News / Africa

What Triggered the Kiir-Machar Rift in South Sudan?

FILE - A July 26, 2013 photo shows former South Sudan VP Riek Machar speaking to the media to announce he will run for the presidency in 2015 against President Salva Kiir, who sacked Machar and his cabinet this week, Juba, South Sudan.
FILE - A July 26, 2013 photo shows former South Sudan VP Riek Machar speaking to the media to announce he will run for the presidency in 2015 against President Salva Kiir, who sacked Machar and his cabinet this week, Juba, South Sudan.
Pamela Dockins
South Sudan's President Salva Kiir speaks after meeting with Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir, in the capital Juba, South Sudan, Jan. 6, 2014.South Sudan's President Salva Kiir speaks after meeting with Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir, in the capital Juba, South Sudan, Jan. 6, 2014.
South Sudan's President Salva Kiir speaks after meeting with Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir, in the capital Juba, South Sudan, Jan. 6, 2014.
South Sudan's President Salva Kiir speaks after meeting with Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir, in the capital Juba, South Sudan, Jan. 6, 2014.
The rift between South Sudan's President Salva Kiir and former deputy Riek Machar has deep roots that reach back to the period before the nation's creation in 2011.

Analysts say a number of factors have contributed to the current tensions that have led to an escalation of violence in South Sudan.

If you want to get to the core of the friction between Kiir and Machar, you have to go back at least five years.

So says Jok Madut Jok, the head of the Sudd Institution, a South Sudan think tank.

Jok says the tensions began when Machar started envisioning himself as a more fitting leader in what was then the semi-autonomous region of southern Sudan. He says the deputy would attempt to undermine Kiir.

"Sometimes there would be agreement on issues or programs to be implemented and the vice president, being the top administrator in the country, would sometimes fail to implement what has been agreed upon," he said.

Both men kept their leadership positions in the ruling party, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), when the country gained independence in 2011.

Jok says Machar and some of the other party members became more openly critical of Kiir after he dismissed them in a July 2013 Cabinet purge.

"President Kiir had been accused extensively by a number of people that he fired back in July, including the former vice president, that he had been heavy-handed and undemocratic and developing dictatorial tendencies," he said.

Kiir and Machar fought side-by-side during the north-south conflict but, at some points, they also fought against each other.

Machar, at one point, moved out of the Sudan People's Liberation Army.  He formed a splinter group composed mostly of ethnic Nuers.

Forces loyal to Machar were blamed for a 1991 massacre of ethnic Dinkas in the town of Bor.

Akshaya Kumar is a South Sudan policy analyst with the Enough Project, a group that fights to end genocide and crimes against humanity.  She says a lot of the current tension between Machar and President Kiir, a Dinka, date back to this incident.

"President Kiir has been drawing on those memories and referencing them, even in his public statements," Kumar said. "So, we know that that is something that is certainly salient on his mind as well as the minds of many other South Sudanese."

Machar has publicly apologized for any role in the Bor massacre. Kumar says the two men initially tried to put their differences behind them to form a unity government.

"Riek Machar was brought in as vice president for the new South Sudan with the hope that he would be able to bring his significant power and constituency, both military and political, to the table to ensure that there would be a more cohesive national governing force," she said.

But the government's unity attempt has faltered. On VOA's Press Conference USA John Campbell, who is a veteran U.S. diplomat who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations, said it appears individual agendas have replaced unity.

"Very often, behind ethnic conflict, you will find various political figures that seek to exploit ethnic identities in order to advance their own particular political agenda," he said. "And, I think there is at least some of that underway now in South Sudan."
Ahmed Soliman, a Horn of Africa researcher at London's Chatham House, says Kiir's current problems with leadership have evolved beyond his rift with Machar and now reflect the changing nature of  the government.

"An opening up of the party to enable challenges within the leadership would always, I think, entail some conflict.  And, we may be seeing some of that now," he said.

Soliman says South Sudan's leadership is also beginning to feel the pressures of generational change, which may include moving away from the military-style leaders who ushered the nation into existence.

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Comment Sorting
by: Adrole Yelstine from: Kampala Uganda
January 20, 2014 9:35 AM
For the betterment of Africa's youngest southern sudan let the leaders put aside their ethinical differences but love their country as number one.

by: Kariuki Kiragu from: Nairobi, Kenya
January 19, 2014 11:35 AM
I think Eng. Machar is an unwitting tool for aliens who wish to scuttle African unity for the following reasons:

The most contiguous and ambitious Africa economic block is the East African Community (EAC) which was poised to admit South Sudan although Sudan, on learning of this mannerlessly rushed in, application in hand despite the unpalatable and unresolved Darfur after-taste.

Meantime, though laudable, ECOWAS interposed with the Paris-controlled CFA currency countries and SADC, a South African sponsored club propped by an economy Africans hardly own cannot, for the time being, hope to be as effective as the EAC.

Should South Sudan join the EAC, north-eastern D R Congo would be “shielded”, increasing the likelihood of her joining too, to say nothing of Ethiopia, Somalia and the Central African Republic.

Were a referendum held today in Rwanda, Burundi Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Congo, South Sudan and Ethiopia, probably 95 % of the approximately 330 million people, to whom boundaries are a nuisance, would vote for a political union.

These developments, backed up by solid moves towards a monetary union as well as the rail, road and oil pipeline system from Lamu to Juba, Kigali and beyond, are hardly the western or Chinese cup of tea.

To scuttle this threatening scenario of Africans coming together, look for Savimbi-esque figures to complicate the infrastructure program on tribal basis and others to foment rebellion at the prime destination.

Eng. Machar seems a ready-made product susceptible to a quick ego-bloating exercise in the:
o Consummate defector who prides in his “Education”, disdainful of Pres. Kiir’s humble background in the bush war.
o Person who allowed the strange circumstance of his European wife inspecting military guards of honor. I am sure the warriors’ wives were not happy with this.

We have seen similar machinations South Africa, Angola, Mozambique, Nigeria, Kenya, Mali, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Libya, Congo Brazza, Zimbabwe and of course, D R Congo itself beginning with Patrice Lumumba’s murder.

Someone should talk to Eng. Machar and get him off his high horse. His behavior is too expensive to the African community of which he is a member.

by: Commander, Emmanuel O. from: UNN, Nigeria
January 13, 2014 5:32 AM
My candid counsel is that African leaders should endeavour to shelve their personal selfish interest at all times and fight for the betterment of the masses. The other segment of the world has gone far. There is no time on our side here in African. Enough of these mark-time.

by: Bibo from: South Sudan
January 13, 2014 2:05 AM
all over I never hear of a vice prisident criticizing his president who appinted him publically and expecting to be more cooperation from the same president he insulted and world is not always fair becuase instate of solving that problem they want to create another problem the sanctions people are talking about is not going to harm the officials but the people of south will pay for it wich is totally unfair
In Response

by: from: Eastern Equatorira State
January 15, 2014 3:33 AM
It is really true that Judah betrayed Jesus, when we look at a system to be managed by a team of high profile actors in the Country are falling apart instead of managing their difference in an advisory manner. If you are a true member of a system you would work to correct than to criticize a system for which you are a policy maker and head of implementer of the decision. Let us look at the faith of the innocent civilian whose lives and votes we need when we tend to cover ourselves in the blanket of democracy. Our country is yet too young, that can make the outsiders look at us as defeated nation who should have continued under the oppression of the Sudan for still sometimes when some of us were already very sure of our autonomy and happy of it. Think and get back to the Table at Addis Ababa-Ethiopia

by: Juba Campaign from: Grand Rapids, MI
January 11, 2014 4:01 PM
Indeed, the crisis in South Sudan have deep roots. The author mention 1991 Dinka Bor massacre by Machar forces, criticism of Kiir and individual agendas. These are all true, but these are just a tip of the iceberg. There are more major issues:
First, the constitution of South Sudan grants the president absolute power to remove elected governors and dissolve state parliament, removed and appointed justices and judges, and to remove and appoint any minister. The president also cannot be impeached without the Justices approval. When President Kiir removed elected Lake State governor in 2012, and elected Unity State governor in 2013, Machar rightly criticized these moves.
Second, corruption by top government officials is huge. The US$ 4 billions that were donated by international community when South Sudan became independent in 2011 largely disappeared into the pockets of top government officials. Efforts to counter corruption are hampered by the executive branch. Oil revenues are largely disappearing into the pockets of government officials. The regular citizen is left out in the cold.
Third, government critics and journalists prosecution and oppression is widespread in South Sudan. In 2012, a prominent South Sudan government critic was assassinated in Juba. Other journalists have been detained and prosecuted without trial. Investigations and promises by Kiir never reveal closure or results. Parliamentary efforts to counter corruption are hampered by the executive branch with or without Kiir knowledge.
Fourth, ethnic tensions between Nuer and Dinka are always presence because of political differences. Politicians exploitation of these ethnic differences always cause massacres and destruction.

In short, 2011 Constitution, Corruption, and Ethnic tensions are the root causes of these crisis in South Sudan. Check out: for more indeep explanation of the root causes of South Sudan crisis.

by: oghenejuvbe from: Nigeria
January 11, 2014 11:12 AM
I think the US should impose sanction on south sudan to ease tensions. It is a shame a new nation like South sudan is on the verge of breaking into a civil war

by: oghenejuvbe from: Nigeria
January 11, 2014 11:12 AM
I think the US should impose sanction on south sudan to ease tensions. It is a shame a new nation like South sudan is on the verge of breaking into a civil war
In Response

by: Xaaji Dhagax from: Somalia
January 12, 2014 8:44 PM
US should impose sanction to President Salva Kiir and Riek Machar. Their assets in foreign Banks should be frozen indefinitely. International media have reported that both men have secretly stashed hundreds of million of dollars in foreign banks. If that sanction becomes reality I assure you that both criminals will come up a way to bring the conflict to an end.
In Response

by: Juba from: Grand Rapids, MI
January 11, 2014 5:16 PM
Sanctions will not solve anything! Sanctions will hurt the innocent people who you are trying to protect.

The international community needs to do major interventions... constitution is major problem, rewriting of the constitution is a major step.
Pressuring both sides with military intervention like what happened in Syria will get them back on the table to form a comprehensive peace agreements and to amend the constitution to allow term limits, presidential limits, balance of powers, checks and balances.
The ICC also needs to be involve. Both sides need to know that the international community is watching and these atrocities can't be allow on innocent people.

by: Wafipac from: Usa
January 11, 2014 1:46 AM
South sudanese leaders must rethink concerning civil unrest in south sudanese which has claimed ten of thousands has been killed. what is happeninig in south sudan has regionals economic war but innocent south sudanese are the victims in this shameful violence.

by: Frederick from: Dar TZ
January 09, 2014 6:36 PM
As these two people have been all along fighting together for freedom, they must come and sit for keeping peace. Killing innocent people must come to an end!!

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