JUBA, July 23 – South Sudanese President Salva Kiir has suspended his entire cabinet and vice president in the largest reshuffle in the history of the two-year-old nation, the former information minister told AFP Tuesday.
The swathe of sackings has sparked concern among diplomats at potential instability in the fledgling nation, awash with guns, riven by ethnic rivalries and still reeling from decades of war.
“President Kiir wants to make a major reshuffle, so from the vice president downwards, all national ministers and deputy ministers have been removed,” said Barnaba Marial Benjamin, who until his suspension Tuesday was the information minister and government spokesman.
Those removed include the vice president, Riek Machar, as well as Pagan Amum, the secretary-general of the ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).
Amum was the top negotiator with arch-foes Sudan at long-running African Union-mediated talks over a raft of issues left unresolved at independence, including border demarcation and oil exports, currently under threat of suspension again, this time by Khartoum.
Many of the ministers were key figures in the rebel SPLM or its armed wing that fought a brutal 1983-2005 war against the government in Khartoum, which led to a 2011 referendum in which South Sudan voted overwhelmingly to split from the north.
Large numbers of security forces were deployed on the streets of the capital — a common sight in the city — but all seemed calm.
However, embassies issued warnings to citizens to take care, including Britain, who said its nationals should “remain at home or in another safe place”.
“It is possible that this move could lead to increased political tension or disturbances in Juba and other parts of the country,” Britain’s foreign office warned in a statement.
Benjamin however scoffed at such concerns.
“Why should there be instability? This is a constitutional position… he (Kiir) is the head of the government,” said Benjamin, who said he was speaking now as a member of parliament, not as a minister.
“It is his constitutional mandate to form and dissolve a government.”
Amum was also suspended for alleged “mismanagement of the party” with a parliamentary committee to be set up to investigate allegations, Benjamin said, without giving further details.
No replacements have been announced, and it was not immediately clear whether all those suspended would return, or if new blood would be brought in to replace them.
“Some of these people will come back and some will not,” Benjamin added.
“Undersecretaries of the ministries will be taking charge in the absence of the ministers until the time that he will form the next government.”
While Juba has been rife with rumours in recent weeks about a potential reshuffle by Kiir — especially concerning tense relations with his deputy Machar — the move still took those involved by surprise.
“I’ve been told that this was announced on the national South Sudan television,” Amum told AFP.
“I understand, from the phone calls I have had, that I am suspended because of a number of reasons,” he added, without giving further details.
Residents in Juba said there was concern at the suspensions, which follows earlier orders by Kiir in April to clip the powers of Machar.
“People are staying at home, and if people are out in town they are rushing back just in case there is trouble,” said Richard Jok, a student.
South Sudan is divided by ethnic tensions, with the military struggling to control rebellion and mend a society torn apart by one of Africa’s longest-running wars, in which Khartoum pitted different southern militia forces against one another.
Machar, from the key oil producing Unity state, is a controversial figure for many in South Sudan, but commands loyalty among many branches of the Nuer people, which form an integral part of the footsoldiers of the new nation’s army.
He fought on both sides of the civil war, leading a splinter SPLM faction that sided with Khartoum, battling troops commanded by Kiir, who comes from the Dinka people.
Last month Kiir suspended two of his most senior and influential ministers to launch investigations into an alleged multi-million dollar corruption scandal.
Probes were launched into finance minister Kosti Manibe and cabinet affairs minister Deng Alor, powerful leaders of the young nation.
Dozens of generals have also been relieved of their positions in the past year.
Oil-rich but war-ravaged South Sudan, which gained formal independence from Sudan on July 9, 2011, is one of the poorest countries on earth.
It was left in ruins after five decades of conflict between southern rebels and successive governments in Sudan, with South Sudan now struggling with some of the worst development indicators of any nation.