By Steve Paterno
Finally, relative calm has returned to South Sudan’s capital, Juba, after the city witnessed blaze of gunfires and blast of rockets, which lasted for several days, in which the government reports was an attempted coup d’etat, carried out by disgruntled politicians led by former Vice President Riek Machar and his supporters.
Now, some few details are beginning to emerge and the most debated questions are as to whether there was really an actual coup attempt as claimed by the government and what will likely the future holds for the nascent nation of South Sudan. To have a better understanding of this, the issues must be looked at on a context of development of events leading up right into the crisis and then project how the future will unfold.
The last several months and weeks, showed flary of political activities by the so called disgruntled group, led by Riek Machar, a group consisting of individuals who were fired from their government positions and some of whom were awaiting investigation for insubordination and corruption accusation. The group grew emboldened in their tones and becoming more harsher against the President, with their criticism. They vowed to continue with political activism until the president relent and cave in on their demands. The group warned they will take whatever action necessary to capitulate the President. Now it is open for wider interpretation as to whether “whatever action necessary” entails a forceful removal of the President.
On his part, the President seemed to have been oblivious about the activities of this group, relentlessly targeting him. The President simply ignored them, referring to them as a disgruntled group without real mandate or even public following. Matter of fact, in span of this period, the President was largely absent from the nation, managing to travel in four separate countries. This would have of course ideally provided the alleged coup plotters to take advantage of the vacuum and oust the President in his absence.
However, it still remains unclear whether at the time there was a real plot to oust the President militarily or if there was such a plan, it might have still yet in pipeline and premature for execution.
The grim and fateful event of December 15, and subsequently, nevertheless, sheds some light into this mystery. The day was a conclusion of the meeting of National Liberation Council, one of the highest organs of SPLM party. This disgruntled group from within the party reluctantly attended the meeting and even boycotted some of the sessions, when the group found out they were not given platform to present their grievances. The meeting preempted the political rally of this group, scheduled on the same date the National Liberation Council meeting commenced. The group actually preferred this meeting to be held after the Political Bureau meeting, where they thought they could have a potential chance to overrule President Salva Kiir, also the chairman of the party.
At any rate, tension that day was exacerbated due to unfolding political wrangling within SPLM party, which was already built beyond fervor point. The most plausible account of that night is that certain section of presidential guards unit, known as Tiger Batalion of a Nuer origin perceived to be loyal to Riek Machar were about to be disarmed and in process, they defied the orders, and ended up over taking the military headquarters by force. The firefights then spread across the city, even at some point reaching within the presidential palace compound. The government then in its effort, launched a counter attack, pushing the mutinied soldiers out of the town and starting detaining suspected ring leaders behind the military skirmishes. Subsequently, several of such mutiny sprung up in several locations, particularly in Jongolei, where a powerful general, one Peter Gadet rebelled in support of Riek Machar.
Going by this version of events, the pertinent questions and plausible answers are as follows: did the government tried to execute disarmament out of a tip of a potential coup or it was acting out of precautionary measures? Was the government trying to preemptively detain those members of the so called disgruntled group? Did Riek Machar and group have influence over the military so as to mobilize them against the President? Were the disgruntled group coordinating among themselves and if so, does such coordination extended to military units?
These and many unanswered questions will ascertain matter factly as to whether there was a real plot to oust the President through a coup d’etat. For example, we can never know for sure whether the government was acting out of a tip of a potential coup or in a precaution, when it decided to execute a disarmament against members of Nuers in presidential guards unit. The President of course has a swiping constitutional powers to detain some of those disgruntled politicians at will, without necessarily resorting into violence as he is accused for orchestrating the violence by his opponents. The fact that the President was able not only to fire the entire cabinet, but also the top military brass with ease underscore this point. Besides, some of these disgruntled individuals were already under criminal investigations, where they could easily be napped through legal means as oppose to violence. Reik Machar among his group wields significant influence among the military, based on tribal affiliation. The question remains though whether Riek Machar was coordinating with those in military to plot ouster of the President. This is also a challenge for the government to prove whether those suspected politicians detained were coordinating with the military. It is already true in public that the group were coordinating among themselves. Their political activism and media statements during this crisis is enough prove that they were in concert with one another. It is also possible that the government was keeping tab on their communication channels throughout the time they organized as a disgruntled members of the party.
Therefore, it is up to the government if it intends to legally prosecute these individuals that it proves beyond reasonable doubt by linking them to the actual breakout of the firefight. Whatever the government decision in handling these individuals, it is obvious, there are going to be mounting pressure from international community for their unconditional release. Unfortunately, though, for these people, beside Riek Machar who is basking on tribal popularity, the rest of these individuals are lone wolves, without constituencies or any significant public following. So, the government is at a liberty to deal with these individuals in whatever ways it deems necessary. The situation already created a recipe for a civil war, though dangerously aligned along ethnic loyalties, with a potential of Rwanda style genocide looming in a horizon. Eventually, Riek Machar and the group will ultimately negotiate their ways back into the fold, but the critical question and way ahead remains, what will happen before then. The President already expressed a willingness to sit down and peacefully negotiate with Riek Machar and the group even though Riek Machar is calling on an overthrow of the President by violent means. In all of this, of course, some innocent souls are lost in process, properties destroyed and the the livelihood forever disrupted.
Steve Paterno is the author of The Rev. Fr. Saturnino Lohure, A Romain Catholic Priest Turned Rebel. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org