All alone in the governor’s mansion

On 4 July 2023, the SPLM chairpersons for the five areas of greater Bahr el Ghazal endorsed Salva Kiir as the party’s candidate for elections that are postulated for 2024.[1] Kiir thanked them for his nomination at a rally in Wau attended by a sea of red tee-shirted supporters (Radio Tamazuj, 2023b)—though these supporters were largely from greater Bahr el Ghazal’s other states, rather than from Western Bahr el Ghazal.[2] Prior to this, at another rally on 22 June the deputy governor—and SPLM chairperson for Western Bahr el Ghazal—Joseph Zachariah Garang had announced that those who were not loyal to the SPLM should leave the state capital, and that he wanted to see only ‘red colour’ in Wau (Radio Tamazuj, 2023a). Underneath this monochromatic show of unity, however, lay political tensions.

SPLM luminaries had gathered in Wau over the previous month to await Kiir’s return to South Sudan from South Africa. Riin Tueny Mabor, the governor of Lakes state, had arrived by land a week earlier and was received by Zachariah. Noticeably absent from the occasion was Sarah Cleto, the beleaguered SPLM-IO governor of the state, who subsequently privately reprimanded Zachariah for sidelining her, to little avail.[3]

When Cleto was appointed governor in June 2020, she came into power on the back of a wave of popular support: she was the only female gubernatorial appointment and comes from a prominent Fertit family. Initially, she managed to improve the relationship between the SPLA-IO and the South Sudan People’s Defence Forces (SSPDF) and ameliorate security in the state. She retains popular support in the state.

Popular support, however, has not assuaged elite disquiet. During her term in office, Cleto has struggled. Forced to try to mediate between the SPLM and the opposition, she has increasingly become unpopular within the SPLM/A-IO, and a prominent group of party members have called for her resignation. Discontent with Cleto partly stems from her refusal to accede to the personal interests of powerful politicians in the state; for instance, in 2021, she ordered civilians living in government-owned buildings to vacate their residences, which led to the state minister of cabinet affairs effectively countermanding the governor’s order. Those occupying government-owned buildings included important commanders and members of the political elite.[4]

Most fundamentally, however, discontent with Cleto comes from disappointment. Many in the SPLM/A-IO had expected that once she became governor, the opposition would control Western Bahr el Ghazal and its revenues; however, as in other states with opposition governors, Western Bahr el Ghazal is effectively under occupation.[5] SSPDF Division 5 is under the command of a Kiir loyalist from Gogrial, and the security services remain largely in the hands of Dinka from Bahr el Ghazal, who also have extensive commercial interests in Wau.[6] In addition, an acute lack of state finances has seen Western Bahr el Ghazal struggle to pay its politicians and civil servants, making it almost inevitable that Cleto would disappoint opposition cadres looking expectantly to her term in office for both political power and economic resources.

Over the last year, the SPLM/A-IO elite have increasingly not cooperated with the governor. For instance, in October 2022, Cleto replaced the SPLM-IO state secretary, Adam Naro, with Barcham Musa, one of her loyalists, but an outcry by the opposition in Western Bahr el Ghazal led SPLM/A leader Riek Machar to order Cleto to countermand the order and humiliatingly reinstate Naro. The SPLM-IO elite in the state—including Naro, Daniel Akuong, the minister of agriculture, and the commissioner of Raja county, Addison Arcangelo—are now demanding that Machar replace Cleto. She has also been in an extended stand-off with Abdullah Ujang, the commander of SPLA-IO Division 6A (detailed below).

Among those angling to be the new governor are Emmanuel Otong—like Cleto a US citizen—a Luo who served in the Iraq war and is known to be very loyal to Machar. He has strong backing in the SPLM/A-IO, but faces structural barriers to his candidacy. Otong is from Jur River county, and from the same payam as Zachariah, the deputy governor.[7] His appointment would lead to complaints from those in Wau and Raga counties—and the Fertit more generally—over their lack of representation in the state government. Moreover, Machar seems insistent that Western Bahr el Ghazal have a female governor, so as to try and conform with the gender provisions of the R-ARCSS, which state that women should be appointed to 35 per cent of positions. So while Cleto’s governorship is in crisis, it is not yet clear that the SPLM/A-IO political elite in the state have a candidate who could replace her.

[1] Those areas are Warrap, Lakes, Northern Bahr el Ghazal, and Western Bahr el Ghazal states, and the Abyei Administrative Area.

[2] Author telephone interviews with those present at the rallies, July 2023.

[3] Author telephone interviews with politicians in Wau, July 2023.

[4] Author interview with sources in Wau, September 2022.

[5] See Small Arms Survey (2023).

[6] SSPDF Division 5 is the division whose administrative base is in Wau.

[7] South Sudanese administrative units run from the state, to the county, to the payam, and then to the boma (from largest to smallest).