Three good reasons why Riek Machar won’t leave the SPLM

Greetings internet!  I’ve succumbed to the folly(?) of starting my own blog.  I’ll gradually incorporate a back catalogue of articles published elsewhere on the web.  And so for an inaugural post, as news breaks of James Wani Igga’s appointment as South Sudan’s new vice-president:

When Salva Kiir dismissed his government in July, there was plenty of speculation that this was a prelude to a formal split of the SPLM, and that as Kiir’s chief challenger, Riek Machar would be the most likely figure to lead a breakaway faction.  And while nothing can be ruled out when it comes to the SPLM leadership, and, in time, as with most liberation movements, the party will almost certainly divide and re-configure, there are at least three good reasons why Riek Machar won’t (or shouldn’t, if he’s smart) leave the SPLM any time soon:

1. The SPLM/A’s independence legacy

2. Riek’s personal history of leaving parties

3. Look at what happened to Lam Akol in 2010

Wholly accurate or not, the SPLM/A offers the strong narrative that it was the institution responsible for South Sudan’s independence.  Walking away from that legacy would be a huge electoral burden.  An insurmountable burden for the foreseeable future.

The history of the SPLM’s splits and feuds during the civil war is well documented.  Suffice it to say that the eventual process of reconciliation after Riek’s departure from the movement in 1991 was not easy.  Leaving the party again raises further opportunity for opponents to seize on this complicated, troublesome past.  Leave the party once, and forgiveness may come.  Leave the party twice, and forgiveness may not be so readily forthcoming.

Lam Akol, one of Riek’s allies in the 1991 split, and later, the SPLM-designated foreign minister in the Government of National Unity, left the SPLM in 2009 to form SPLM-Democratic Change.  Lam was the only person to challenge Kiir in the 2010 election for president of the Government of Southern Sudan.  He came a distant, distant second, with only a tenth of the vote.  But Lam’s electoral defeat is not responsible for his exile to the political wilderness; it was the folly of challenging a ruling party that firmly controlled the machinery and resources of the state.  Lam is as sharp as they come, but his political career in South Sudan is effectively over.  It didn’t help that Lam’s authoritarian leadership tendencies led to his party repeatedly imploding, but it wasn’t inevitable that he ended up a political pariah.  Riek isn’t in danger of suffering an identical fate, but it’s worth considering how difficult it is to build an alternative political organisation in today’s South Sudan.  In that regard, the experience of the SPLM-DC is instructive for anyone plotting party splits.


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