The apparent disarray in South Sudan’s Transitional Government of National Unity comes full circle Tuesday when former rebel leader and First Vice President Riek Machar is formally replaced by his one-time chief peace negotiator, General Taban Deng Gai.
South Sudan President Salva Kiir announced last week that he had fired Machar and replaced him with Deng. Machar went into hiding following clashes between the two forces earlier this month that left hundreds of people dead.
Deng will be sworn in Tuesday as first vice president. Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth, the former secretary for foreign affairs of the SPLM-in opposition, said Taban Deng has the support of the entire SPLM in opposition.
“Taban Deng Gai is known to the SPLM-SPLA-IO. He has been the chief negotiator; he was the one who negotiated this agreement in Addis Ababa. He is a general in the army. He also participated in the war of liberation since 1983. So he has the support of the army and also the support of the party, the SPLA-IO, and he has a lot of support from South Sudanese,” he said.
Gatkuoth said South Sudanese are tired of war and want peace and they will support whoever is interested and the government would like Machar to return to Juba so that he and President Kiir will implement the peace agreement together.
But Goi Jooyul Yol, SPLM-In Opposition representative to Ethiopia and the African Union, said Deng does not represent the entire former rebel movement.
Goi Yol said President Kiir is not interested in peace because removing Machar as First Vice President violates the agreement that ended two years of fighting from 2013 to 2015.
“Taban Deng Gai and Ezekiel Lol and two others went ahead and installed Taban Deng Gai to be the chairman of SPLM-IO. I would like to tell you that we have 28 members of the politico bureau of the central committee of SPLM-IO. Only four are out of Juba. How would four people decide on the leadership of an organization,” Goi Yol said.
Gatkuoth denied Kiir and other members of the SPLM-In Opposition connived to assassinate Riek Machar during fighting that broke out early July in Juba. In fact, Gatkuoth said, it was Kiir who saved Machar and other members of the SPLM-IO.
“Let me be categorically clear to you. There was no plan or conniving of anybody against anybody to kill anybody. I know how it started, but let me tell you, if it were not President Kiir Mayardit protecting us in J-1 or the presidential palace, I would not talk to you today. He protected me as Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth; he protected First President Dr. Riek Machar, he protected Vice President James Wani Igga who was also there,” Gatkuoth said.
Gatkuoth had been a bitter critic of Kiir, referring to the president on many occasions as a dictator. But now he said he’s happy to work with Kiir after the president signed the 2015 peace agreement.
“After the agreement was signed we have reconciled. Yes, I’ve been saying words that are harsh to him and that are harsh to others, and I have been expressing my views. After we have agreed to work together in one government that has made me to say he has opened a new page and I must work with him. And that is when I have decided to also say you are not a dictator anymore; you’re cooperating with us; you’re working with us; you are implementing the agreement with us. Let us work to implement this agreement,” Gatkuoth said.