By MBIJIWE MWENDA
It was ill-advised for South Sudan President Silva Kiir to sack his deputy Mr Riek Machar in July 2013. Being a smart politician, he sugar-coated the act firing his entire cabinet, only to later reappoint his cronies, albeit to different portfolios.
That was genius. BBC reporter Nyambura Wambugu wrote this of the sackings “Whether the sacking of the entire cabinet will succeed in calming the disquiet within South Sudan’s political circle remains to be seen – there is also a real fear that this might further divide the country along ethnic lines”.
In December 2013, Nyambura’s fears came to fruition. Riek Machar organised one of the most reticent military coups in history. Nobody detected it. Not even the CIA or UN intelligence had a whiff. Royal governance troops (consisting of the majority Dinka tribesmen) quickly repulsed the mutineers. Within hours Juba became a shell city. In a lightning operation carried out by the elite presidential guard brigade, the mutiny’s ring leaders were arrested and locked up.
Suddenly, the coup turned into an ethnic conflict. With his top command arrested and himself in hiding, Riek Machar demanded that President Silva Kiir vacate office. The regional powers namely Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan and the entire Igad family blundered enmasse by asking President Kiir to “negotiate”. It is a mistake because these regional big brothers are condoning the culture of violence as a means of attaining political power.
What Riek Machar did is called an attempted coup (or a coup-de-tat). In most nations, that is a capital offence punishable by death. We saw that in Kenya in 1982 when Kenya Air Force soldiers staged a similar coup. Many were hanged thereafter, led by their ringleader Senior Private Hezekiah Rabala Ochuka.
I am not in anyway suggesting that Mr Kiir is an angelic president; he has made mistakes that he shouldn’t have. However, Riek’s own mistake is grave. It is a capital offence and has resulted in the killing of hundreds and mass displacement of hundreds of thousands.
Two wrongs do not make a right. Mr Riek needed to get schooled in the Raila Odinga school of losing political power.
Mr Odinga was sacked by President Kibaki in 2005 following the massive “NO” vote, he (Odinga) championed against the Draft Constitution. Mr Odinga and several among his brigade were shown the door by Mr Kibaki. Mr Odinga did not plan a military coup, having learnt his lessons in 1982. Neither did he arm the youth with guns to seize political power.
He waited for the 2007/08 elections. Although those polls ushered in Kenya’s darkest moment, at least his (Odinga’s) 2005 sacking did not lead him to take up arms.
Of course after the bitterly contested 2007/08 elections that led to post election violence of epic proportions, Mr Odinga agreed to unconditionally negotiate with Mr Kibaki, and thus the nation was saved from the abyss.Mr Riek needs to quickly seize the moment granted him now to negotiate and realise that it may be his golden moment to be saved from the hangman’s noose. He should learn his lessons from Mr Odinga, that the country is always greater than him.
Mr Riek should perhaps try his luck at the ballot box, again learning from Mr Odinga who won’t quit trying just yet. Mr Riek should realise that the Africa of military coups came to an end a long time ago. It’s the dispensation of the ballot, not the bullet, that we live in now.
President Museveni of Uganda quickly sent troops to Juba soon after the unrest. President Paul Kagame did likewise with the restive Central African Republic, vowing that he would never allow another Rwanda-like genocide in Africa.
Kagame’s troops, in unison with the French, have restored order in Bangui, CAR’s capital, stopping a likely mass massacre. Igad should put its guns where its mouth is and each member nation should send an armed fighting force to South Sudan.
The African Union and UN should give such a force a wide mandate. Asking Kiir to negotiate with Riek is spreading a bed of roses for the devil. Igad and the AU cannot and should not force Kiir to cede ‘some’ power to Riek. Mr Kiir swore to defend the Constitution of South Sudan, and here is the moment to do so.
The truth is that Riek, on the very day he conceived the idea of a coup, effectively lost any right to bid for the South Sudan presidency. He may try for an umpteenth time, but that will be an effort in futility.
The writer, a former Kenya Air Force officer, is a counter terrorism consultant and editor-in-chief of Eye On Security.