By PaanLuel Wel, Washington DC, USA
October 11, 2011 (SSNA) — It has been about a week from the time when Dr. Lam Akol returned to South Sudan since the independence of South Sudan from the North in July, 2011. According to reports, Dr. Lam Akol, the leader of the main official opposition party in South Sudan—the SPLM-DC—has been residing in Nairobi, Kenya due to political issues and security concerns stemming from constant harassment his party supporters have been subjected to by the SPLM, the South Sudan ruling party.
The SPLM has been fond of labeling various accusations against Dr. Lam and his party ranging from co-habiting with militia groups to being an extended arm of the NCP of Al-Bashir, masquerading in South Sudan as an independent opposition party. Of course, the SPLM-DC, from day one, has persistently refuted all the accusations, calling on the SPLM to produce concrete evidence(s) either in the court of law or to the public which could tie them to the alleged charges, none of which the SPLM has been prepared to do.
Since his arrival in Juba, Dr. Lam has been meeting various stakeholders: his long time political friends, church leaders, civic society, MPs, and community elders. Not long ago, he has secured his second meeting, in a row, with President Kiir. Take this last Sunday, for instance, he was in the church meeting the faithful in the morning, was paid a visit by the Deputy Speaker of the Council of States in the afternoon, and soon afterward, was visited by Jerkuei Marek with some MPs from Greater Bahr El Ghazal States.
Retracing Dr. Lam’s footprint in the DNA of South Sudanese Struggle
Dr. Lam Akol Ajawin, a Shilluk by ethnicity, was born on July 15, 1950 in Athidhwoi, Upper Nile State of the Republic of South Sudan. An exceptionally bright student, Dr. Lam has a Bachelor of Science (Honors) in Engineering from the University of Khartoum (1975), Masters in Petroleum Engineering from Edinburgh University, UK(1977), and a PhD in Chemical Engineering from Imperial College of Science and Technology, University of London, UK (1980).
In 1999, Dr. Lam also received an Honorary Doctorate in Political Science from Juba University. He is fluent in five languages—English, Arabic, Chollo, Dinka and Nuer, in addition to elementary German. Dr. Lam is married to Hon. Madam Rebecca, a deputy minister of Education in the Government of South Sudan, with whom they have three children. Between 1980 and 1986, prior to joining the SPLM/A, Dr. Lam was a Lecturer at the department of Chemical Engineering, Khartoum University.
Though he had been encouraging and recruiting many leading Southerners to join the SPLM/A, Dr. Lam Akol himself officially joined the Movement in April 1986. And by July the same year of 1986, he was appointed Alternate Member of the SPLM Political-Military High Command. Diplomatically, he was appointed by Dr. Garang as the Director of the Office of Coordination and External Relations of the SPLM, based in Addis Ababa. As a chief negotiator of the SPLM/A (1988-1990) in peace talks with the Khartoum government, Dr. Lam became the face and voice of the Movement to the outside world. On the frontline, Dr. Lam was a deployed twice: one as a zonal commander of Northern Upper Nile (1987-1988) and secondly as a zonal commander of Southern Blue Nile (1990-1991), a position he held till he engineered the1991 Nasir coup against Dr. John Garang, his boss.
In his book, The Politics of Liberation in South Sudan, Dr. Peter Adwok Nyaba attributed Dr. Lam sudden rise in the ranks of the SPLM/Ato favoritism practiced by Dr. John Garang. Dr. Nyaba wrote that both Dr. Lam and Dr. Riek Machar were favored by Dr. Garang, to the chagrin of Kuanyin Boland William Nyuon. Cdr. Kuanyin and Cdr. William, being the educational underdogs of the Movement, felt threatened by what they saw as Dr. Garang’s selective promotion of the educated elites in total disregards to the military merits of other members of the Movement.
Such was the height of political schism between the educated and the semi-illiterate commanders of the SPLM/A that Kerubino Kuanyin was reported to have remarked: “You people are not made to fight, and when we the combatants are dead, you will come to takeover the revolution.” The rejection of Cdr Kuanyin Bol’s preferred list, some people have argued, formed the core foundation of his political disagreement with Dr. Garang which later culminated in his open rebellion and subsequent incarceration.
Whether or not Dr.Lam Akol’s meteoric rise within the ranks and files of the SPLM/A was due to preferentialism by Dr. Garang, the two doctors had, by 1990, fell out of favor. By then, there was already a sizable section of the SPLM/A cadres who were deeply dissatisfied with how the Movement was being run. The first recorded voice among this group was that of (Prof.) Captain Barri Wanji in form of pamphlets written and distributed to various SPLM/A-friendly embassies in Addis Ababa. With the arrest of Kwanyin Bol, Arok Thon, Joseph Uduho, Martin Majier etc the voice of agitations grew louder and wider, and their numbers swelled.
It was these internal contradictions and political turmoil within the SPLM/A that Dr. Lam Akol, Dr. Riek Machar and Gordon Koang Chol tapped into to plot the August 28, 1991 Nasir coup against Dr. John Garang’s leadership. The Nasir Declaration, as the coup came to be known, was a brainchild of Dr. Lam Akol as the original idea and the meticulous plan of the coup were his makings. The coup makers declared that they have deposed Dr. John Garang because of his oppressive and dictatorial leadership and they called for the renewal and democratization within the Movement. The coup failed to dislodge Dr. Garang from SPLM leadership and instead, unfortunately, degenerated into a tribal war pitting Dinka versus Nuer. The Movement was divided into SPLM-Torit under Dr. Garang and SPLM-Nasir under Dr. Machar.
But no sooner had the trio launched SPLM-Nasir than the same internal contradictions that bedeviled SPLM/A caught up with them. In the corridors of Nairobi and Military bases in South Sudan, rumors started leaking out that Dr. Lam Akol, John Luk and John Kulang were planning a coup against Dr. Machar, the leader of the SPLM-United. Dr. Lam too was accused of fostering collaboration with the Khartoum government while Dr. Lam charged Dr. Machar of failed leadership characterized by dictatorship, perpetual indecisiveness and tactlessness.
The climax of these political intrigues was the dismissal of Dr. Lam by Dr. Machar on February 14, 1994 accusing him of being the “architect of collaboration” with the enemy among other charges. Legend has it that, after summarily discharging Dr. Lam, Dr. Riek is reported to have boastfully said that he could sack Dr.Lam without any political consequences because Chollo is a just but a small tribe.
While it could have been possible that Dr. Lam, being an ambitious politician, might have been unhappy with Dr. Riek Leadership of alleged indecisiveness and ethnic nationalism, it is inconceivable to comprehend how Dr. Lam could have successfully carried out the coup against him given the fact that most of the armed forces of the SPLM-Nasir were ethnically Nuer. Besides, all these talks about the alleged coup were done in the heart of Nairobi, Kenya: how could you possibly stage a military takeover in a foreign land? As for his alleged collaboration with the enemy, Dr. Lam famously opined: “who could be more royal in the king’s court than the king himself!” in reference to how Dr. Machar (the king) was more involved than him (a mere servant in the king’s court) in the alleged collaboration with the Arabs.
After his disgraceful firing from SPLM-United that he had founded, Dr. Lam joined forces with Arok Thon Arok, Peter Sule, James Gatduel and Cdr James Othow Along to launch a rejuvenated SPLM-United (after Dr. Riek renamed his faction as SSIM/A) on September 17, 1994 with Dr. Lam as the Chairman, Arok Thon as 1st vice chairman and Peter Sule as 2nd vice chairman. However, it was not long before Dr. Lam found out that the original evil she had been accusing Dr. Garang and Dr. Machar of would catch up with him once he assumed the throne. No sooner was the party formed than it disintegrated. Arok Thon, the vice chairman, resigned in April 1995, and by November 10, 1995, Cdr James Othow defected to the Khartoum government.
With no option left for him to maneuver, and cognizance of the fact that Dr. Machar, his 1991coup mate, having already surrendered to the Arabs through Khartoum Agreement of April 10, 1996, Dr. Lam signed a political treaty—Fashoda Peace Agreement—with the Arabs in 1997. Soon afterward, he was appointed by the NCP as a Minister of Transport (1998-2002). However, Dr. Lam dramatically resigned from the NCP in2002 and joined Justice Party, a then newly formed opposition party in the north.
In October 2003, Dr. Lam re-defected to the SPLM/A that he had left in 1991. With the advent of the CPA and the formation of GoSS, Dr. Garang appointed Dr. Lam as the Administrative Supervisor of Western Bahr El Ghazal State in2005 (July-August). When SPLM/A joined the Government of National Unity (GoNU) in Khartoum in 2005, Dr. Lam was given the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on SPLM ticket. He held that position till 2007 when he was dismissed by VP Salva Kiir after SPLM/A began boycotting the GoNU because of, among other things, Dr. Lam. The SPLM/A accused Dr. Lam of betraying their policies and for supporting the NCP position in the government, especially after the ICC indictment of President Bashir. In spite of the accusations and his subsequent dismissal from the GoNU, Dr. Lam credited himself of being the only Southern Minister to have posted and employed as many Southerners in GoNU as was stipulated by the CPA.
Dr. Lam broke away from the SPLM for the second time and formed his own party—the SPLM-DC, on June 6, 2009. He mounted a spirited campaign and contested the 2009 South Sudan presidential election against Salva Kiir Mayardit of SPLM. When the official results were released, however, Dr. Lam cried foul after he was defeated accusing SPLM/A of vote rigging and political intimidation. The SPLM responded by banning SPLM-DC from South Sudan and commenced harassing its members, accusing them of sponsoring militia activities and collaborating with the North. Fearing for his dear life, Dr. Lam took up residence in Khartoum from where he launched a sustained counter-propaganda war against the SPLM/A under Salva Kiir.
Either because of political intimidation or physical harassment or political prostitution, the SPLM-DC started experiencing mass defections of it top members. Accusing Dr.Lam of dictatorship and corruption, Engineer Charles Kisanga, the SPLM-DC’s deputy chairman and former secretary general, led a mass, much-publicized defection to the SPLM on July 18, 2010. According to his account, he was accompanied by more than 80 senior members of the party who were bitterly dissatisfied with Dr. Lam’s leadership.
As if that was not enough, the SPLM-DC’s secretariat was again rocked by fresh wave of mass resignations in September 2011, when Sandra Bona Malwal, YienThiang Luony and Deng Bior left the party for SPLM. They were received with much fanfare and highly exaggerated TV publicity stunt predestined to humiliate the SPLM-DC as well as to score political points. The political taunting and the bickering animosity between the two sister parties took a life of its own and journey on till September 29, 2011.
Meeting with President Salva Kiir in Nairobi, Kenya
But that sustained rhetorical animosity between the two antagonizing parties thawed up late last month, September 29, 2011, when South Sudan president, Salva kiir, invited and had a successful meeting with Dr. Lam in Nairobi Kenya. Though his security was not guaranteed as he might have preferred, the meeting, nevertheless, opened a rare door of opportunity that saw Dr. Lam’s eventual return to Juba last Sunday, October 2nd, 2011.
Most observers were surprised by the September 29 meeting between President Salva Kiir and Dr.Lam for none of them saw it coming. Despite rampant cases of corruption and general mismanagement of the government of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, as an individual, is known for his humility, cool-headedness and persistence.
His sudden political outreach to Dr. Lam, his erstwhile sworn political nemesis, might have been informed by the need to bring about political unity and peace in the country which has been lately hit by waves of unprecedented tribal clashes and militia activities. Whether or not Dr. Lam’s present in Juba would mitigate the worsening situation remain to be seen in the next few days, months and years.
Dr. Lam’s Political Prospects in the New Country
Now that Dr. Lam is in Juba, South Sudan, what is next for him? What are his political prospects in the new nation—his chances of re-packaging and re-branding himself to achieve the highest office of the land? In short, will Dr. Lam ever become the president of the Republic of South Sudan?
First and foremost, Dr. Lam is a bright, highly educated, cunning and shrewd politician. This is the very reason why Dr. Garang made him the SPLM’s Director of the Office of Coordination and External Relations—equivalent to Foreign affairs ministry, just within months after he joined the Movement in 1986. Dr. Machar was the first to join the Movement—in 1984, yet he didn’t get the position. Any political opponent of Dr. Lam—President Kiir included—would ignore this fact at his/her own peril.
The second, and the most important, source of Dr. Lam’s political strength lie in the fact that there are great numbers of people who are chronically anti-SPLM/A and anti-Dinka, for one reason or the other. For these groups of South Sudanese, Dr. Lam leadership and political ambition present a definitive crystallization of their hatred for the two entities. To them, it won’t matter what Dr. Lam is or is not, provided that he gives them a political platform to vent their anger against and opposition to their perceived enemy—the Dinka controlled SPLM/A which has become Arab II to them. Dr. Lam will count on the support of these groups, come rain come sunshine.
However, Dr. Lam confronts more formidable challenges than favors in his ancient quest for presidency. His critics, of which he is blessed with many in South Sudan, are quick to point out that his educational prowess and political shrewdness were tested but never realized when Dr. Lam was the head of his own party—the SPLM-United. He was accused of the same dictatorship, corruptions and nepotism that he was fond of condemning Dr. Garang and Dr. Machar. Moreover, in spite of his sharp mind, critics argue that Dr. Lam was a poor military strategist when he was posted to the frontlines. He was almost captured by the Arabs when he was a zonal commander. Contrast that with Dr. Machar who, it is said, almost captured the current president of Sudan, Omar Bashir.
The other debilitating political baggage Dr. Lam carries is his controversial past. It is not a secret that most South Sudanese, were an opinion poll to be conducted today, mainly view Dr. Lam as a sell-out, a betrayer and a collaborator. This view stemmed from the fact that Dr. Lam was the architect of the 1991 coup against the SPLM’s leadership which many blame for the political and military setbacks that SPLM/A suffered at the hands of the NIF/NCP of President Bashir. Most South Sudanese still recalled that the Khartoum Government soldiers that re-captured Bor, Kapeota and Torit, among other SPLM-control garrisons, left from Malakal, under the nose of the SPLM-Nasir who did nothing to intercept them.
Whether or not this is an accurate opinion of the facts as they are in themselves does not matter as much as the perception people have already formed about him. Politics is usually more about pre-conceived perceptions, not facts; and there lie the downfall of Dr. Lam. It will take lot of effort and time to undo the damage, if ever it will be feasible.
The most challenging obstacle Dr. Lam will face, however, is the manifested tribalization of politics in South Sudan. Presently as South Sudanese wait for the next presidential election, Dr. Lam will have to contend with President Salva Kiir who is from the Dinka tribe, the most populous ethnic community in South Sudan. Being from a smaller tribe, Dr.Lam chances of ever defeating President Kiir are minimal. And if Dr. Machar would still run as President Kiir’s running mate, then Dr. Lam chances are further reduce to nil, just like in the last presidential election in which President Kiir won with a landslide.
Even in case Dr. Machar were to part ways with President Kiir, there is no day that he (Dr.Machar) would support Dr. Lam’s presidency because he is himself waiting to take over the leadership after President Kiir. In other words, Dr. Lam cannot win a free and fair presidential election in a highly tribalized country as South Sudan whether or not President Kiir and VP Dr. Machar run together as a team or separately as opponents. It is just that, no way around it unless we banish tribalism amidst us, which is highly improbable in this generation.
Besides, much of the support that SPLM-DC enjoys today, as I pointed out earlier, is mainly from those who are either anti-Dinka, Anti-SPLM/A or both. Most of these people would likely wind up decamping to Dr. Machar side if the contest is between Dr.Lam and Dr. Machar, assuming that President Kiir retired peacefully and handed over SPLM leadership to his vice president, who is also his vice chairman in the SPLM’s hierarchy.
Dr. Lam’s political return to South Sudan and into South Sudan political participation is long overdue. SPLM-DC is the official opposition party in the country. Although South Sudan has array of other political parties, it is only SPLM-DC which has members in the South Sudan legislative assembly. The rest, as of now, are just but briefcase parties.
A leader of such influential party can’t be sidelined in South Sudanese politics without undermining the rule of law and the healthy growth of democracy. Both the law—the interim constitution, and the principle of democracy demand the present of an effective and vibrant opposition party in the country. Presently, SPLM-DC is the only viable party to execute that national duty.
Dr. Lam, his failings aside, is the head of this opposition party and his present in the country is mandatory if South Sudan is to be taken as a truly democratic country. Therefore, Patriotic South Sudanese must all shun willful political witch-hunting like the recent call to investigate him over his alleged links to militia group which are merely based on flimsy ground.
Give the man a chance—space and time—to prove himself right or wrong. Who knows, he might prove you wrong or right. Only time will tell!!
You can reach PaanLuel Wël at [email protected] (email address), PaanLuel Wel (Facebook page), PaanLuelWel2011 (Twitter account) or through his blog account at: http://paanluelwel2011.wordpress.com//