body-container-line-1
09.07.2021 Sudan

Salva Kiir: The man who led South Sudan to independence then war

By AFP
South Sudanese President Salva Kiir brandishes  the country's new constitution on July 9, 2011.  By Roberto SCHMIDT (AFP/File)
LISTEN JUL 9, 2021
South Sudanese President Salva Kiir brandishes the country's new constitution on July 9, 2011. By Roberto SCHMIDT (AFP/File)

A towering guerrilla commander turned president, Salva Kiir led South Sudan to independence a decade ago before shattering its peoples' dreams and dragging them back into a brutal civil war.

His political rivalry with vice president Riek Machar triggered a civil war in late 2013 that was characterised by ethnic atrocities, rape, torture and the deaths of almost 400,000 people.

The conflict, which resisted multiple peace efforts until the most recent unity government was formed in February 2020, destroyed the economy of the nascent country and displaced some four million people, creating one of the world's worst humanitarian crises.

"I am not really proud because we have been fighting, and the things we have done were destroyed, so we have to start again, and again," Kiir said in a July interview with Kenyan broadcaster Citizen TV.

A devout Roman Catholic, Kiir is known to give sermons at the cathedral in Juba, looming over the pulpit wearing his trademark black cowboy hat, the original of which was a gift from US President George Bush.

But the tall, bearded commander was for years more accustomed to leading troops in bush war than making political speeches.

Born in 1951 in the remote cattle-herding state of Warrap among the majority Dinka people, Kiir spent much of his life carrying a gun.

He was a bush fighter and battlefield commander in both Sudan's first civil war -- lasting from soon after independence from Britain in 1956 until 1972 -- and the subsequent 1983-2005 conflict.

Both wars were fuelled by the demand of the southern, predominantly Christian and animist region of Sudan for more autonomy from its northern, overwhelmingly Muslim north.

Kiir took power only after the death of his boss, veteran southern rebel leader John Garang, in a 2005 helicopter crash.

"Most South Sudanese regard Kiir as an accidental president who stepped into power simply due to the unexpected death of John Garang, with whom Kiir often clashed even as he deputised him," said International Crisis Group (ICG) expert Alan Boswell.

A man with a different dream

While Garang -- the first president of the then semi-autonomous South Sudan -- had sought to reform Sudan as a whole, Kiir and his allies wanted independence.

Kiir oversaw the birth of a nation whose southern capital Juba peacefully broke free from former enemies in Khartoum in July 2011.

South Sudan enjoyed immense international goodwill and billions of dollars in financial support for development after decades of conflict with the north, but Kiir failed to stem corruption, meaning the country was looted rather than rebuilt under his leadership.

Huge sums derived from oil revenues were squandered on Kiir's watch. He admitted to some of it in 2012 in a begging letter to 75 past and present officials asking them to return $4 billion (3.6 billion euros) in stolen funds.

Back to war

Meanwhile tensions soared between the leaders of the new nation, and in 2013 Kiir accused Machar -- who he had sacked as vice president months earlier -- of plotting a coup against him, sparking an armed struggle.

The conflict that followed was characterised by gross human rights abuses -- ethnic massacres, the recruitment of child soldiers, mass rape, sexual violence and sexual slavery, and attacks on civilians, aid workers and UN peacekeepers.

A UN report in January 2016 said there was "clear and convincing evidence" that Kiir and Machar had directed or known of most of the violence committed during the war.

Both leaders also enriched themselves on the back of the conflict, according to The Sentry investigative team.

"President Kiir and his family have amassed a significant amount of wealth -- far exceeding what he could have earned in his official capacity -- and parked a sizable amount of assets outside South Sudan," said their 2016 report.

Getting Kiir and Machar to even try peace has been a gruelling, years-long diplomatic slog that at one point saw Pope Francis kissing both men's feet during a stunning Vatican intervention in early 2019.

Despite ruling South Sudan since 2005, Kiir was only directly elected once in 2011, as polls due in 2015 did not take place because of the fighting. An election set for 2022 under yet another peace accord with Machar has been pushed to 2023.

He remains a mysterious and fickle leader, ruling in a fragile coalition with Machar, with whom distrust festers as promised power-sharing arrangements under their latest pact fail to materialise.

"Even to his closest advisers, Kiir is often an enigma. He listens more than he speaks and can surprise his advisors by abruptly shifting positions," said ICG's Boswell.

"At times, he's served as a national reconciler, at other times as a divider."

ModernGhana Links

Join our Newsletter

body-container-line