Just two and a half years old, independent South Sudan is facing its first major crisis. In a country that remains heavily militarized, President Salva Kiir’s accusation that his former vice president had orchestrated a coup was explosive. Armed clashes broke out on the streets this week, and mortar shells have been rocking the normally peaceful capital. On Wednesday the U.S. Embassy evacuated all nonessential staff. A day later, after two U.N. bases were attacked in Jonglei state, U.S. President Barack Obama dispatched 45 troops to the young nation to protect the U.S. Embassy and personnel. Earlier this week, Kiir donned military garb to address the nation, dispensing with his trademark black hat, a gift from former U.S. President George W. Bush. This shift from civilian leader to military commander is ominous. South Sudan needs a political solution, not another civil war.
The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), a coalition of former rebels who fought together — and at times against one another — during almost a quarter-century of civil war, is synonymous with governance and power in South Sudan. After the charismatic leader John Garang died in a plane crash in 2005, Kiir took the party’s reins. Nevertheless, Garang’s face is still featured on every denomination of South Sudan’s currency. Given the ruling SPLM’s broad-based popularity, the ongoing struggle over the party’s leadership will likely sway the outcome of the country’s 2015 presidential and legislative elections. In an International Republican Institute survey conducted earlier this year, 79 percent of those polled viewed the party favorably or very favorably, just over four times the percentage for its nearest rival, the United Democratic Front. Quite simply, most South Sudanese can’t imagine supporting anything but the SPLM brand.
Since the party holds such power, devising a credible and transparent system to transfer authority within it is critical. Three of South Sudan’s most powerful men, each from a different ethnic group, have spent the past few months vying for a place at the head of the party. Each of them has seen it as his ticket to the presidency. In a country emerging from decades of war and the authoritarian rule of Sudanese President Omar al Bashir, any public campaign over executive power is unprecedented. The South Sudanese have never experienced the promise and pain of a winner-takes-all democratic process. In Sudan power has for decades switched hands only via coups. South Sudan must forge a new way forward, avoiding the pitfalls of its northern neighbor. Reconciliation and dialogue must trump a desire for vengeance.