How did we get back to Nairobi? The antithesis of the cause of our struggle

South Sudanese president Salva Kiir Mayardit, left, shakes hands with Pagan Amum Okiech, leader of the Real-SPLM group, during the launch of high-level peace talks for South Sudan at State House in Nairobi, Kenya, on Thursday, May 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Brian Inganga)

Dr Ayine Nigo

The 2008 SPLM National Convention was a harbinger of things to come, and it was a critical turning point in the political evolution of the SPLM as the ruling party. The 2008 Convention was the second SPLM Convention and the first since South Sudan gained its autonomy. Unfortunately, the convention did not happen.

The President and his Deputy wanted to maintain their positions, and the status quo was maintained in peace and unity. The SPLM party constitution also remained undemocratic, with so much power given to the Chairman, and yes, we ignored it. In this analysis, we argue that the current government and its leaders, particularly the President, bear responsibility for the prevailing turmoil to perpetuate their authority against the people.

In the 2010 elections, the SPLM party went against popular candidates and handpicked candidates considered loyal to the President. The SPLA and public security rigged elections in favor of SPLM across the country, except for the Western Equatoria State. The President found it helpful early on in his tenure to replicate counter-insurgency tools deployed by the now defunct Khartoum government against the people of South Sudan; the divide-and-rule framework was fully utilized. The infamous communal violence for which South Sudan has come to be known is part of this strategy. More so, the proliferation of weapons flows directly from the army to the civilians, cattle herders, gangs, etc., which are then used to settle combined scores. The strategy has resulted in fatalities and has disrupted social harmony and economic productivity. These violent incidents are part of a deliberate scheme to maintain leadership power. Yes, we ignored it.

Questions may arise regarding the advantages accruing to the President from these conflicts. He derives three significant benefits: First, internal conflict keeps citizens busy settling local issues, and they, therefore, have no time to focus on the state’s failure and, by extension, the failure of leadership. Therefore, their challenges are blamed for making it impossible for the government to deliver services to them. Second, the President goes to the communities to extort his political opponents as being responsible for fomenting ethnic divisions and sponsoring local conflicts. These, therefore, save the President’s face, and people’s leaders are then blamed for being the enemy of their people. Lastly, given that local people are made to believe that their internal problems prevent the government from helping them, and their leaders stand accused of fomenting local conflicts, the only savior for South Sudan then is the Chairman. Hence, The President ignores these localized conflicts to weaken his opponents, deflect any responsibility for failure, and project himself as the glue holding everything together and, therefore, perpetuate his rule. It was not evident that some of the SPLA/M leadership harbored anti-democratic tendencies. Their clandestine agenda aimed at establishing a dictatorship and retaining power, revealing a stark departure from democratic principles. The 2008 SPLM National Convention, the 2010 general elections, and the 2011 constitutional-making process clearly show that the President was not a huge fan of democracy. Still, he hoped to win Western support if he came out clearly. He chose a soft approach to curtail the democratic gains of the people of South Sudan.

In early 2012, USAID conducted its first assessment of democracy, governance, and human rights in South Sudan. The report revealed South Sudan’s trajectory. Another report, with obvious indicators, was conducted by Tetra Tech ARD on behalf of USAID in 2012 and repeated in 2015. The report assessed the conditions for governance, human rights, and democracy in South Sudan. The assessment looked at five major indicators of good and democratic governance, including political consensus and the rule of law, political accountability, and government effectiveness. Despite their significance as the foundation for ongoing negotiations in the Tumaini Talks in Nairobi, the current leadership has yet to consider these findings from the outset. It is necessary to closely examine some of these indicators and the conclusions drawn from the assessment to educate the parties to the Tumaini Talks. After gaining independence in 2011, South Sudan faced the question of whether it could establish a new national identity that would help reduce tensions and conflicts between ethnic groups. According to Hyman (2013), South Sudan struggled to create a unified national identity. The statement warned that if sub-national identities remained strong enough to challenge the national identity, the government would face challenges that could threaten the viability of the state and democratic governance. The report accurately highlighted the issue of political inclusion, which was unfortunately overlooked. The findings highlight a lack of agreement on the rules, and some SPLM/A ruling elite members intentionally ignore democratic practices despite their familiarity with democracy in other countries. The report argues that democratic politics relies on peaceful competition, so for it to remain democratic, the rules of this competition must be transparent, fair, followed, and accepted by all stakeholders. When the rules are not respected or accepted, there is a risk of undermining peaceful processes, potentially leading to violence, especially in cases where electoral outcomes are contested through violence. The current leaders disregarded calls for upholding the rule of law and human rights in all areas; yes, we ignored it.

The internal power struggle within the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and its subsequent escalation into a civil conflict serves to underscore the absence of clearly defined regulations and the blatant disregard for these regulations. Similarly, the breakdown of the Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (ARCSS) in 2016 was not solely attributable to ambiguous rules but to a complete disregard for them. Furthermore, in 2013, the Democracy, Rights, and Governance (DRG) assessment report expressed apprehensions regarding the diminishing democratic space within South Sudan. The report revealed a growing concentration of power and resources in the hands of a select elite, as supported by grassroots consultations. This concentration of power was defined as “the rise of governmental, military, and party elites that are increasingly powerful and able to act with little meaningful accountability”. The concentration of power and resources in South Sudan is attributed to two key factors. Firstly, South Sudan emerged from a lengthy war of liberation as a one-party state led by a liberation movement rather than a genuine political party. Secondly, the significant factor contributing to this concentration of power is the presence of oil. We contend a strong correlation between rentier states and political authoritarianism; with access to oil revenues, states no longer rely on their societies as a source of revenue to maintain power and governance. Consequently, societies lose their critical leverage to demand political openness from the state (Hyman, 2013). The evidence shows that, without significant taxation from society, there is no meaningful representation of society’s interests within the state; yes, we ignored it.

The worry is that consolidating power based on ethnic divisions can be extremely dangerous, particularly when politics is influenced by ethnicity and tribal loyalties. By 2015, this concern had become a reality in South Sudan. The report highlighted the interconnected nature of South Sudan’s emerging political economy, involving political, military, government, and economic structures and personnel. According to the assessment, a small group of business leaders with close ties to the core power group is also gaining influence through government contracts and licenses. Some of the small business leaders are likely to become even more powerful. The people of South Sudan have rightly identified governance as one of the four priorities that will have to be addressed by the National Dialogue. From the grassroots consultations, it has become evident that state structures in South Sudan are heavily militarized, characterizing governance. This issue was highly debated during the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) negotiations in Nairobi, and now we find ourselves back at the starting point. It’s an obvious guess that part of the military in South Sudan is a political tool leaders use to control security and economic resources. This allows them to allocate funds as they wish and avoid scrutiny; yes, we ignored it.

Those who are disfavoured, fall victim to the system and are condemned, and they can only seek re-entry through demonstrable proof of loyalty or violent means. Predictably, armed rebellions have grown in South Sudan with little articulation of alternative visions for the state. They are simply fighting to get in, to do the same. Hence, the struggle is over the wealth of the South Sudanese State, which is utilized for personal gains instead of improving the livelihoods of ordinary people through the provision of public goods and efficient service delivery. Besides militarization, securitization of politics, and distribution of economic benefits, ethnic and regional cards are colorfully displayed and stoked quite often in South Sudan. The rationale is simple: if a person cannot sustain the clientele, they can reach for ethnic loyalty because it is inexpensive. The benefit of ethnic politics is that it does not cost much to put together and maintain. One needs to articulate a common threat to ethnic identity properly, and the response is spontaneous. Hence, South Sudanese political leaders are accustomed to creating an environment in which ethnic communities feel threatened, and loyalties can be switched from party, religion, military, or profession to that of an ethnic community.

The President has continued to use economic incentives and deprivation to buy loyalty. Most SPLM/A leaders who fought alongside the Chairman during the 21-year civil War have no other professions or military careers, so most cannot find jobs elsewhere. The President uses this knowledge to inflict fear and terror among his comrades. Those he considers acquiescent and loyal to him are given governmental or military assignments and vast sums of money to keep them hooked and indebted. Those considered obstinate are relieved from their positions without pension and are left to rot in poverty and die off. When the President senses their spirit could be broken, he will send his aides-de-camp to check whether they will capitulate to his rule. Those flinched are given new appointments and told to toe the line or go back to poverty. The battle-harden liberators, who cannot stand the humiliation of surrendering to one-person rule, are left to agonize in poverty and undignified burial when they die. This strategy worked well for the President, and this is how he succeeded in ruling by decrees as echoed by the former Secretary General of the SPLM/A. The decrees are used to silence any individuals and dilapidated institutions that seek to control and limit the government and its people.

The state and government are no longer under the sovereignty of the sovereign; they have become tools at the discretion of political leaders whose functions are bent toward achieving political interests. In such a situation, merits are not worth much. Loyalty to the system gets the trick regarding social mobility and career development. Hence, government positions, military promotions, contracts, and even business opportunities are awarded centrally to ensure that the running political loop feeds the egos of those at the pinnacle of power. Those who hold dissenting viewpoints are seen disrupting the flow, so they must either be silenced or neutralized. One can imagine the cloaking of such a system: the Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning struggles with people constantly rivaling for access and influence, gatekeepers ensuring that entry is restricted, and barriers erected to pervert critical eyes.

Finally, the President has obliterated the political parties, including his party. What is said to be the SPLM is a shell of its former self (SPLM-IG/DC/IO/Real). The President and the empowered kleptocracy around him decide what the party does, not the other way around. Over time, it has become impossible to distinguish between the party and the President; they have become the same thing where those party members who question the policy direction of the party and its programs are deprived of government appointments and those who clap and say ‘SPLM Oyee’ the loudest get appointed. If such a system were to persist, it is plausible to imagine that it would become more oppressive and would invariably benefit only those awarded favors. It is inconceivable that such a system would care about the general welfare, much less democracy. The declaration of principles signed by the parties to the Tumaini Talks in Nairobi, Kenya must address such a rotten system. Unfortunately, this is the system we have in South Sudan. It cannot be debated and that is why we are back in Nairobi; we have an authoritarian state in South Sudan, a situation that is the antithesis of the cause of its struggle.

Happy 41 anniversary of the SPLA/M, 16 May.

Dr Ayine Nigo is an author and lecturer at the University of Westminster, London, United Kingdom. He was the Dean of the School of Business and Management at the University of Juba. During the 2010 Sudan General Elections, he was a gubernatorial candidate for Central Equatoria State. He can be reached via

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