Less than a month after he mediated peace talks between Khartoum and rebel groups in Juba, rival South Sudanese clans have already relegated Salva Kiir to the past and are jostling for the pole position if he is unable to hold on to the presidency.
Not content with having taken the chair of the national oil company Nilepet, the current South Sudanese minister for presidential affairs, Nhial Deng Nhial is now clearly positioned as a potential successor to Salva Kiir should the head of state not be able to stay in power.
According to African Intelligence Website, there has been speculation for years about the South Sudanese president’s health with a fresh bout of rumors in recent weeks, though it is hard to determine whether this is an actual sign of his ailing health or the work of ambitious members of his entourage. What is certain is that several political figures are seriously looking into what a post-Kiir political landscape could look like. Under the constitution, Kiir’s main rival, the current vice president Riek Machar, would take his seat. But Machar and his troops are worn out by six years of civil war and some Dinka, including Kiir and his inner circle, plan to use this to push Nhial forward if the seat becomes empty.
Dinka divided over Nhial
Nhial has several cards up his sleeve. His new position as head of the board at Nilepet puts Dinka leaders in control of the country’s only resource, representing over 90% of state revenue. Moreover, during the civil war, the legal expert and graduate from the University of Dundee in the UK, did not directly take part in the fighting and therefore embodies a reliable option in the eyes of foreign financial backers.
There are, however, two drawbacks to Nhial’s position. Some members of the Dinka Council of Elders did not take well to the 2015 peace deal negotiated by Nhial. Kiir signed the deal under pressure from the United Nations and, after much-heated debate and a broken ceasefire, it fell through less than a year later. Some saw it as unenforceable. Secondly, in a country only led by army officers and war leaders, Nhial has few contacts within the armed forces. This is precisely why Kiir gave him the keys to Nilepet.
Cirillo, the king maker?
Ever since coming to power Kiir has been wary of a coup and tried to keep a lid on any potential sparks. The fall in 2017 of Paul Malong Awan, the former Chief of General Staffs to the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), now exiled in Nairobi, is a perfect example of this. More recently, Kiir’s toppling of the internal security bureau boss Akol Koor Kuc and general intelligence bureau director Thomas Duoth Guet, confirm this crusade.
Both the president and the vice president’s clans are running out of steam. If we were to count troops now, then we should add former SPLA general Thomas Cirillo in as a third player. Cirillo is one of the few still able to call on a loyal army of several thousand men. The general, a Bari from Equatoria region, strongly believes in a federal solution. He refused to sign the 2018 peace deal on the grounds that it presented an unfair balance of power in favour of the Dinka.
Machar’s supporters are also not all happy with the peace deal, including Nuer general Simon Gatwich Dual and Shilluk commander Johnson Olony. Both spend most of their time in Khartoum and if they were to back Cirillo it could upset the balance of power in South Sudan and push the country back into civil war.