With stakes high, India watching South Sudan crisis
Late Tuesday night, as news trickled in from the Cabinet Room of the world’s newest country that South Sudan President Gen. Salva Kiir Mayardit had fired his vice president and rival Riek Machar, India’s ambassador in Juba, Parmod Bajaj, placed nearly a dozen calls to the Indian community there, advising them to relay, via communication chains, the need to stay calm and avoid unnecessary movement.
Speaking to this IANS columnist later, on Bajaj’s mind were India’s oil investments in the country – that broke away from South Sudan to become Africa’s 54th nation – where a fresh blockade, effective Aug 7, stares state-owned ONGC Videsh and its Malaysian and Chinese joint venture partners, and the message this political tumble will have on investors at home.
Embattling charges of corruption and status quoism by his cabinet colleagues, President Salva Kiir didn’t just fire Machar. He went on to demand resignations of all members of his cabinet, transferring executive authority to the respective under secretaries.
Queering nervousness among investors, a power struggle is feared because Machar has already made public his intention to contest Salva Kiir in the elections for leadership of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) in 2015.
In a curious power-sharing arrangement, the ousted vice president, a long-time critic and competitor of Salva Kiir, had already been stripped of some of his powers in April this year, but he remained Juba’s chief negotiator with Khartoum for the contentious oil-sharing agreement between the two warring east-African neighbours brokered by the African Union.
Oil began to flow for a few weeks before allegations of harbouring terrorists were traded by both sides and production was slated to come to a grinding half effective from Aug 7.
Control over the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) remains the crucial piece in Salva Kiir’s continuation, because in Tuesday’s purge he also fired Pagan Amum, secretary-general of the SPLM. Amum too had gone public with intentions to challenge Salva Kiir in the elections scheduled for 2015.
Not surprisingly, there are unconfirmed reports that Salva Kiir has already fired 17 brigadier-generals of the SPLA.
India’s stakes are obvious enough since it became the first country from Asia to open its consulate in Juba, in 2007, a good four years before the country gained Independence from the north in July 2011.
Vice President Hamid Ansari led the delegation to attend the I-Day celebrations. The consulate is now upgraded to an embassy and South Sudan too has established an embassy in India in late 2012.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has met Salva Kiir Mayardit in September 2011 in New York, where South Sudan was promised assistance in capacity building and human resource development in health, agriculture, irrigation, education, infrastructure and energy.
India also appointed a special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, Amrendra Khatua, who has since been replaced by P.S. Raghavan, special secretary, development partnership administration, ministry of external affairs (MEA).
Salva Kiir made a triumphant visit to Beijing last year after which he claimed to have procured $8 billion worth of project funding. Beijing has never confirmed this claim.
He has now agreed to make his maiden visit to New Delhi in end-August, but Tuesday’s developments might well impact this plan.
India Inc. has been assessing South Sudan’s potential as a destination for products and services like hotels, construction and cement, agriculture, horticulture, animal husbandry, forestry, power production, pharmaceuticals and health. But fuzzy regulations have stalled hard investments so far.
Indian schools have also been affording technical training to South Sudan’s students. Ninety Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) slots have been earmarked for the country. Also, senior ministers have been frequenting Chennai and Noida for medical treatment.
The ousted vice-president too, accompanied by a 20-member delegation, visited Panchgani in the conference organized by the Friends of Moral Re-armament in January 2012.
India has also offered to establish a hospital, a vocational training centre, a rural technology park and an agricultural seed production and development centre in South Sudan.
The writer is chief executive and co-founder, India Strategy Group, an advisory with expertise on South Sudan.