Will Salva Kiir lead an independent South Sudan?
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Salva Kiir rose through the ranks of the southern rebel army to become Sudan’s vice president in 2005. But a January 2011 referendum could make the cowboy hat-wearing former soldier the first president of an independent South Sudan.
Salva Kiir Mayardit is the vice president of the Republic of Sudan and president of the already semi-autonomous Government of Southern Sudan (GoSS). He is also the chairman of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and the commander-in-chief of the SPLM’s army, the SPLA.
But all those titles could be eclipsed if southern Sudanese voters choose to break with the north in a January 9, 2011 referendum.
If the poll is fair and is held on time, analysts say there is little doubt about the outcome: the South will vote to divide Africa’s largest country and Salva Kiir, once an ordinary rebel soldier, will become the president of the world’s youngest state.
Shadow of Garang
Kiir succeeded the famed late southern leader John Garang, who died in a helicopter accident in 2005, but has proven to be an altogether different figurehead.
Born in 1951, Kiir became involved in the armed struggle in the south at just 17. He rose though the ranks of the SPLA and joined its high command in 1983. A career soldier with no previous experience on the political and diplomatic front, he was thrust into the spotlight after Garang’s death.
The succession from Garang to Kiir, then chief of staff, was spelled out by the SPLA’s own rules, but nevertheless became the subject of internal controversy. It was the endorsement of Rebecca Garang, the late leader’s widow, which finally helped Kiir to the top post.
In contrast to the charismatic Garang –a US-trained economist who was known for his brilliant speaking-- Kiir earned the respect of soldiers through quiet diligence on the battlefront. He has earned the reputation of a humble, straight-talking statesman since he became the public face of South Sudan.
From leader to diplomat
Perhaps the most important difference is Kiir’s aspiration for an independent south. Where Garang espoused Sudan’s unity under peace and even projected himself as the future president of a new Sudan, Kiir never hid his interest in breaking with the government in Khartoum.
In the run-up to the referendum, Kiir has touted the official line dictated by the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, namely that both northern and southern Sudanese leaders should work to make unity attractive. But people who have followed Kiir’s ascension to prominence describe him as a separatist at heart.
Over the past few months, Kiir has become an emissary of the referendum cause, warning international leaders that efforts by Khartoum to stall or derail the promised poll would bring chaos and possibly reignite violence on a massive scale.
If he does become the president of a new South Sudan, diplomacy will remain a critical function of his job. Kiir has publicly recognised that the issues of oil revenue sharing, citizenship and land borders will continue to occupy the two sides.