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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Who is President Salva Kiir Mayardit of Southern Sudan, Africa’s Newest Country?

Filed under: Jerusalem

Salva Kiir MayarditSalva Kiir Mayardit, who wears his trademark black cowboy hat at all times, will be the first president of independent Southern Sudan after 99% voted in favor of separation from Sudan in the January 2011 elections.

On February 6, the announcement that the president of Sudan accepted the election results paved the way for transition talks between the two sides. Two million Southern Sudanese living in the diaspora also took part in the elections, in addition to the four million eligible to vote out of nine million residents of Southern Sudan. According to signed agreements with the central government in Khartoum, the south is supposed to proclaim independence in July 2011.

The referendum was the result of the peace agreement signed in 2005 that brought an end to the civil war that lasted 21 years and left more than two million people dead. Since 2005 Southern Sudan has had an autonomous government, a president (also acting as vice-president), ministers and a parliament. Ever since becoming president, after the death of John Garang in a helicopter crash in August 2005, Salva Kiir led the process of disengagement from the north. In 2009 he stated, “The upcoming referendum is a choice between being a second-class in your own country, or a free person in your independent state.” In the 2009 presidential elections Kiir won by a landslide and officially became president of Southern Sudan, which strengthened him to carry on with his disengagement plan from the north.

Salva Kiir Mayardit was born in 1951 in the region of Bahr El-Ghazal, in the northwestern part of Southern Sudan. Just like his predecessor he belongs to the most important Dinka ethnic group, though of a different clan. In the late 1960s, as a youngster, he joined the rebel forces of Anyanya in the first civil war. However, after the 1972 Addis Ababa agreements he joined the ranks of the Sudanese army as a sergeant. When the southern rebellion resumed in 1983 Kiir found himself under the command of Garang and defected with him from the Sudanese army. Kiir helped found the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLM) and led its military wing. According to critics, Kiir lacks the intellectual abilities and the political vision Garang possesses. He does not excel in oratory, but does know how to work the crowds who come to listen to him. Kiir is a devout Christian and attends services regularly at the Roman Catholic Cathedral in the Southern Sudanese capital, Juba.

Kiir understands the difficulties facing Southern Sudan — Muslim states of the region (Chad, Libya, Egypt and Saudi Arabia) are obviously not excited to accept the appearance of a new Christian state that ostensibly has ties with Israel and enjoys the support of the American Jewish lobby. Kiir will also have to reconcile with the Nuer, the second largest ethnic group after the Dinka. These two groups have often fought each other in the past and some 350,000 people were forced to flee their homes in the conflagration. Kiir will also have to find a solution with the north regarding the allocation of natural resources. Today, 80% of the oil produced in Sudan comes from the south, and it is highly unlikely that the north will allow this wealth to belong solely to the southerners.

It seems like Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir accepted the new reality that is unfolding now in front of his eyes. He promised his trustees that after the disengagement he will change the constitution and Arabic will become the only official language of Sudan, and Sharia will be the only valid legal system.   Bashir will also have to pay attention to the mostly student led demonstrations that are fed by events in Tunisia and Egypt.

The United States gave its full support to the Southern Sudanese referendum.  The US is expected to quickly recognize independent Southern Sudan and send an ambassador. Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson, the most senior American diplomat for Africa, stated on January 5, “We will also help that new nation to succeed, get on its feet and move forward successfully, economically and politically.”

No doubt the establishment of another Christian country in Northeastern Africa holds important strategic significance for the State of Israel, militarily, politically, and security-wise. Israeli decision-makers will be looking southward to try to determine whether there will be a potential ally in Southern Sudan that might strengthen its regional standing.

Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.