South Sudan: What happens after a president 'nukes his entire cabinet'?

The World

NAIROBI, Kenya — The South Sudanese capital Juba was jittery but calm Thursday, just two days after President Salva Kiir sacked his deputy and dismissed the entire government.

It was a surprise move that many see as the culmination of a power struggle within the ruling party, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM).

Residents there said military checkpoints had been set-up in the capital's government quarter where most ministries are located, as well as elsewhere in the city. Streets were quieter than usual. Many expatriate aid workers, heeding advice from the United Nations, stayed indoors.

The shake-up — described as a normal reshuffle by Kiir loyalists — has still managed to throw the world’s newest nation into political turmoil.

South Sudan can scarcely afford the uncertainty. Tribal battles are already tearing apart the the east. The Sudanese regime in Khartoum, with which the SPLM fought a long, bloody civil war, is threatening to shut down oil production by blocking the south's pipelines, all of which run through the north. Right now, South Sudan maintains a crude-dependent economy.

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The upheaval started when Kiir announced a series of decrees on state television Tuesday evening, firing his deputy and political rival, Riek Machar.

The president went on to dismiss all 28 cabinet ministers and their deputies, leaving ministries in the hands of civil servants. He also suspended his party's secretary-general, Pagan Amum. Amum will be investigated for mismanagement and insubordination, Kiir said.

Divisions within the SPLM, a rebel army turned government, were increasingly visible in recent months.

Machar had publicly criticized Kiir’s leadership, declaring his intention to challenge Kiir for the presidency in 2015. The rivalry was made public in April when Kiir stripped Machar of some of his powers.

But the bad blood runs deeper than that. Machar belongs to the Neur tribe, the second-largest after Kiir's Dinka. Nuer troops under Machar’s command are accused of a massacre of Dinka during a period when Machar had split from the southern rebels in 1991. 

Amum, too, recently criticized Kiir, after the president sacked the finance and cabinet affairs ministers in June over their alleged involvement in a multimillion-dollar corruption scandal. Amum described the dismissals as "political.”

Because Amum led Juba's negotiations with Khartoum over oil revenues, some are worried oil supplies shared between the two countries will go offline. Jube initiated a 15-month shutdown in Jan. 2012, bringing both economies to their knees. 

In the latest dispute, the government in Khartoum accused the south of supporting rebels inside Sudan, and threatened to cut off supplies in retaliation.

Some analysts suggest Kiir orchestrated the mass dismissal to mask his targeted firing of Machar. 

“This latest move is part of an ongoing struggle in the highest levels of South Sudan's political leadership,” said Akshaya Kumar, Sudan and South Sudan policy analyst for the Enough Project advocacy group, based in Washington, DC.

Lesley Anne Warner, an Africa analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses' Center for Strategic Studies, said that while Machar’s firing was not a surprise, “I don’t think anyone expected him to nuke his entire cabinet.”

The full impact of Kiir's decision will be known when the makeup of the new cabinet is announced, Warner said, and “we see what those who have been kicked out decide to do about it.”

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