PROFILE: Salva Kiir – South Sudan’s Commander-in-chief – image vs reality

South Sudan's President Kiir attends urgent session for the Summit of the IGAD on South Sudan in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa

Salva Kiir, President of South Sudan, in contemplative mood.

Ten years before the start of South Sudan’s current war, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) held a meeting at Rumbek in which the party leadership sought to resolve a major problem between their chairman and deputy chairman.

Minutes of that crucial meeting reveal that the SPLM Chairman John Garang, in the final year of his life, distrusted his deputy Salva Kiir, preferred to downplay their differences rather than confront him outright, and sought to avoid setting up formal processes in which he would have to manage affairs through Kiir.

Many party leaders urged the chairman to make structural reforms and address Kiir’s grievances head on. But Garang refused. Perhaps he knew something about Salva Kiir that others did not.

Today, even after Kiir has ruled South Sudan for nearly ten years, few writers have sought to understand the real personality behind Kiir’s often scripted appearances. Instead, most observers see only a cultivated non-personality – a monotone, emotionless, uncharismatic speaker, with almost no known personal history and a completely hidden private life.

Oral accounts and historical documents therefore offer a clearer window into the “˜real’ Kiir. A close look back at the Rumbek meeting reveals a man who deeply distrusts his close associates, who rebuffs attempts at reconciliation, and who thirsts for more structure and authority to allay his insecurities.

This is not a matter of mere historical curiosity, given the role that personality differences continue to play in South Sudan’s politics and peace process today.

At the 2004 conference, senior members of the SPLM tried to encourage Garang and Kiir to address their personal differences directly.

Kiir himself downplayed personal differences with Garang, while at the same time acknowledging that he refused a direct order to meet him at Yirol out of fear of being arrested; refused entreaties of one of his envoys (the current police inspector-general, Pieng Deng); and rebuffed yet another appeal for “˜reconciliation’ by two more senior envoys – apparently out of fear that “˜reconciliation’ equated somehow to an admission of wrongdoing.

“I considered the word reconciliation as something very serious, and therefore decided to tell them that I will not go to Nairobi,” Kiir said of a meeting with Kuol Manyang and Deng Alor, who were sent to persuade Kiir to meet Garang in Kenya.

Kiir’s main stated grievance was not personal but rather that the Chairman did not entrust him with enough power: “When the Chairman leaves for abroad, no directives are left and no one is left to act on his behalf. I don’t know with whom the Movement is left with; or does he carry it in his own brief case?”

This famous statement has elsewhere been interpreted as a criticism of Garang’s dictatorial manner of running the SPLM. Read in context, however, Kiir’s complaint appears to be less about Garang’s conduct generally than about his unwillingness to delegate powers to him specifically, or pass orders through him.

“˜Two orphans’

Garang sought to allay Kiir’s concerns by emphasizing their “˜friendship’ and even recounting a ritual sacrifice of a bull, interpreted as demonstrating their unity. He described himself and Kiir as “the two orphans” (because the other original members of the SPLM/A High Command had all died) – implying brotherhood with Kiir and even a degree of equal status.

Yet he refused to commit to structural changes that would give Kiir more power.

Kiir, dissatisfied, threatened to resign should he not be given more formal authority: “I would also want Comrade Chairman to give me full powers… to enable me expedite the regrouping and reorganization of the SPLA, and if Comrade Chairman sees that I am not able to do that job, then he can appoint another person to do it.”

In the final statement recorded from the inconclusive Rumbek meeting, Kiir describes himself metaphorically as a man adrift and stranded, feeling betrayed: “Mr. Chairman, you have talked about people eating the boat while we are in the middle of the river… Let me add this, the issue is not eating the boat in the middle of the river. The issue is that there are a few who have already crossed to the other side of the river and when the remaining ones asked them to bring the boat, they refused to return the boat.”

Personal dignity

This basic feeling of orphan-like insecurity may be understood as the root of other characteristic traits. The first is a remarkable sensitivity to perceived slights to his personal dignity, including his personal appearance.

Kiir’s involvement in the forced closure of a newspaper in 2011 and detention of its editor, for publishing an opinion article critical of his daughter’s wedding, is one example.

More recently, his government ordered newspapers not to publish any photos of him wiping his brow, saying to do so was “destroying the image of South Sudan”; during speeches, state television sometimes conspicuously cuts away from Kiir as he reaches to his face with his handkerchief.

Enemies

More seriously, Kiir demonstrates a ruthless streak toward those perceived to have slighted him. In a speech on 15 February 2014, he describes a personal confrontation with the Sudanese government delegation at peace talks in Kenya prior to the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement.

Kiir described SPLA ambushes laid for Sudanese troops using “Vietnamese tactics.” Soldiers who fell into booby traps bled to death. “People were crying there until their death. Nobody came to get them,” the president boasted, without emotion.

A similar glimpse of anger was seen at a press conference on 20 January 2014, where he accused the United Nations, the international community and aid organizations of supporting his enemies and even plotting to take over the country. Claiming that these foreigners were responsible for Riek Machar’s 1991 coup, he said, “Now he has repeated it again and with the support of the so-called humanitarian organizations for the second time.”

He went on to refer to “˜guns’ and “˜uniforms’ that he said were being kept at the UN bases where ethnic Nuers had taken refuge – implying, as his information minister later would after the massacre of more than 50 ethnic Nuers at a UN base, that the UN was harboring rebels, rather than unarmed civilians fleeing racial violence.

“There is a problem with the international community, and it is something that people will have to thrash out with them,” he said.

Those familiar with the political history of the country also will recognize in Kiir’s allegation of NGO support for Machar’s 1991 coup an implicit reference to Emma McCune, the British aid worker who became Riek Machar’s second wife and died in a road accident in 1993.

In this connection, it is relevant to note that McCune featured occasionally in SPLA war propaganda in early 2014 (e.g., clip 1, clip 2), her marriage to Machar being cited as an example of his supposed infidelity to his country.

Kiir’s vitriol against the UN and aid organizations cannot therefore be dismissed as merely a touch of xenophobia or paranoia. Rather, he makes a direct political association between foreign organizations helping the people of Riek Machar – the ethnic Nuer, many of whom are under UN protection – and Machar himself.

They are, in other words, mistress to his enemy.

Kiir and the Image of Kiir

These glimpses into the real person of Kiir are rare, whereas the appearances of the Image of Kiir – the benign, calmer, expressionless Kiir – are commonplace.

For example, he appears controlled and measured – even reticent – in an interview with BBC Hardtalk in May. He is challenged and even accused, but does not respond in anger. At one point, he lies directly in response to a question about the presence of Darfur’s Justice and Equality Movement fighters in South Sudan, whose involvement in the war is documented by video evidence.

He shows no emotion in doing so – none of the “˜duper’s delight’ that is a typical expression of his rival Riek Machar. That is perhaps because Kiir takes no pleasure in lying, but sees it as necessary, truth-telling being secondary in importance to values such as dignity, discipline and loyalty.

These values he extolled in a tribute to Nelson Mandela on 14 December, the day before the start of the war in Juba, telling the SPLM National Liberation Council that Mandela was a great “˜African revolutionary,’ a man possessing “˜extraordinary revolutionary dignity and bravery’.

He went on to overtly associate Mandela with his predecessor in the SPLM, John Garang, whose mantle he himself now holds – or claims to hold. The point, of course, had nothing to do with the historical Mandela, but rather was about the icon of an African revolutionary, an “˜extraordinary’ man.

The climax of Kiir’s speech is really a statement about himself, deliberately contrasted to his rival, Riek Machar: “Since I decided to take up arms in the 1960s, I have never betrayed the cause of my people,” he says.

There is applause, and a military band strikes up. Prompted by the martial music, a woman supporter begins singing. Here Kiir, who has otherwise been emotionless and flat, begins to come alive. At first he motions for silence, but soon stops as he begins to laugh quietly, listening. Then Kiir too begins softly to join in the singing, just under his breath, smiling.

It is a Dinka war song.

The author has worked for several years in South Sudan.

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2 thoughts on “PROFILE: Salva Kiir – South Sudan’s Commander-in-chief – image vs reality

  1. The profile offered on President Salva Kiir describes the attempts to separate the myth from the reality through a few anecdotes. This certainly is a better start from the generalisations and inaccuracies that make the rounds both in South Sudan and among those who follow South Sudan. I have heard the words ‘lacking strategic vision’, ‘uncommunicative’, ‘deadpan’, ‘dictator’ and many others. I have personally seen him and spoken with him and am not sure that I suggest anything but quiet, reserved, intelligent. Until any research is undertaken which offers some real and balanced thinking, we will remain in the dark as to what his personal creed, philosophy and political motivations are. Very few can speak about him in any other terms but anecdotes (second or third hand). His personal view on the world will remain concealed. Politician, bridge builder, tyrant, security operative – I suggest that all bets should be off until he opens up to someone on his most private of worlds.

    Ferdinand von Habsburg has lived 20 years in South Sudan and Sudan.

  2. As Ferdinand notes, there are some interesting anecdotes in this profile. However, it is a bit odd that the profile lacks a discussion of Kiir’s role in the Wunlit Peace Conference or in the Juba Declaration. These were arguably the most critical moments of bringing Dinka and Nuer together in the last fifteen years and Kiir played a key role in both processes. This history must also be squared with the events of 2004 and 2014, among many others, for a richer and probably more useful discussion of the man who is South Sudan’s President.

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