A removal of an elected governor in a presidential decree has rekindled a long forgotten fight over a contested clause in South Sudan's current interim constitution.
President Salva Kiir dismissed Gov. Chol Tong Mayai of Lakes state on Monday. The move raised the issue of whether the decision smacks of presidential overreach or a lawful act sanctioned by the supreme law of the land?
Article 101 (r) of the Constitution states that the President may "remove a state Governor and/or dissolve a state Legislative Assembly in the event of a crisis in the state that threatens national security and territorial integrity."
The above stipulation was the most fiercely resisted aspect of the present Constitution when it was brought up for debate shortly before independence in July 2011.
At the time, civil society leaders and many lawmakers criticized the inclusion of the clause as giving disproportionate powers to the President. They also feared that the law may be exploited to suit the President's political calculus.
Conversely, the proponents argued, successfully, that the fragile nature of the state required a powerful President to act decisively to avert major crises, restore security and maintain law and order.
Mayai's sacking was the first time Mr. Kiir had used the controversial section of the Constitution.
What grievous offense has the governor committed, it must be asked, for him to deserve such a punitive act?
The decree states that "The President of the Republic and C-IN-C of the SPLA H.E. Gen. Salva Kiir Mayardit on 21st, Jan. 2013 issued Republican Decree No. 06/2013 for the relieve of the Governor of Lakes state Eng. Chol Tong Mayay from his position as a governor, with effect from 21st, January 2013."
If the omission of substantive explanations leaves you scratching your head, you're not alone. None of Mr. Kiir's decrees contain any elaborations. I assume that by now South Sudanese have adapted to our ruler's style of leaving us to fill in the blanks.
Fortunately, we know a few facts about Lakes State, the home turf of the beleaguered governor. The state (set to be home of proposed new capital city) is a persistent scene of deadly inter-clan clashes. One such feud left at least 30 people dead and scores injured last week, according to local media reports.
What's more, a ranking official in the national government has defended the President's removal of Mr. Mayai. The official explained that the fight had taken the unprecedented turn of spilling out into the state's capital city, which he said justified the President's swift intervention. "It was a real failure," on Mayai's part, he said, on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
I too, and many more, suspected the clashes were the source of the outgoing governor's troubles.
While Mr. Mayai may stand guilty as charged, there are a few pertinent questions to point out.
Has South Sudan enjoyed true stability since the President won the powers some 17 months ago? And have the rest of state governors been consistently protecting all their people, over a year later?
The answer to the first question is an emphatic no! With his rule by decree, Mr. Kiir stands among the world's most powerful presidents, while the security situation in the new nation has deteriorated since independence.
In the case of records of the rest of the governors, Gov. Mayai seemed to me like undisputed victim of selective justice. Here is why: thousands have died in an endemic inter-ethnic violence in the state of Jonglei and its governor has not been punished. In the state of Western Bhar el Gazal, where peaceful protesters were recently butchered by security organs, the governor there has surprisingly escaped justice, and so on.
To be exact, the present Constitution was not designed for South Sudanese by South Sudanese. It was drafted largely by appointees from Mr. Kiir's ruling party. It received only tokenistic public scrutiny and was literally rammed through in the National Legislative Assembly hours before the independence declaration ceremony was held.
But that divisive debate's better left behind. The real battle has begun. South Sudan watchers and citizens should keep a lather-like focus on the work of the Constitutional Review Commission. This appointed body was tasked with reviewing the current constitution and submitting a draft of a Permanent Constitution within a year and consult widely with all stakeholders.
Their term not only expired this month; they also haven't produced a single report!
The national parliament will certainly renew the Commission's mandate in hope that it will revive our fading hopes before 2015, the year of general elections.
If the Commission blows the only chance to deliver the Permanent Constitution in time, South Sudan may yet again plunge into another debilitating constitutional crisis.