Op-ed: Justifying Dictatorship in South Sudan: A Case Against the East African Community

Salva Kiir Mayardit assumed the EAC chairmanship on 24 November during the 23rd Ordinary Summit of the EAC Heads of State (Photo:EAC/X)

By Duop Chak Wuol @DuopChakWuol

Addis Abeba – The East African Community (EAC) has recently installed South Sudan’s President, Salva Kiir, as its chairperson, replacing Burundian President Evariste Ndayishimiye. Kiir is now the official Chair of the East African regional bloc, EAC. There is nothing wrong with a leader who wants to have a leadership role on a regional or international stage. However, vying for such a role with a documented ruthless leadership record is another thing. The decision by the bloc has effectively validated, bolstered, and legitimized the dictatorial political system which has been in existence in South Sudan for more than a decade. The move also raises moral questions about whether behind-the-scenes deals allowed Kiir to pay his way to the chair of the EAC.

For readers to get a brief understanding of what the EAC does, the following precis may be helpful. The bloc asserts that its vision, “…is to be a prosperous, competitive, secure, stable and politically united East Africa.” The EAC also boldly claims that professionalism, accountability, transparency, teamwork, unity in diversity, and allegiance to EAC ideals are its core values. Unfortunately, for South Sudan, installing Salva Kiir as Chairperson of the EAC is an action that diametrically opposed these values. 

The Republic of South Sudan under the new EAC chair, Salva Kiir, remains in a deep state of insecurity and political instability. How can this dire prediction be seen otherwise? Kiir is widely understood to be responsible for the countless appalling crimes committed in South Sudan. These crimes include the deaths of more than 400,000 people—citizens who lost their lives in South Sudan’s civil war. The 10th memorial anniversary for these victims is coming up in less than two weeks (December 15, 2023). 

Kiir’s abuse of power by any credible standard will ultimately expose him to the scrutiny of the world. If the EAC is competent politically, economically, culturally, and socially, then it should have postponed or deferred Kiir’s ambition to lead the bloc. It is now clear that the EAC failed to live up to its principles by elevating Kiir while ignoring the brutalities of his leadership. Keep in mind that this failure also exposes the leadership of the EAC to charges of gross indifference in the exercise of their moral obligations. Such a failure also raises serious concerns about the reliability of the EAC’s requirements that a country must fulfill before its admission into the bloc is approved.

The action of the EAC member states (Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Kenya, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and Somalia as its newest member) also raises the possibility of the fact that the EAC has buried its head in the sand when it elevated Kiir to the chair of the bloc.

Indeed, Article 3 (2) of the treaty establishing the East African Community requires, “adherence to universally acceptable principles of good governance, democracy, the rule of law, observance of human rights and social justice.” The question then becomes, did South Sudan meet all the conditions specified under Article 3(2) of the treaty that established the EAC? The answer to this question is contestable at best. However, one thing is clear: there is no such thing as good governance, rule of law, human rights, or democracy in South Sudan before or after the bloc admitted South Sudan. The young nation remains politically fragile to this day.

The East African Community’s decision to appoint Kiir as its chairperson does not surprise me. I had been expecting this moment to happen because Kiir started the process of making South Sudan part of the bloc just days after the young nation gained its independence from Sudan in July 2011. However, the resolution has raised questions about the credibility of the EAC and its moral principles. The action of the EAC member states (Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Kenya, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and Somalia as its newest member) also raises the possibility of the fact that the EAC has buried its head in the sand when it elevated Kiir to the chair of the bloc.

Before Kiir took over the chair of the East African Community, South Sudan owed the EAC at least $36 million. However, this did not prevent Salva Kiir from using his cunning and calculating leadership mindset to present himself as a good leader. On the 8th of November 2023, two weeks before the EAC Heads of State Summit began—the President directed his finance ministry officials to pay $7 million to the EAC. After the payment was announced, those who were not well-informed about the situation celebrated and claimed that Salva Kiir would now take over the EAC chair with the young nation owing nothing to the East African Community. This was not the case; South Sudan still owed more than $29 million at that time, making her the most deeply indebted member country, and also the nation with the greatest record of default. I should point out that under Kiir, South Sudan has never complied when it comes to paying its annual dues.

President Kiir is a man who often likes to project himself as a dependable leader. The problem is that he only acts responsibly when he is in desperate need of something, or he wants to be seen outside of South Sudan as someone who can be trusted. This was why he ordered his finance ministry on November 8 to make an initial payment of $7 million so that other EAC leaders who may have questions about his leadership would change their perception of him. Kiir was also successful in behind-closed-door discussions in convincing his counterparts to forgive some of the outstanding $29 million debt. 

Kiir was able to persuade his counterparts by telling them that his regime was spending a lot of money on peace execution in South Sudan. This claim was misleading and self-serving. The truth is that Salva Kiir has been consistently impeding the implementation of peace by systematically denying necessary funding to the peace mechanism institutions created under the September 2018 revitalized agreement—even though the treaty requires him to do so. The bloc agreed and cleared $13.5 million of the $29 million, leaving South Sudan with a debt of $15.5 million. President Kiir immediately ordered the payment of $15.5 million, leaving Juba with a zero balance. Kiir then went further by declaring that South Sudan will now start remitting its annual arrears on a timely basis. It is worth noting that South Sudan has been the number one defaulter since it joined the bloc in April 2016.

Astonishingly, it only took Salva Kiir just over two weeks (November 8-24) to convince other EAC leaders to forgive $13.5 million, leaving a remaining $22.5 million that Kiir immediately paid in full. This resulted in clearing the entire $36 million debt. This surprising speed illustrates Kiir’s desperation to secure regional support which, in fact, was at its breaking point. For him, it was do or die. He was determined to do anything to position himself as a leader whom other East African leaders should trust. 

Salva Kiir is exceptionally clever when he wants something for himself. His strategy has always been a classic deceit dressed up in a diplomatic outfit. The notion that his regime was not paying its financial contributions to the EAC because he had been financing South Sudan’s peace process, is an absurdity. It is incredulous that other EAC leaders would believe such an obvious falsehood. It does not make any logical sense to see Kiir satisfying the EAC financial obligation in less than three weeks when the country has been a member of the bloc for more than seven years.

Furthermore, since South Sudan joined the EAC, the country constantly failed to live up to its international obligations by failing to pay its financial shares. Kiir’s rushed decision to make South Sudan part of the EAC has resulted in a negative perception of the nation. This perception is driven by the fact that South Sudan does not pay its dues. This is one of the reasons why members of the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) savagely criticized the country for its continued failure to pay its debts to the bloc. 

If the East African Community enforced its by-laws or rules, then in 2019 South Sudan should have been justly expelled from the bloc because of its policy of continuous non-payment.

A case in point involved the Honorable Fancy Haji Nkuhi, who, in 2019 was a Tanzania representative to the EALA. Honorable Fancy had had enough of South Sudan’s persistent non-payment of its annual fees and wondered why South Sudanese leaders always behaved unreasonably. In one of her speeches in the parliament, Honorable. Fancy said, “Today we eat from the house of Mr. Tanzania, tomorrow Uganda, Kenya, Burundi, Rwanda. When we go to South Sudan, they close their doors and say we are not around.”  Fancy’s statement exposed the bitter reality of Kiir’s inability to protect the country’s image. At that time, South Sudan owed more than $27.6 million to the East African Community. Kiir was not interested in paying the arrears at that time simply because he was not vying for the EAC chair. 

As the record indicates, Salva Kiir does not care about lasting peace in South Sudan. He only cares about maintaining his grip on power or securing any support he can get. This is why he made the recent deal with other EAC leaders to forgive $13.5 million, paid the remaining $15.5 million, and then publicly proclaimed his regime is now prepared to pay its annual contribution on time. This bold promise is feasible simply because Kiir wants to gain any support he can get from other EAC leaders. In his view, if he became popular or secured the necessary support, he would be in a better position to further obstruct peace implementation in South Sudan, and no one would dare to question his approach to peace.

South Sudan has a history of accruing huge debts and then reneging on the debt. The country also has a history of asking other countries or foreign donors to fund some of its projects including the peace process. However, whenever a donor or another nation gives money to the regime in Juba, the original narrative used to secure such a financial grant would be deliberately put in a trash bin where only Kiir and his trusted allies know of its location. This shows that on many fronts, South Sudan was not ready when it joined the EAC. 

The admission was approved merely because Kiir’s devoted regional godfather and ally, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, lobbied other EAC leaders on Kiir’s behalf. It was a decision that still haunts the country to this day. If the East African Community enforced its by-laws or rules, then in 2019 South Sudan should have been justly expelled from the bloc because of its policy of continuous non-payment. The main reason South Sudan was not barred was that Museveni often asked other EAC leaders to be easy on Kiir. Article 146 of the EAC states, “The Summit may suspend a partner state from taking part in the activities of the community if that state fails to observe and fulfill the fundamental principles and objectives of the treaty including failure to meet financial commitments to the community within a period of 18 months.” And yet, South Sudan failed to live up to its financial obligations and no remedy or chastisement was forthcoming. There is no doubt in my mind that Museveni was the reason behind Kiir’s years-long avoidance of paying the accumulated debts.

I know those who do not understand how Kiir runs South Sudan’s affairs may think that his actions as the East African Community chair have no connections to his leadership in the young nation. Nevertheless, there is one irrefutable connection between the two: political deceit. In 2018, Kiir declared at a peace talk venue that he had no money to fund the peace process and demanded that oilfields that were under the control of the armed opposition, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army-In Opposition (SPLM/A-IO), be turned over to him so that he could finance the agreement. The SPLM/A-IO agreed and returned the oilfields to him. After Kiir took over the oilfields, he quickly resumed oil production and his initial claim that he wanted oilfields to finance the peace process never materialized. He simply used the oil revenues to buy more weapons from a few greedy Eastern European countries through Uganda. Salva Kiir did not stop there.

In February 2019, he announced that he was set to collect taxes from all public servants after he realized international donors no longer trusted him when it came to money. In his mind, his regime was going to collect at least $285 million and use the money for the execution of the accord. The announcement was never implemented because the people he wanted to tax were not even receiving their salaries on time, with most of them often going for months without pay. Kiir’s leadership is all about deceiving first and striking soon after. In June 2019, he asked Afri-Exim Bank for a $500 million loan, claiming he wanted the money to pay public servants’ salaries and fund infrastructure projects. He also told the bank that he was prepared to repay the money in four years. It was another scam-laced strategy to keep his regime alive. After he received the funds, he did not pay the salaries of public servants and never funded the projects. About three months later (in September 2019), he borrowed $600 million from China. 

Kiir told the Chinese government that he wanted the funds to pay six months’ salaries of all South Sudanese civil servants so that the peace process could go smoothly. Beijing gave him the money. After he received the fund, he used $200 million to pay two months’ salaries of most civil servants and $400 million (two-thirds) disappeared. The Republic of South Sudan has also become a nation where Kiir’s family members and trusted insiders once looted a Qatari $1 billion bank credit line which was designed to finance fuel, food, and medicines for South Sudanese communities. This list can go on and on, but these few examples are enough to give readers and the East African Community an idea of why they should be cautious when dealing with Salva Kiir.

I am aware that on numerous occasions some East African leaders (e.g., Yoweri Museveni, etc.) maintain that African problems need African solutions. This argument has also been echoed by other African leaders who tend to embrace or glorify tyrannical rule. These leaders always accuse European and American leaders of interfering in their internal affairs, nevertheless, their allegations about Western leaders are purely a scapegoating strategy designed to prevent other countries from scrutinizing their leadership. 

This is why African leaders like Yoweri Museveni believe that the EAC’s recent decision to allow Salva Kiir to chair the bloc without raising any concerns about his leadership in South Sudan serves as a strong statement to non-EAC leaders whom he perceives as hostile to African leaders. I believe the promotion of Kiir to the helm of the East African Community is one of the most egregious blunders the EAC has ever made. The people of South Sudan are stunned by EAC’s unscrupulous decision to allow Salva Kiir to chair this important bloc. 

What is disgraceful is the fact that all the leaders of the EAC’s member states know that Kiir’s regime is the most oppressive in the region and yet they failed to prevent him from assuming the EAC chair. The regime of his Ugandan ally Yoweri Museveni should not be far behind; indeed, these two leaders have instituted mafia-like techniques where dissenting views are treated as enemies of the state.

It is incredible how the EAC leaders who claim to be working for the goodness of the East Africans were convinced by a joint Juba-Kampala web of deceit to choose Kiir as the EAC chair. What I find ironic is that the EAC claims “One People” and “One Destiny” as its global motto, and yet the bloc failed to see this when they promoted Kiir to the chair of the group. It seems to me that “One People” represents EAC leaders, and “One Destiny” is all about validating and solidifying their actions at the expense of the people of East Africa. It also seems to me that the leaders of the EAC are more interested in the customs union, common market, monetary union, and political federation than in the establishment of a secure, stable, and politically united East Africa as is asserted in their vision statement. 

I am baffled by the fact that EAC leaders overlooked and continue to overlook the prevailing political situation in South Sudan. It is imminently clear that the Republic of South Sudan, led by Salva Kiir, is still in a volatile situation and can return to war at any time. This is not a question of why the EAC has forgiven 37.5% ($13.5 million) of the $36 million South Sudan originally owed to the bloc. It is about whether leaders of the East African Community prefer the current oppressive political system over reforms in South Sudan. There is no doubt the East African Community has abandoned its core principles and transformed itself into a morally corrupt regional bloc where dictatorships are validated and empowered.

Editor’s Note: Duop Chak Wuol is an analyst, critical writer, and editor-in-chief of the South Sudan News Agency. He can be reached at duop282@gmail.com.
The views expressed in this article are that of the author only and do not reflect Addis Standard’s editorial stand.

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