In a rare act of chivalry on July 8, 2016, South Sudan President Salva Kiir saved his deputy Dr Riek Machar from certain death when a shooting broke out between rival factions of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army at the presidential palace in Juba.
Shielding his deputy and rival with his own body, President Kiir escorted Machar to the safety of an armoured vehicle, saving him to live and fight another day. That singular action by Kiir possibly saved South Sudan a worse fate and averted what could have turned out to be the worst ethic violence ever witnessed in Africa.
Many commentators have argued that Kiir’s action was not motivated by any compassion for Machar, but rather a pragmatic response to a delicate political situation. Whatever its source, South Sudan could use a dose of that pragmatism right now.
Seven years since a falling-out within the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement morphed into an ugly firefight that has sent thousands to an untimely demise, the country is at a critical crossroads. A tenuous peace that has been holding since the activation of a coalition government last February is in danger of collapse.
The formation of a government of national unity has stalled because Kiir refuses to accept Gen Johnson Olony, the SPLM-in-Opposition’s nominee for Governor of Upper Nile State. Kiir has not ratified the appointment which has been pending since August, ostensibly because Gen Olony and his Agwelek division, have refused to report for cantonment where they would be trained as part of a unified national army.
For their part, the SPLM-IO say Kiir has no authority to choose who they nominate for the various positions allocated to them under the power-sharing agreement. They have a point. If Kiir is allowed to choose who to work with from the opposition ranks, it would undermine the core of the power-sharing agreement and breed ground for intrigue.
In the circumstances, the better choice may be for Kiir to dine and live with the devil for the sake of peace and harmony in his country. A stalemate at this time is not in Kiir’s or anybody’s interest.
Kiir’s demand on the SPLM-IO may seem unreasonable, but Machar also needs to look impartially at its merits and if possible, offer an alternative. Unless Gen Olony’s defiance is the position of the wider SPLA-IO, it does not bode well for accountable government.
Yet like that flash of instinct in July 2016, the president has to make a judgment call. Refusing the SPLM-IO’s nominee might constitute a violation of the peace agreement but is it fatal?
For inspiration, Kiir does not have to look far. Since 1994, Rwanda has been governed under a unique power-sharing arrangement where a winning party can only take half of the government positions. Even where he is not satisfied with the performance of a particular nominee from the opposite side, President Paul Kagame can only express his displeasure to the relevant party.
Governments are built through compromise and compromise. For peace and unity in South Sudan, President Kiir might be better off conceding on this one.