South Sudan President Salva Kiir replaced his vice president and rival Riek Machar on Monday, a move that could potentially undermine last year’s peace deal and reignite war in Africa’s youngest nation.
Machar was sworn in as first vice president only last April, eight months after a peace agreement that ended two years of fighting that broke out the last time that Kiir sacked him as his deputy in 2013.
But the rivalry between the two men led to violence in the capital Juba early this month as forces from both sides battled each other with tanks, helicopters and other heavy weapons.
Machar, from the minority Nuer ethnic group, left Juba with his troops, saying he would only return when an international body had to set up a buffer force between his fighters and those supporting Kiir, leader of the dominant Dinka group.
Kiir issued an ultimatum last week, saying Machar had 48 hours to contact him and return to Juba to salvage last year’s peace deal, or face replacement.
He made good on that threat on Monday when he issued a decree “for the appointment of the first vice president of the republic of South Sudan”, naming General Tabal Deng Gai to the post.
A former minister of mining, Deng Gai was a chief negotiator on behalf of Machar’s SPLM-IO group in the talks that led to last year’s deal. But last week, he broke ranks with Machar and backed Kiir’s ultimatum to him.
Meanwhile, former vice president and prominent opposition leader Riek Machar told Al Jazeera that his replacement by President Salva Kiir is “illegal”.
Apparently, in an exclusive phone interview on Wednesday, Machar said: “I’m still the first vice president of the republic of South Sudan. The appointment made (Monday) by President Salva Kiir is illegal.
“It has no basis because the peace agreement does not give him the powers to appoint a first vice president under the current circumstances.”