July 18, 2018
The departure of First Vice President Riek Machar from Juba since last Monday after his bodyguards and his office were attacked has left Salva Kiir’s transitional government with a quandary: how to keep up appearances of a unity government when the opposition leader has gone into hiding?
Machar’s whereabouts are presently unknown, though aides have claimed he is somewhere on the outskirts of Juba and will not return until regional forces arrive to guarantee his safety.
Kiir himself says he has urged Machar to return, but the latter was reluctant. A presidency official was quoted by media this morning saying the unity government “cannot be held hostage” by Riek. The cabinet held a meeting on Friday in his absence.
Officials and supporters of the president have since floated the idea of replacing Machar with Taban Deng Gai, the former governor of Unity State and SPLM-IO chief negotiator.
What could happen if Kiir did so? A few factors to keep in mind:
– The peace deal technically prevents Kiir from unilaterally removing Machar, but a similar restriction did not stop him from decreeing the removal of the deputy foreign minister last week. Supporters of the president would likely not question his right to do so.
– Whether Taban Deng would accept the position if his comrade in the SPLM-IO were removed remains an open question. But in recent remarks he stressed that the SPLM-IO is more than one man, pointing out that the implementation of the peace deal must go on whether Machar returns to Juba or not. This suggests he is likely at least open to the idea.
– The decision could further divide communities in Unity State, the home state of both Machar and Taban. Recent fighting in Leer suggests the state is still a likely battleground.
– A decision to remove Machar would boost the perceived legitimacy of the transitional government in some quarters, particularly in Greater Bor and Bahr al Ghazal where Machar is deeply unpopular, while harming its reputation in other areas, further polarizing the nation.
– Machar would have limited options if he were removed. Legal redress is unlikely. And his forces in the SPLM-IO strongholds in the Upper Nile and Jonglei states may not have either the strength or inclination to go back to war.
– However, the SPLM-IO forces in Upper Nile are not the only armed opposition in the country. The removal of the vice president would be a signal to armed groups in the Equatoria region and Western Bahr al Ghazal that the government cannot be trusted to uphold a deal, hence emboldening those who are seeking a broader uprising.
– Meanwhile, even if the regional guarantors of the peace deal (IGAD) opposed the move, there is no obvious way that they could secure Machar’s return. By comparison, they opposed the presidential decision last year to create 28 new states, and they called for suspension of the decision, but there was nothing they did to enforce their resolution.
‘Insider’ is a series of reports, factboxes and tip sheets on the political situation in South Sudan.