During a recent swearing-in ceremony staged under the auspices of the Presidency of the Republic of South Sudan, on Monday 12th April 2021, the newly appointed senior cabinet minister, Dr Barnaba Marial Benjamin, and the new Chief of General Staff of the Army, Lieutenant-General Santino Deng Wol, President Salva Kiir, the First Vice President Dr Riek Machar Teny, and other senior government officials expressed their expectations from the new appointees. But the statement that stunned the South Sudanese political observer, which has since gone viral on social media outlets, was the one made by Honourable Dr. Martin Elia Lomurö, Minister of Cabinet Affairs and a known staunch loyalist of President Salva Kirr Mayardit. In his brief intervention during the high-level event broadcast on the national television, the SSBC, Dr Lomurö said, and I quote verbatim:
“Mr President, since the Revitalized Transitional Government of National Unity was constituted, it is barely one year and two months now. And in that period, Mr President, you are not happy and you have changed ministers in the new Ministry of Presidential Affairs. You are the third minister. It is a very serious indication of your discomfort. I want to advise my colleague [Dr Barnaba Benjamin Marial, MP] that this office needs stability, for a lot of changes have occurred. You see, all of us need to work for the president and not with the President. There is only one President, so we all [must] work for him, and if he is not happy, he is definitely going to make changes. And as senior members of the government, we feel very uncomfortable if the government is destabilized because of lack of confidence of [sic] the President and the person assigned for that job. I want to tell you that this is a very serious undertaking. Our country is under attack internationally, but we are capable of winning the fight, regaining the confidence of the international community and regaining the confidence of our own people.”
I wonder whether this minister’s advice could be taken as a political blooper, or as deliberately selected words; to show his unshaken loyalty to the President who has appointed him! It is to be recalled that this minister has been appointed to ministerial portfolios in every cabinet reshuffle since 2005. The exception was when he served as an advisor to the president of South Sudan in July 2011!
Of course, the keen observer in the South Sudanese political scenery is not alien to Martin Elia’s loyalist persona, which he always shows when giving statements to defend the President. It is also not surprising to anyone who knows that this is how this shrewd politician bought his way into the President’s bosom. Until 2005, when Kiir ascended to the presidency, Martin Elia, a total stranger to the ruling party – SPLM (Sudan People’s Liberation Movement) – somehow gained access to the President’s coterie of confidants.
He rode on the back of his “briefcase” party known as the South Sudan Democratic Forum (SSDF). He was its democratically unchallenged Chairperson and had a handful of members. Some of these members became parliamentarians thanks to a provision in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) for political accommodation of so-called Other Political Parties and Other Armed Groups in the then semi-autonomous Government of South Sudan. But with the ministerial seat and privileges tasting sweeter and sweeter, Martin Elia ignored any call to expand his party. It just died a natural death.
During the only democratic Parliamentary and Presidential Elections in 2010, Martin Elia ran for a national parliamentary seat for a geographical constituency in Lainya County, Central Equatoria State. He failed. The ruling party’s candidate, Late Jimmy Lemi Mila was declared the winner on the SPLM ticket. However, the cheeky Martin Elia still found his way to the lofty positions of the SPLM-controlled government! Since then, he has worked hard to keep his job. He earned this position after the 2013 crisis when a significant number of the crème de la crème of the SPLM Politburo fell out of the President’s grace and they even arrested some of them and some were on death row!
The political crisis born in 2013, which ripped apart the SPLM core, provided Martin Elia with an opportunity to become an inalienable President Kiir’s trustee. A close source who worked in his office in 2014 told me that at the peak of the 2013 Crisis, Martin Elia inadvertently became the de facto head of state. This was when the government was faced with marauding Nuer militia – ‘the White Army’ – who were advancing towards Juba in their tens of thousands to avenge the massacre of their fellow kinsmen. Martin Elia took bold decisions to keep the government running. Some observers allege that this was when the man amassed a lot of wealth, as he had unhindered access to the nation’s reserve bank; the Bank of South Sudan. He was appointed Chairman of the Crisis Management Committee, which was the proxy administration in charge of rescuing the government from total collapse.
This self-styled politician then assumed the status of indispensability and grew in vanity. In 2017 in Addis Ababa, during the IGAD (Intergovernmental Authority for Development) mediated peace talks between the government of South Sudan and opposition groups, a close source told me how Martin Elia was bragging about being so authoritative in the corridors of power in Juba. He was overheard glorifying himself as being the de facto ‘Prime Minister’ in the Kiir administration. For those who know him well, there is no doubt that the ever bombastic Cabinet Affairs Minister had ingested one too many from whatever the cellars of Intercontinental Addis Ababa Hotel had in stock.
His becoming the President’s “good boy’, made Martin Elia an invaluable replacement to the former SPLM inner circle members who fell out of grace and who escaped death for tramped up charges of treason and coup plotting. The ten detained politicians only escaped death after the intervention of IGAD and Kenya’s President, Uhuru Kenyatta. They later formed themselves into a political group known as “Former Detainees” which became “SPLM Leaders”.
In short, there is overwhelming evidence that Martin Elia’s political king-making antics can make a thrilling comedy. But, his unwitting utterances as quoted above, are a new low to me. I never in my wildest imaginations thought that the man could turn to cult worshiping of a despot. We know he has stood with the President and defended him, even when many lawyers would shy away from taking the job. This is because of the President’s glaring mistakes, as reported by UN Security Council investigation committees and independent human rights watch groups. We know that Martin Elia loves his job as a “political laundryman”. But, to go to the extent of urging fellow ministers to “work for the President and not with the President”, as if it is a domestic servant work they are in, beats me silly.
To anybody who studied political science 101 or public administration, or even just gained civil service experience, no text or code is advocating that one should “work for the leader”, but rather “work with the leader”. Martin Elia cunningly flipped this around for his convenience. The expression “work with the President” should be the one advocated, for it informs that a leader is a public servant; not a deity. You work with a leader that is accountable to the people. Of course, Martin Elia did not clarify his expression but said that the government (a disguise for his boss) is under threat and destabilized because of a lack of confidence. What an apologist!
By so doing, the political cliché that “dictators are made” is typified in the actions and words of Honourable Dr Martin Elia. Indeed, dictators are groomed and encouraged by those around them (I know that dictators are men anyway). Dictators are hardened by those who are convinced that their only chance to live better lives comes from clinging onto them. Such an act in derogatory street parlance is known as “bootlicking”. This image polishing maverick has taken loyalty to another level. How unfortunate!
Granted, Martin Elia trained as a veterinary doctor and animal scientist in Egypt and in the UK (Scotland specifically). He may be excused for disregarding public administration and political science principles, but what about his exposure and literacy, let alone being a political party leader? Is his stay in Edinburgh and London for a decade-and-a-half not enough to inform him that flattering despots is self-defeating and makes one a pet?
In conclusion, I leave it to the reader and to the South Sudan public to discern and reflect on the character of the country’s leaders. It is easier to see why the foot trampling on the people’s heads for over 15 years, is caressed and massaged to press longer and harder. It is the work of some arrogant and self-styled political charlatans. This self-seeking elite has zero loyalty to the people in its proper sense. To them, loyalty to the people and country is a political slogan. It is sung just like in Martin Elia’s words: “regaining our own people’s confidence”. How can one be working to regain people’s confidence when he or she is working for a non-performing and truly autocratic individual, not the country?!
By Laila Lokosang, PhD
The author is a native of South Sudan and can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org