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Infighting Brings New Split in South Sudan’s Ruling Party

FILE - South Sudan's First Vice President Riek Machar attends his swearing-in ceremony at the State House in Juba, South Sudan, Feb. 22, 2020.
FILE - South Sudan's First Vice President Riek Machar attends his swearing-in ceremony at the State House in Juba, South Sudan, Feb. 22, 2020.

The search for sustainable peace in South Sudan hit another obstacle this week as infighting erupted within the ruling SPLM party. Riek Machar, the country’s first vice president, was expelled from his position as SPLM vice chairman. The dismissal pours cold water on years of efforts to heal rifts among South Sudan’s top leaders – the same rifts that caused the country’s civil war.

Riek Machar was the party’s first vice chairman, a spot that placed him in a strategic position to claim the SPLM presidency if President Salva Kiir, who is also SPLM chairman, were to opt out of party politics.

Kuol Atem, SPLM secretary for political affairs, said this week that Machar and party Secretary General Pagan Amum have been taken off the party register because they are trying to build up their own parties.

“Though his office is just less than 200 meters away from the SPLM national secretariat and the same distance from the President Saliva Kiir’s, he continues to organize his party as we are all eyewitness to that effect. Comrade Pagan is busy with Real SPLM Party, abroad and the Rome process; and SPLM is being held hostage.”

Though associated with the SPLM in Opposition (SPLM-IO), Machar insists that SPLM-IO is not a registered party and thus he never ditched the mother party as claimed by Atem.

Puok Both Baluang is the acting press secretary in the Office of First Vice President.

“The decision made by President Salva Kiir faction to dismiss comrade Riek Machar and comrade Pagan Amum, from SPLM and also…as first deputy chair of the party and secretary general of the party, it is unconstitutional based on the SPLM constitution. They are elected members. Such dismissal or replacement is only possible if there is a national convention of SPLM, not a faction.

There are 14 registered political parties in South Sudan, according to records at the Political Parties Council. However, in reality there are more than 50 parties operating in Juba alone.

That includes several factions of the SPLM, including Machar’s, Amum’s and President Kiir’s. The last, which is the original SPLM party, is known as SPLM-in-Government.

It was a split between Kiir and Machar that triggered South Sudan’s six-year civil war in December 2013.

Abraham Kuol Nyuon, an associate professor of political science at the University of Juba, says the removal of Machar and Amum from their positions in the main party is ultimately a dispute over which faction is legitimate.
“So this removal is about the ownership of the party symbol, it is about the ownership of the emblem and it is about the ownership of the party of SPLM."

Analysts say parties with the SPLM tag will likely have an advantage with voters in the next elections, slated for late 2024.

South Sudan is currently run by a transitional government, which recently extended its mandate by another two years.

Professor Kuol says the country should expect such bickering at party levels in the run up to the elections.