also suspended his party's secretary general Pagan Amum, effectively placing him under house arrest by ordering him to remain inside the capital Juba, and banning him from talking to the press.

Although Salva Kiir gave no explanation for his decision, government officials insisted it was nothing more than a routine reshuffle of the cabinet, aimed at reducing the size of the bloated government. (The former minister for information and chief spokesman was among those dismissed, and so information on the reshuffle was not easily forthcoming.)

It also seemed a decisive way of tackling rampant corruption. Last May, Kiir wrote to at least 75 senior and former government officials, demanding that they return some $4 billion in missing funds. Predictably, it was a futile attempt – only a fraction of the money has been recovered – but it did highlight both the scale of the problem, and the president's apparent inability to deal with it.

If Salva Kiir follows through and radically shakes up the government, clamps down on corruption, and introduces a new era of professionalism, he will have sorted out a lot of the problems that South Sudanese have been complaining of for years.

But this also appears to be a way of dealing with growing discontent within his own party – the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) – and a tacit acknowledgement that his careful, consensus-building style of old simply has not worked.

Criticised by party members

In June, Riek Machar publicly criticised the president's lack of control and listed six areas he thought the government was failing in. Pagan Amum also complained that the SPLM had lost its vision and direction. Both Machar and Amum are two of the most powerful figures in the party, with loyal followers in both their respective tribes and the military.

Sidelining them makes political sense, but it is also a dangerous strategy that risks reopening some of the ethnic divisions that have caused bloodshed in the past.

Salva Kiir has already named one new minister: the loyal, steady former information minister Marial Barnaba Benjamin has been promoted to foreign affairs.

Analysts are watching to see who else will be named in the rest of the cabinet, but if it is filled with old familiar faces like Benjamin's, most will see this as an attempt to shore up the president's own power, rather than any genuine attempt to tackle the government's deep malaise.

It's a gamble the that he seems willing to take.