Are South Sudan's cabinet sackings an overdue development or a recipe for conflict?

Some have welcomed President Salva Kiir's dismissal of his entire cabinet, but whether this move is for Kiir’s own benefit or that of the country remains to be seen.

On 23 July 2013 South Sudanese President Salva Kiir Mayardit issued a decree announcing the dismissal of Vice President Riek Machar and his entire cabinet. He also suspended Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) secretary general Pagan Amum. Having sacked all of his ministers and their deputies, Kiir has temporarily handed over the administration of government departments to the relevant undersecretaries. Kiir also stated that the number of ministries would be reduced from 29 to 18. What is the reason for this controversial move and how will this impact South Sudan?

Analysts have pointed out that the dismissals weren't a surprise. Both Machar and Amum have publically criticised Kiir and many believe Machar has been planning to contest Kiir’s reappointment as head of SPLM, the ruling party, in anticipation of the 2015 general elections. In April, Machar was stripped of some of his vice-presidential powers after he expressed his desire to challenge the presidency. He also stated that the government had not fulfilled people’s expectations since the end of the civil war and that change was necessary to avoid authoritarianism and dictatorship.

The dismissal of these two prominent figures raises several important questions. The first concerns the future direction of ongoing talks between Sudan and South Sudan, where both Machar and Amum hold important negotiating roles. The talks have been stalling of late and Khartoum recently threatened to shut down the oil pipes South Sudan uses, accusing South Sudan of supporting rebels in the Blue Nile and South Kordofan states, a claim which South Sudan denies. The second question is whether the changes will lead to a split within the SPLM and/or a new political party. Third, there is a possibility that the splits might motivate factions and disgruntled elements in the party to attempt to destabilise the country and deepen existing historical ethnic faultlines.

What is Kiir’s explanation for the sackings? Rather than providing a justification, Kiir has only pointed to his prerogative under the country’s transitional constitution to dismiss senior government officials. However, Kiir has accused Amum of mismanaging party affairs, discrediting the SPLM and inciting tribal violence, thereby prompting his suspension. Amum has been forbidden to leave the capital, Juba, until an investigation into these allegations is complete.

Amum is not the first to be accused of mismanagement in the South Sudanese government. In June 2012 the South Sudanese parliament voted to suspend at least 75 officials accused of corruption, while Kiir sent a letter to current and ex-government employees, requesting that they return at least $4 billion of stolen money in exchange for amnesty. Earlier this month Kiir removed Deng Alor Kuol, the Minister of Cabinet Affairs, and Kosti Manibe Ngai, the Minister of Finance, on the basis of corruption allegations. Corruption remains rife in the country and although South Sudan’s Anti-Corruption Commission has been established, it lacks the resources required to make a sustained impact.

Discontent with the way that South Sudan is being run is growing as the country continues to face various challenges, including unemployment and inadequate healthcare and infrastructure. The country became independent in 2011 amid great optimism, but much still needs to be done to improve the lives of the South Sudanese. The Guardian newspaper has noted that roughly half the national budget is spent on the government itself, including salaries and V8 Land Cruisers, while much of the population suffers from food shortages. In a recent open letter to the South Sudanese president, US-based activists John Prendergast, Eric Reeves, Ted Dagne and Roger Winter implored Kiir to reform his government or face internal collapse.

It is therefore no wonder that some people have welcomed the government dismissals. Deng Athuai, the chairperson of the South Sudan Civil Society Alliance, says the changes are welcomed to prevent corrupt officials from affecting service delivery, while Jacob Akol, editor of the Gurtong Trust website (a South Sudanese media site), suggests that the change could provide opportunities for younger, technically qualified South Sudanese to fill the ministerial posts.

As Kiir begins to hold consultations over the formation of a new cabinet, the African Union (AU), the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), Canada, Norway, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States have released a joint statement appealing for calm in the country. The statement also calls for the formation of the new cabinet to be expedited and to be done in such a manner that the diversity of the people is reflected, in conformity with the transitional constitution and the country’s democratic ideals.

Whether Kiir’s decision to sack his cabinet is for his own benefit or for the benefit of the country, it is vital that the new appointments are made after consultation and reflect the needs and make-up of the population in order to prevent ethnic violence and divisive politics. That being said, a smaller, more streamlined and accountable cabinet could provide the much-needed direction that South Sudan has been lacking.

Amanda Lucey, Researcher, Conflict Management and Peacebuilding Division, ISS Pretoria

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