A Failure of Leadership: How President Kiir Failed South Sudan

By Jean C.B. [name withheld for security reasons]

“…members (SPLA) have formed private companies, bought houses and have huge bank accounts in foreign countries. I wonder what kind of system we are going to establish in South Sudan?” then Gen. Kiir in 2004 criticizing the late Dr. John Garang on the failures of splm/spla to meet its obligations to South Sudanese.

1. Military, Tribalism & Democracy: An Unlikely Marriage

January 6, 2014 (SSNA) — A military state and a democratic state are unlikely to co-exist in a tribal society.  This is simply due to the fact that a military regime does not encourage the establishment of credible and functioning institutions. But a democratic system of government creates and sustains such institutions. While, in a tribal society, the tribe(s) in power tends to always perceive the other tribes as potential threats. The elimination or weakening of others is a pre-requisite to the maintenance of power. The current system of governance in South Sudan is a mixed of the three. And the president has consciously made a decision to maintain the status quo.                                                                                       

Pres. Kiir has decided that he will have one foot in the military and the other in a democratic government. Of course one cannot entirely blame the president, after all he was a very effective military General. However, the president has failed to run a cohesive National Military. And he has failed in running a democratic Civilian government. And since he is the head of the government and the commander-in-Chief (CIC), it is imperative that he be held accountable for the current crisis that has engulfed our country. Crisis that could otherwise have been contained. The bucks must stop with the president.

Several factors have contributed to Pres. Kiir’s failure in running a “democratic state”. The fact that the president has not acquired (transferable) skills required in running a modern state is perhaps the main contributing factor to his failed leadership. There is a mismatch between the set of skills required to be a good military General and those required to be an effective President in a functioning democracy. The obvious being that unlike the military the economy cannot be commanded. In other word, while the military requires a set of rigid rules to function properly, the economy is a result of many interactive and non-interactive forces whose sequence cannot possibility be planned. On the other hand, any effective execution of a military order requires careful planning. A successful military strategy is, therefore, a direct result of how well an executive order is followed.

The military is best described by a rigid structure of power. There is a very well defined direct line of command. But in a democratic government power must be shared. Each department must be entrusted with a certain level of responsibility.   A democratic system in which there is an Executive branch, a Legislative branch and a Judicial branch can manage to solve a majority of the problems that arise from such devolution of power. But the same could not be said about the military. In the military there are severe consequences to insubordinacy. In short the military is not a democratic institution. The military is inflexible. The military cannot absorb the shocks that come from running a modern economy. The rigidities that make military function smoothly and successfully are the very ingredients that would lead to a failed state. In short, a military system is synonymous with dictatorship while a democratic state is synonymous with economic freedoms.

Pres. Kiir does not seem to understand the differences between a military state and a democratic state. And as a result, he has appointed former military Generals to make majority of the country’s major economic decisions. South Sudan can then best be described as a quasi-military state. And how democracy is perceived in South Sudan is very dependent on the messenger. And for the former (rebels) Generals turned politicians, democracy is a threat.

While Pres. Kiir could easily dismiss such criticisms by citing the numerous sacrifices made by these generals in attaining an independent South Sudan, he will, however, have very little excuse for the failure of his government to meet the needs and aspirations of the nation. And as the head of government he must hold himself accountable for his government failures.

The former generals have been re-warded with high levels executive positions in the government without the necessary training requisite of these positions. The result has been widespread patronage in government hiring. Patronage and nepotism in a tribal society constitute tribalism- a serious form of discrimination and a punishable crime. The fact that the survival of these Generals was very dependent on surrounding themselves with individuals whom they trust- in most cases their close relatives and clan members- during the civil war, has made them believe that these practices would blend well in a democratic state. The result has been rampant tribalism and the bewilderment of the much more qualified younger generation who have no networks to exploit. In most cases it is the members of the smaller tribes who bear the brunt of tribalism.

A dire consequence of tribalism has been the inability of the government to function effectively. As a result, incompetency has been the hallmark of Pres. Kiir’s cabinet. Government contracts and tenders have been awarded to companies and individuals who do not have the capacity to deliver such services. For example in 2008, the government decided to use more than 30million dollars on building 132 emergency grain stores, of whom only about forty were completed. The fact that individuals with low to medium skills levels are entrusted with carrying out complex tasks such as negotiations with multinationals companies should be very worrying to any patriot.

The government has not carried out audits as to the sources of inefficiencies in the system. Instead such inefficiencies are swept under the rug. The problem starts at the top. Pres. Kiir’s solution to scandals is very autocratic. Since under a military regime such actions (corruption) would be deemed as acts of treason and pres. Kiir does not want to establish credible institutions, he has generally found himself participating in the covering up of such gross mismanagement of public funds. But once it became obvious that the scandals are growing, the president simply fired his whole cabinet and hired individuals from the same pool as the former ones, hoping for different results. I believe Einstein made a rather ingenuis comment as to the insanity of such a cycle. However,Pres. Kiir was simply using such scandals as a pretext to weakening his potential challengers- such as Dr. Riek machar, Pagan Amum, Deng Alor, Nyandeng Garang- in the party. Gen. Kong during the disarmament of SSDF- a rebel group- argued that, while Dr. Garang was very clear about where he stood with other senior commanders, Pres. Kiir tends to say nice things so as to disguise his true intentions. In other word, Kiir is not honest in his dealings. The result has been mistrust and disunity at the very senior levels of the SPLM/SPLA. How can a country meet its obligations if it is dis-united at the very top?

Since there are no well established institutions in South sudan that can absorb the shocks that come with firing and hiring decisions; the result has been numerous disgruntle members of SPLM in Juba. Note that there are barely any established private businesses or even Security companies that would use the set of skills of these former generals turned politicians. And the SPLM under Pres. Kiir is not very democratic. The president has made significant efforts in ensuring that the party remains undemocratic. The chair of the party makes the majority of the decisions. Remember that SPLM/SPLA is a former rebel movement, whose tenets are drawn from a military regime playbook.  The late Dr. Garang once remarked that “The SPLA is a tool and a tool cannot be democratic”. Following the death of Dr. Garang, the party was not democratized. Instead pres. Kiir consolidated power. The consequence of non-democratization of SPLM is that former members of the cabinet are expected- presumably by Pres. Kiir- to simply go back to their home villages and farm. This once again underlines the inability of Pres. Kiir and his inner circle to comprehensively evaluate the long-term effects of executive orders. The issuance of presidential “decrees” has been used to violate basic human rights and freedoms. Including freedom of speech and freedom of the press. For example, An op-ed writer, Maj. Abraham Diing Awuol, was assassinated in 2012 for criticizing the president.

Furthermore, a combination of tribalism and lack of opportunities has led to a significant increase in young military recruits. Their main motivation being the wages and perks they would get in the military. Most of these recruits have not under-gone proper training before being integrated into the military. Statistics on their age, weight and general health conditions are not very encouraging. A majority of the recruits are underweight and most do not possessed the basic skills and the training necessary to be part of any serious National Army. The military is not also equipped with modern warfare equipment. There are no military trained doctors to aid the wounded during the time of conflicts. The result has been the constant shaming of the SPLA in frontlines by the supposedly “12 and 15” years old white army militia. And the begging –by Pres. Kiir- to the international community to disregard the sovereignty of the state and interfere in domestic affairs.The UPDF ( Uganda military) is currently conducting aerial bombardments in South Sudan. An interference which might lengthen the current conflict in South Sudan. However, Pres. Kiir is not too concerned about the sovereignty of South Sudan.  

Pres. Kiir in an interview with CNN- in front of the whole world- stated that, “…The day this thing happened, the regional leaders….should have come in with military support so that these rebels are crashed once and for all!”. A Military General who cannot properly put in place the institutions necessary to build an army that can protect the citizens and the interests of the Republic should not be entrusted with the responsibility of the Commander-in-Chief. A president who does not respect the constitutionality and the sovereignty of the state he rules, must be primarily held accountable for the failure of that state.  The president has also encouraged division within the military. The army is not operating as a unit as some ethnic groups feel that they should not sacrifice their lives to liberate other tribes land. This has led to the current persistent failure of the government troops- inspite of their superior military might and support from Uganda military (UPDF)- to recapture Bor. To make matter worse it has been reported that some of the senior army Generals in the greater equatorial region have defected. These Generals cited attempts to eliminate them as their main reason for defecting. This has exposed serious cracks within the national military. The president has respondent to military crisis by recalling some generals to the army.

The fact that the commander-in-Chief (CIC) has recalled some of the former Military Generals- whom he pre-maturely fired/forced to retire- should be of grave concerns as to the president’s capacity to make the right executive decisions. The fact that a small disagreement by one army battalion has led the country to a brink of civil war, should make South Sudanese reconsider and question our capacity to confront any serious aggressions from the North. Instead the president has unwisely invited Pres. Bashir to the state house in Juba. In the middle of civil strife the president has decided to ask the North for support. The president actions are exposing our dirty laundry to the world and thus exposing the country to long-term instability.

2. Economyit’s the economy stupid?

South Sudan is mainly dependent on oil. The country has been referred to as the “most oil-dependent nation” in the world. In fact 98 per cent of government revenues come from oil. The GDP per capita is around $1800 while the gross domestic income per capita (GNI) is significantly lower- about $900. About 30 per cent of the fiscal budget comes from development Assistance. The government under Pres. Kiir has not made any significant effort to diversify the economy. This has had particular ominous short run and long run consequences.

In the short run, complete reliance on oil as the main source of revenue has strengthened Khartoum’s hand in negotiations. The result has been that South Sudan has been consistently held hostage by its northern neighbors. Khartoum government is currently charging South Sudan exorbitant rates for the use of pipeline and the use of Port Sudan. Under President Kiir South Sudan is paying the highest rates in the world for pipeline usage. Khartoum currently receives about 35 per cent of the oil revenue. The long run effects of the failure by Pres. Kiir to diversify the economy are even worse. The country’s oil reserve is currently estimated to run out by 2035. Pres. Kiir has not even put forward basic policy briefs to address such devastating future shortages let alone a policy proposal. The government needs to generate about 800 million dollars from non-oil sector as a first step toward diversification.

The president simply decided to slim his cabinet and he called it an “austerity measure”; aimed at making the government function efficiently. The president seems to belief that by dissolving his government, that this would somehow lead to an increase in non-oil sector revenue. How unemployment contributes towards an increase in tax-base (taxes are the main source revenue from non-oil sector) is an economic puzzle only the president could possibly explain.

There is no evidence that the government has achieved its objective of increasing non-oil sector revenue. Instead the president had simply used austerity measures as political ploy to remove his rivals from the government. The consequences of such actions have contributed significantly to the current civil unrest in the country.

As South Sudan has been marginalized by Khartoum regimes for decades; the country has not developed any sophisticated form of a market economy. Barter trade is still a significant part of the economy, especially in the rural areas. A majority of population- about 80 per cent- relies on subsistence farming for their livelihood.

The major tribes are traditionally cattle keepers. There are currently more than 20 million heads of cattle in South Sudan. And given that cattle are a significant part of traditional institutions, from marriage to peace negotiations between tribes; a system in which cattle are not for commercial purposes has emerged. A majority of population deems selling of cattle as not only an insult to their cultural heritage but also to their families’ reputation. In tribal societies, reputation is currency. The result has been the reliance on imported meat from East Africa mainly Uganda and Kenya. And due to lack of proper refrigerating facilities and shortage in meat supply, prices for meat produce are very high in Juba.

The country has some of the most fertile soil in Africa. But Agricultural production is limited to Maize, wheat and sorghum. These crop types require sufficient rainfall. In the past, droughts and famines have devastated villages. Policies that would facilitate agricultural and lead expansion in the non-oil sector; thus facilitating economic growth have not been put in place.The government under president Kiir has not encouraged agricultural production. There are no major agriculture related policies put in place to empower such communities. Corruption in agricultural sector is on the rise as the sector tends to be overlooked.  And as a result 50 per cent of the country’s population live below the poverty line.  Note that about 80 per cent of the country lives in rural area and rely mainly on agriculture.

A majority of young men in the villages are moving to Juba in search of better opportunities. Most of these young men hope to find jobs or be enrolled in schools. But there are no well-established education institutions in the country. The result has been the rise of ghettoes in Juba. A majority of these young men have not had any significant formal education and thus are low skilled. The lack of diversification in the economy is hurting them. Competition from Ugandans and Kenyans retailers/traders has also stifled the rise of South Sudanese owned small business in Juba. Most of Kenyans and Ugandans owned Businesses are either sole proprietorship or small-scale partnerships. These businesses tend to employ mostly Kenyans or Ugandans. The relatively higher skills level of these traders from Kenya and Uganda has given them a competitive advantage over their South Sudanese counterparts. Since a majority of agricultural produce consumed in Juba, are imported from Kenya and Uganda, and there are no well-established networks of roads or rails, these has led to higher prices in Juba. Transit costs and few suppliers’ in the market are also contributing factors. In most cases suppliers collude and price fixing is part of the business in Juba .

The cost of living is so high in Juba that the ECA International recently ranked the city the fourth most expensive city in the world for workers from abroad. The humanitarian situation in South Sudan and the readily available markets have led to an increase in number of foreign workers. These workers generally demand the same living standards as they had in their home countries; they are willing to well above market prices for rare commodities. The lack of an effective market system in the country has encouraged the growth of a large underground economy. The government cannot collect any source of revenue from such businesses. And since these businesses are more profitable, there is bound to be an expansion in the underground economy. No measures have been put in place to address this issue.

Furthermore, the major oil fields are located to the North of the country while Juba- the capital city- is located to the South. Most of the young men end up not finding any meaningful employment in the city. Their movement is also restricted by the lack of infrastructures. There is a poor commute system and underdeveloped infrastructure. The government is slowly trying to build road networks in the country; but rampant corruption has meant contracts have been awarded to firms and companies that either cannot meet their contractual obligations or that intentionally delay projects so as to reap higher profits. The government has been very inefficient in re-evaluating such contracts. There are no serious auditing mechanisms in place. Instead a majority of contracts have been renewed. An easy access by foreign-owned companies to the office of the president and some cabinet members has made the government vulnerable in dealing with corruption. But since the government authored such contracts, it has become a participant in the ongoing grand-corruption in Juba. Corruption ranges from land grabbing in Juba and Central Equatoria state to the grand embezzlement of public funds by senior members of SPLA.

While Pres. Kiir has acknowledged corruption in the country; he has not encouraged the growth of legal institutions that would curtail such practices. For instant, upon accusing 75 of his party members of embezzling $4billion of public funds, the president simply asked them to re-deposit the money to a KCB- Kenyan Commercial bank- account in Nairobi. He did not take any further steps in holding these individuals accountable. There has been no access to information as to how much was deposited and by whom. The government has also decided to publish less than 50 per cent of its statistics on public expenditure; this is to protect the senior members of SPLA who have been accused of corruption. Multi-national firms that might invest in the country and create employment and possible spilled overs, have been very skeptical. One of the most cited reasons is lack of security and lack of access to comprehensive statistical output on the state of the economy.  The president has failed to effectively deal with corruption in his own government. And by not holding corrupt official accountable, he has put his political survival above the national interest.

Only 1.6 per cent of GDP is allocated to the provision of healthcare. The responsibility of providing primary and accessible healthcare has been entirely left to the local NGOs. There is on average one physician per 65,000 people. A majority of healthcare workers are not well trained and are mostly low skilled. The distribution of healthcare workers varies with each state. The country has the fourth highest immortality rate in the Africa with some parts hit harder than others. An Africa Development report published in 2012 outlined that “..One of every 1,000 live births die, 151 die before completing one year after birth in Western Equatoria, 139 in Warrap State and 129 in Northern Bahr el Ghazal. This is higher than the worst performance recorded on the continent”. 

The government under Pres. Kiir by not increasing the budget allocated to the healthcare and not investing in the sector is, in effect, admitting to its failure in meeting its mandate. Pres. Kiir has failed South Sudanese when it comes to healthcare. A country so rich in natural resources should not have one of the worst statistics on healthcare in the world. Resources such has the Nile have not been exploited for provision of energy and electricity. The country hydro-energy production is negligible. Meaningful efforts for hydro-energy production on the Nile have been hampered by haphazardly put together “Agreements” with the Egyptian government.

3. Tribal Reconciliation: The first Step toward Nation Building

South Sudan is made up of more than sixty tribes with the Dinka and the Nuer being the majority. The fact that these tribes have managed to relatively peacefully co-exist for centuries should be a positive sign, that we can become one united nation. We must acknowledge that we’re a nation of tribes and that if we’re to build a republic, constant reconciliatory efforts must be made. The definition of majority and the notion of majority rule are not only a requisite on a tribal basis. The truth is that the Dinka and the Nuer make-up less than 45 per cent of the population yet these two tribes control almost 85 per cent of the country. This is an unfair distribution. And given the rampant tribalism being practiced in Juba, it means that we are ignoring the potential contribution of sixty per cent of the country. The majority. Statistically, distribution of skills and talent is independent of a numerical majority. However, it is dependent on access to resources. The Apartheid regime is a clear example to this fact. The consequences of institutionalized tribalism won’t be remarkably different from those in South Africa. Mass protests and disruption of the economy will be the result.

After decades of civil war,traditional tribal alliances had been impaired. But after the independence of South sudan in 2011, there was a desire by South Sudanese to unite in building their nation. However, Pres. Kiir has failed the nation in this regard. He had initially made the right calls. He appointed Machar to lead tribal reconciliation process. But some of his inner political allies argued that Machar was too ambitious and might use such effort to raise his profile and defeat the president in an election. While this advice was not very sound; the president heed it and issued a decree cancelling the entire reconciliation process. But he later decided to appoint pastors to lead the process and pray away the nation’s tribal problems. This either shows that the president is not very decisive or was simply never serious on the Reconciliation Process in the first place. The president should have facilitated a National Reconciliation Process and let it be led by the very same politicians who had divided up the nation on tribal basis during the civil war. Atonement is the first step toward reconciliation.

The appointment of pastors by the president was by junior advisers who argued that the ,“Truth & Reconciliation (TRC)” in South Africa was headed by Desmond Tutu- a Bishop, former Noble Prize winner and a very well respected state man. Pres, Kiir’s advisors attributed Tutu’s appointment to his being a Bishop rather than to Tutu’s experience and acquired skills. They did not attempt to understand the remarkable role Bishop Tutu played in fighting for Blacks in South Africans prior to chairing the commision(TRC). The Black South Africans were supportive of Tutu’s appointment as they knew that he identified with their struggles. The white South Africans believed that Tutu would be fair and just in his capacity. Pres. Kiir’s advisors also applied a “Racial Relation case” to a “Tribal Relation case”. The two are markedly different. Pres. Kiir’s advisors are inept and have consistently ill advised the president on domestic and international matters. The consequences of such seemingly simple oversights can be severe.

The very same group of advisors- having not learned from their past mistakes-recently advised Pres. Kiir to announce a fabricated coup- without facts findings- on national television. The president did so while wearing Military fatigues. They argued that these would bolster his commander-in-Chief standing. Their reference point was the former Pres. George W. Bush, who consistently wore an air-force one jacket after 911. One can only wonder as to why they did not use the example of Lincoln during America’s Civil War. To make matters worse, the president’s speech was divisive. The reference to “prophet of doom” and “actions of the past” were not well concealed. As a result, some members in the Dinka community perceived the president’s speech as an executive decree to carry out mass murders on the Nuers Juba; while the Nuers- especially those under Gen. Gatdet- perceived the speech as a sign of tribal aggression. Two phrases, that should otherwise not have been spoken by the president  for the sake of national unity, have contributed to the death of more than 1000 innocent civilians. An (ethnic) massacre. And to the displacement of more than 200,00 civilians from their homes. A national disaster.

4.The White Army: An alternative Institution in a Lawless State?

The white army got its name not from the white ash that they apply on their body but rather as a contrast to the SPLA army. In Nuer language the national army is referred to as “Black Army”. Later the name evolved to symbolize the group’s decentralized nature. That is its, lack thereof, to abide by the military code of conduct. For the White army war is simply war. However, a council of elders must approve of such undertakings. Sufficient reasons for carrying out war include retaliations to raids from another tribe, murders and kidnapping of women and children by a rival tribe. And raids aimed at countering perceived aggressions from another tribe. South Sudan has been marginalized since colonial times and there are no well-established institutions for managing conflict. Tribal warfare emerged as an alternative institution for conflict resolution. And the white army has effectively used retaliations to rally the youth. The civil war and the split of splm/spla led to increase in available weapons and ammunitions. The white army has been implicated in the eastern Dinka (Bor) massacre of 1991.

The group only form of organization is dictated by their affiliation to their own sub-clans. Their success in warfare depends mainly on their loyalty to each other. And this loyalty, while at times earned, is mainly determined by members sub-clan bond. Their common war strategy is the “Charge”. This evolved from the fact that there generally were significantly more youth militia relative to available guns and ammunitions. And in order to sustain weeks or months long warfare, the white army had to capture enemies ammunitions. Thus the “charge” strategy. It is a simple yet an effective survival strategy. The strategy is highly dependent on the number of  members in the group; the larger the group the more effective the strategy. Once ammunitions have been secured, warfare strategies are laid out. These strategies are generally complex and very sophisticated. Factors such as geographic conditions, weather conditions, supplies, exit strategies and enemy’s war strategies are discussed. A comprehensive study is required in launching an attack. In short the modern “white army” operates very much like the modern military.

After the signing of the CPA in 2006, the government made some efforts to disarm the white army. But due to the then upcoming immigration season- search of green pastures for cattle-some members of the militia refused to be disarmed. The white army was adamant that the Murle tribe and the Dinka tribe be disarmed first. At the time the government had neither established a mechanism for disarmament nor earned the trust of tribal elders.

For example, in the summer of 2006, as the Nuer from Yuai were preparing to immigrate towards Ayod, the SPLA decided to disarmed them. The White army, however, argued that they needed their weapons to protect their cattle from the Murle and the Dinka-Bor. They asked that those two tribes be disarmed first. War ensued and the result was devastating for the SPLA (more than 100 soldiers lost their lives) as the SSDF- a rebel group- and some local civilians joined the white army in resisting disarmament. Wut Nyang- a self-proclaimed prophet for the white army- was killed during these conflicts. The white army responded by attacking SPLA basis in Nyandit- a small village near Akobo. The SPLA retaliated and the fight that ensued resulted in the death of more than 500 people. Mistrust was then established between the white army and the government under Pres. Kiir.

During the disarmament period, the president did not consult widely and did not take the necessary steps needed for proper disarmament. Tribal warfare, particularly over cattle and grazing lands, has been a part of South Sudan for centuries. The dissolution of such an archaic institutions cannot be carried out haphazardly. Forceful disarmament should be the last option on the table; instead the government used force at the very onset. The government should have been patient. It should have first made a deal with SSDF and integrate them into the military, then consult with the local Dinka-Bor, Murle and  the Nuer elders, laws on disarmament should then have been passed in parliament. The president should have given local commanders and senior military member the go-ahead to disarm their tribe members. There were a lot of costly missteps in the disarmament process. The result has been the distrust of the government by the white army. The members of the white army, as of now, have opportunistically joined Machar’s forces causing mass casualties for the SPLA and lengthening the current crisis in South Sudan.

Following the independence of South Sudan in 2011 from Sudan, the president did not take advantage of the excitement, the tribal unity and the good will from the international community to address these problems.. The president’s fear of Machar’s ambition, made him undertake undemocratic means to silent his critics and political rivals. In doing so, the president weakened the fabric on which South Sudan could have been established. The president must, therefore, be held accountable for the current crisis in the country.

Under Pres. Kiir south Sudan has become the infamous (African) "…black man on bended knees with an AK47 in one hand, a begging bowl in the other and the details of a Swiss bank account sticking out of his back pocket”.

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