Kiir, who is also the leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, won with 93 per cent of the vote for the presidency of Southern Sudan in the April 11-15 elections. He promised to lead the region to a 2011 referendum to decide whether to secede from the rest of the country.
Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir’s and his ruling National Congress Party also won in the North, although opponents alleged they stole votes.
Bashir would have struggled to win if the SPLM candidate, Yasir Arman, an Arab, had not been arm-twisted by his party to withdraw at the last moment, contrary to National Elections Commission regulations. Arman’s withdrawal was allegedly part of a secret deal between Bashir and Kiir, in which it is widely believed that Khartoum agreed not to get in the way of Southern Sudan’s secession next year in return.
Anyhow, even with all the problems around the elections, what happened in Southern Sudan was surprising in many ways. The SPLM and its military arm, the SPLA, had a reputation as a thuggish and brutal organisation during the bush war, and lacked the sophistication of other insurgents in the region like President Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army during his rebellion, and Rwanda’s RPF. Dissent was dealt with mercilessly in the SPLA. Indeed, when the SPLM took power in the South following the 2005 comprehensive peace agreement with Khartoum, some of its leaders quickly became corrupt, and its commanders were behaving like feudal warlords.
Yet within five years, the SPLM managed to do something its supposedly more polished counterparts never could — hold an election. The general rule is that a victorious rebel leader is allowed to enjoy the fruits of office—unchallenged—for at least 10 years, before the inconvenience of holding an election.
But even more surprising, is what happened with candidates’ selection. Several former rebel figures defied the party and stood as independent candidates against the SPLM — and they were not murdered in their sleep, nor crudely cheated of victory as would have happened in other former guerrilla lands. To this day, 30 years after rebel armies took power in some African countries, you defy the party or the Big Man at your peril.
Of course, the Southern Sudanese are not like most other Africans. They are a very stubborn lot hardened by a quarter century of vicious war. If the SPLM were to kill or imprison all dissidents within its ranks, it would be left with no membership. However, recent developments also suggest that some of the stereotypes about the SPLM/SPLA in the bush and Southern Sudan politicians, are way off the mark. Kiir is a milder man than John Garang, who died in a Uganda helicopter crash in 2005. Garang, having led the SPLM/SPLA through its most difficult phase, had grown into a very charismatic, but also hammer-wielding figure.
The SPLM government still has serious problems of corruption, but the past five years suggest that it also has more smarts than people credit it for. It actually might just make some success of an independent New Sudan state in the South, and not turn into another embarrassment for the continent.