Home | Comment & Analysis    Monday 9 September 2019

President Kiir: The Nelson Mandela of South Sudan?


By Biong Deng Biong

There is no reservation that Nelson Mandela was a great leader, but how does President Kiir fair? More often, we focus on the negative performance of leaders while forgetting 70% plus of their largely positive actions. Consequently, we end up creating a leader of our own imaginings rather than enabling a potentially great leader to thrive. In this piece, I aim to pit President Kiir against a strong leader like Nelson Mandela and determine if Kiir has the capacity to steer his nation with the same power and purpose as the South African revolutionary. I hope that this will help to identify areas of improvement for President Kiir and more importantly, identify where his energy needs to be focused in order to rescue his legacy. And so, the real question is, is it too late or still possible for Kiir to become the Nelson Mandela of South Sudan? I offer my thoughts on the matter below.

It costed Nelson Mandela his entire life, his family, friends, comrades and often his patience to undertake what later became the greatest political legacy of the modern era. In 1994, while in Kakuma refugee camp, members of SPLA/M staged a large screen in a field in Kakuma for us to watch the inaugural of Nelson Mandela elected as the first black President of South Africa. I did not know who he was at the time but the admiration he elicited from our leaders compelled meto find out more. I soon discovered he was an exemplary leader to those fighting the freedom strugglein South Sudan before her independence. Hence, we can compare the mighty Mandela to our own leader.

Before I proceed however, I wish to be clear that I am fully aware and knowledgeable of the current status quo in South Sudan. We are all aware that under President Kiir’s leadership, civil war has been waged and sustained, corruption has been normalised, insecurity has been elevated, the voices of citizens have been reduced to near zero, tribalism and nepotism are everyday practice and more importantly, peace is being obstructed. As a result, poverty is surging, hope is almost diminishing, and the country and all what Kiir fought for, for so many years, is at a risk of being disintegrated or lost.

Having said that we need not ignore Kiir’s contribution to South Sudan. President Kiir’s legacy is enormously positive, starting as a young person in Anya Nya One’s struggle for the freedom of South Sudan until he became the first President of South Sudan. The following accounts are a brief recap of Kiir’s years of legacy:
? Kiir patriotic struggle stamped back to his time with AnyanyaOne, when he was a young officer in the widely-known rebel movement fighting for the freedom of South Sudan and the South Sudanese people. His outstanding contribution was confirmed by general Joseph Lago, one of the leading figures in that struggle.
? After the Addis Ababa agreement of 1972 between Anyanya One and the Sudanese Government, Kiir was integrated into the Sudan Army Forces (SAF). As an intelligence officer, he has saved many South Sudanese lives through his role.
? When SPLM/SPLA started in 1983, Kiir became one of the founding fathers. His commitment and contribution to the moment for the period of 21 years of struggle is unquestionable.
? In 2003, as second in command for SPLM/A, Kiir led the delegation which successfully negotiated MachakosProtocal, the Declaration of Principles which he signed and later cemented the foundation for the successful negotiation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) which brought to an end 21 years of the North-South war.
? As President of theGovernment of Southern Sudan (GoSS) and the First Vice President of Sudan following the tragic passing of Dr Garang, Kiir successfully maintained peace, kept SPLM together and successfully succeeded Dr Garang.
? In 2006, as a strategy to increase bargaining power for the South Sudanese and to maintain peace in South Sudan, Kiir led South-South dialogue which brought together all South Sudanese fighting factions to work together under the Government of Southern Sudan.
? Referendum of South Sudan- In the face of all odds, which included Khartoum sabotaging the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), Kiir out-manoeuvred Khartoum and successfully delivered a Referendum which resulted in the independence of South Sudan.
? First President of South Sudan- After a successful referendum, Kiir successfully lobbied the international community for the referendum results to be recognised. He then became the first President of the Republic of South Sudan after South Sudan separated from Sudan.

In light of these impressive contributions, what is preventing Kiir from becoming a great leader? To answer this, let us consider the path of Nelson Mandela and compare and contrast the two leaders:
For many years, Nelson Mandela fought for the right and freedoms of his people, the black South Africans. He stood firmly against the apartheid regime, a move which had him imprisoned for over 27 years. As a result of his stoic commitment to his mission, Nelson Mandela was unshaken by any threat. In brief, he sacrificed his entire life for the people of South Africa. Like Mandela, Kiir unshakably gave his entire life to fight for the freedom of South Sudanese people. For many years, he stood against the Khartoum regime without looking back. Despite all these challenges, Kiir has always remained loyal to his commitment. He never rebelled throughout both struggleswith Anya nyaOne and SPLA/M. This deep patriotism that Kiir demonstrates to his country and his people allows one to draw strong comparisons between Nelson Mandela and Kiir.

Both Kiir and Mandela became the first presidents in their respective countries after they successfully freed their people. Although South Africa has remained one united country and South Sudan seceded from Sudan, the outcomes wonthe approval of their peoplerespectively.

Both leaders workedextremely hard during their struggles to unite their people towards the same goal. Like Mandela, Kiir performed very well in this area. His effort in keeping his people united reachedoptimum level in the South-South Dialogue, which brought most South Sudanese fighting factionstogether under his leadership as the leader of GoSS.

While the two leaders more or less shared similar experiences during their struggle period, a point of contention arises, however, after they became presidents of their respective countries. As we see below, there are little or no similarities in their legacy after they made it to the office.

While in the office, Mandela focused on promoting reconciliation among his people. His decision to offer forgiveness for the apartheid regime that jailed him for 27 years, caught the entire world by surprise. For many, the actions of apartheid were unwarrantable, but he opposed those views and chose to move forward. He did not halt there; he went further to divorce his wife for causalities committed when he was in jail. This made it clear that he was not in the office to favour anybody regardless of their association with him. This exampling action caused many to check their actions against the values they fought for or against. More so, the move could have also resulted in minimising corruption and promoting good practices within government institutions.

On the other hand, when Kiir took office, he decided to base his presidency on trusting his colleagues as a way of keeping everyone together. He delegated most of his power to his deputy and his comrades. At first, things seemed to be working well, but things began to change not long into his presidency. Many believed Kiir’s leadership took a turn after he displayed favour to his friends, comrades and relatives. For example, some people were seen to be sidelined due to their close allegiance to Dr Garang while he was alive. Some unqualified relatives and friends gained power from Kiir’s favour. Corruption and insecurity were the resulting outcomes.

During his presidency, Mandela focused on promoting democracy, something he was denied himself and something he fought so hard for. In a demonstration of his commitment to democracy, he promised to step down after one term in the office, and he ensured this promise was upheld. This move set a strong foundation for democracy in South Africa and may have prevented people from rebelling against him.

Kiir had this same view of promoting democracy to the extent that he mentioned to some of his comrades that he would not seek a second term in the office. However, this was overshadowed by the fact that Kiir felt his leadership was being undermined by his comrades who wanted his position by any means. The 2013 war emerged as a result of in-fighting and so this became the new status quo.

The Mandela Presidency also focused on uniting the African National Congress Party (ANC) and making it the best party in the country. His effort has cemented the ANC foundation to what it is today.

Kiir, on the other hand, was seen to have played a role in the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM)disintegration. Although many factors are to blame here, Kiir’s role as the chairperson is vital and carries more weight in the direction taken by the party. For example, his role in allowing members of other parties to take on crucial decisions making positions in government without party consent is believed to have played a negative role. His difference with other senior members of the party has always played a role in the party’s disunity.

Mandela also focused more on developmental initiatives during his presidency, including education, women’s rights and the voice of children. This has also set apart Nelson from Kiir. To date, Kiir has not taken any significant move towards developmental initiatives. In fact, he is caught up in muddy waters in the civil war, trying to survive as a leader, and more division among his comrades, his party and the entire country.

We cannot fully parallelKiir with Nelson because as we have seen, there are some circumstances that surroundedKiir’s leadership that did not exist within Mandela’s leadership. Kiir also relies on the excuse that his leadership has been sabotaged by his comrades. Having said that, I cannot acquit him either, as he is the president and should be in control. Thus, what I can do is to offer some solutions, in my opinion, which could bring him close to becominga truly great leader like Mandela.

President Kiir needs to personally overhaul his legacy because it seems to be disbursed recklessly by others who never help build it. In fact, by people who might have worked against it. Many of us are witnessing with disbelief how others are thoughtlessly spending the great legacy that he has built over many years. We rarely hear any positive attributes to this legacy from the same cohort. Anyone who seems to offer positive advice to the President is in one way or another pushed away from him. Consequently, he needs to personally decide how he wants his legacy written.

Like Nelson Mandela, he also needs to unconditionally forgive all those who have wronged him and asks for forgiveness from those he has offended. The power of forgiveness is very strong, indeed there is something supernatural in genuine forgiveness. It never fails anyone who acts with sincerity and also it frees oneself from conflict. Kiir needs to free himself from being part of the conflict with anybody because he is the President of all the South Sudanese. This will help unite the country and promote the healing process. It takes a brave heart and courageous leadership to say sorry and to openly repent of one’s misdeeds.

Kiir needs to unite the SPLM party. It is with the SPLM party that the genuine unity of South Sudan lies. It is important that Kiir takes a genuine leadership role in creating conversations around reconciliation and how the party can come together. The priority focus needs to be given to all the silent members of the party; they need to be leading the conversation because they might be trusted by rebelling sides.

Kiir needs to promote democracy because democracy empowers people to have a voice and become free. Moreover, it is what Kiir himself has fought for so many years. Kiir can promote democracy by starting within the SPLM party, informing his comrades and the party of his leadership intentions, whether he will stand in the next election or not. He also needs to develop and empower institutions that support democracy.

Kiir needs to treat all South Sudanese the same without favouring any person or tribe. This will help in building trust, combatting corruption, tribalism and nepotism. Kiir does not need to be seen favouring his blood, tribe or friend. Justice should be delivered equally irrespective of the association to the President.

The revitalized 2018 peace agreement is a very good opportunity for President Kiir to demonstrate leadership in shaping the future of South Sudan for the better. He needs to genuinely hold the hands of all who have signed the peace agreement and find ways to involve those who did not sign. Short of this, the South Sudanese will be caught in muddy waters and so it will also be for Kiir’s leadership and legacy.

In conclusion, Kiir has his shortcomings when compared with Nelson Mandela, but his legacy is largely positive. The two leaders have strong comparisons in their period of struggle but unfortunately, this was not the case when Kiir took office. Nelson Mandela demonstrated great virtue during his Presidency. He set himself apart from Kiir focusing on the unity of his people and leading the process of healing and reconciliation, promoting democracy, keeping his party united and successfully championing including many social justice initiatives such aseducation, and women’s and children’s rights. On the other hand, Kiir’s leadership has been soured by civil war, party division, corruption and insecurity with minimal social development. Indeed, Kiir can still redeem himself. He can forgive and ask for forgiveness, genuinely promote democracy and development, unite the SPLM party, and treat all South Sudanese equally and fairly. The September 2018 agreement is an opportunity for the President to bring the country together. Short of these recommendations, Kiir’s legacy will fare negatively in comparison to Nelson Mandela. Yet, he has the capacity to dig deep and change the course of events. There remains hope yet for the South Sudanese people.

The author, Biong Deng Biong, is an Executive Officer with Edmund Rice Services Ltd Australia. He currently resides in Melbourne, Australia.

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