Southern Sudanese President Salva Kiir Mayardit is known for his reserve. Sitting down to an interview in Washington July 21, his spare, measured words show it. He quickly dispenses with questions about his little-known personal history but speaks precisely about what he has come to the capital to discuss one day after a first meeting with President Bush: the stalled agreement that is threatening peace between northern and southern Sudan.
Kiir took over southern Sudan's leadership when beloved rebel chief John Garang died in a helicopter crash one year ago, just three weeks after being sworn in as Sudan's first vice president and the autonomous south's first president. Kiir was one of the original founding members of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/ Army, an adept military commander who operated quietly in Garang's inner circle.
Kiir is now the Joshua to Garang's Moses, laboring to secure the promises his old mentor won hard. But his burden is a heavy one: Garang also died just after signing the peace deal that ended the south's 21-year civil war with the Islamist north, with little time for transition from rebel movement to functioning government.
This is where Kiir distinguishes himself-as southern Sudan's peacetime leader. "Dr. Garang led the movement during the war time," he told WORLD. "When I came to office there was nobody and there were no files that I took over from Dr. John to guide me. . . . So whatever we are doing is something that we started from zero."
In the last year, Kiir and his officials have established central and state governments and constitutions. The January 2005 peace agreement allows the south to decide in five years if it wants to secede from Sudan. But Khartoum is unwilling to let the oil-rich south gain increasing autonomy, and a referendum looks doubtful.
After Garang's death, Kiir lost a battle for the south to control the Sudanese Ministry of Energy. Failing that, he wants power to monitor the oil industry via the National Petroleum Commission, created by the peace agreement. The south also is entitled to half of Khartoum's oil revenues, some $750 million a year. Without access to oil production figures, Kiir still cannot be sure if his people should be receiving more.
"The tactics of Khartoum have not changed," said Brad Phillips, president of the Persecution Project Foundation. With focus on unrest in Darfur in the west, however, "the difference now is you don't have the same amount of international pressure on the Bashir government to comply."
Garang's death thrust the politically inexperienced Kiir into this hornet's nest. The two are very different: Kiir is a quiet military man, loyal to his subordinates, while Garang was an outspoken international statesman. Kiir's first visit to Washington in November 2005 was reportedly his first overseas plane trip.
The two men also disagreed: In 2004, Kiir openly challenged Garang at a leaders' meeting, worried by rumors that Garang was to depose him as deputy. He then retreated to his base with loyal commanders.
Though the two men resolved the dispute, Kiir remained cautious when he took power. He brought in known anti-Garang officials, and the resulting tensions between the two sides have caused weakening splits and forced the exit of key figures in the SPLM/A. Kiir has recognized that, and he is learning, explained a State Department official, who only had clearance to speak without being named. "He doesn't have that political maturity," the official said. "Sometimes, despite his background, he's not decisive. Dr. John could go toe to toe with [Vice President] Ali Othman Taha and they were competitive intellectually. Salva, if he has a problem with Bashir, he'll tell him once, tell him twice, and then go [home]. He's not someone who will confront Bashir."
One way Washington can help Kiir, Phillips said, is to limit sanctions that bar U.S. businesses from investing in Sudan to the north. Meant to punish the north's perpetrators of genocide, the sanctions are now hindering the victims in the south: "[Kiir] needs those resources more than the resources pledged by the donor community."
In any case, southern Sudanese know the stakes: If they lose their unity, Khartoum will have an excuse to repeal the peace agreement. So Kiir has strong support as he navigates his political minefields. But the general may find his toughest battles lie ahead in peacetime.