THE sudden appearance of Salva Kiir, South Sudan’s president, on television on December 16th was as disturbing for its form as its content. Gone were the trademark black suit and cowboy hat, in their place was a military uniform.
Juba, the capital of the fledgeling state, had been rocked by heavy fighting the previous day between factions of the army. Mr Kiir announced that a coup attempt by his sacked vice-president, Riek Machar, had been foiled and that his government was in control.
By blaming Mr Machar, a “prophet of doom”, the president may be trying to justify a crackdown on his rival’s supporters. Mr Machar hails from South Sudan’s second largest ethnic group, the Nuer, whereas Mr Kiir is from the more populous Dinka.
Mr Kiir has lately been accused of cementing his tribe’s hold on power, while smaller communities resent what they see as Dinka domination. The make-up of the army reflects the divisive politics of a country not yet three years old.
This week’s fighting which raged around a military barracks and involved large numbers of troops and heavy weapons, appears to have been more accident than plot. Tensions have been high since July when the president sacked his entire government amid suspicions that his deputy was scheming to topple him through political means.
The first shots were fired after Nuer elements in the presidential guard received false reports that Mr Machar had been arrested. “It was not a real coup attempt,” said a security analyst close to the army. As with past crises “it was an accident based on paranoia and rumour.”
With clashes continuing and reports of looting, hundreds of civilians have taken shelter at two United Nations bases in Juba. A dusk-to-dawn curfew has been put in place and the airport has been closed.
There are fears that the fighting could spread quickly to other areas of the impoverished oil-producing nation. But a civil war along purely ethnic lines remains unlikely. Mr Machar does not have a sufficient support base in the army and has pursued power through largely political means. He was demoted and then sacked after winning the support of nearly half of the ruling party’s politburo.
Western donors and the UN may still be able to use the influence their billions of dollars in aid provide to broker a settlement between the two rivals for power. Rebellions and reconciliation have been common in South Sudan and Mr Kiir and Mr Machar have a long history of squabbles and deals.
Working against this is the fact that the president has become more militant and dictatorial of late. Those closest to him see a changed man and question whether recent health problems, that saw him treated in South Africa, have affected his decision-making. A diplomat who has known him since the civil war said he was “completely different to the Kiir we knew.”