A senior faction of South Sudan’s armed opposition has moved to replace its leader, First Vice President Riek Machar, who went into hiding this month for fear of being killed by supporters of his longtime rival, President Salva Kiir.
The push to replace Machar surfaced Saturday after he failed to heed a 48-hour ultimatum from the president to return to the capital, Juba.
Kiir demanded the vice president’s return, in his words, to “continue building and promoting peace” in the aftermath of fighting this month between Kiir loyalists and troops backing Machar. Combat in Juba between the rival militias killed at least 300 people and wounded hundreds of others July 8-11.
Machar has not been seen in public since then. He fled the capital as fighting raged, and his residence came under attack. He has since said he will not return until an outside force can guarantee his safety.
A rebel spokesman said Saturday that senior opposition fighters were shifting their allegiance to another government official, Mining Minister Taban Deng Gai. He said Deng would act as first vice president until Machar’s return.
Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, and Machar, a Nuer tribesman, fell out in 2013 — just over two years after South Sudan gained independence — when Kiir fired the vice president after accusing him of conspiring against him.
A two-year civil war followed that killed more than 10,000 people and displaced more than 2 million others, leaving Africa’s newest country in shambles.
A 2015 peace deal ended the fighting, and another agreement in April led to the formation of a transitional unity government and to Machar’s reinstatement as vice president.