Full Profile of Taban Deng Gai
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Taban Deng Gai’s seemingly sudden elevation from Minister of Mining in the TGoNU to First Vice President in the chaotic days following Riek Machar’s withdrawal into hiding radically altered the dynamics within the SPLM-IO. Whether Deng defected (as claimed by Machar’s spokesman), is leading a splinter faction of the SPLM-IO that has effectively merged with the SPLM-Kiir, or is merely keeping Machar’s seat warm until he returns, remains to be seen. The permutations and potential alphabet soup of sub-factions are numerous and will only be revealed in the coming days and weeks as SPLM-IO supporters – especially military commanders – coalesce behind either man.
The events in Juba of July 2016 precipitated the apparent split between two key personalities within the SPLM-IO, but also demonstrated that in many ways the defining relationship in Deng’s political life has been with Machar. The two men are related by marriage and are both Nuer from Unity State (Deng is Jikany from Manga in Guit County). Drawn together in 1991 they would later find themselves on opposite factions within the SPLM. They reconciled in 2013 when they were both ousted from government and were key partners through the ARCSS process and the formation of the TGoNU – until July 2016. This summary therefore will briefly explore Deng’s background so as to develop a more layered understanding of the trajectory of his current ambitions.
1991 – 2002
When Riek Machar and Lam Akol launched their revolt within the SPLA against the leadership of John Garang, Deng joined the predominantly Nuer fighters who congregated in Nasir. This split in the SPLA is historically significant for both initiating ethnic bifurcation within the party (centred on the killings of 2,000 Dinka civilians by Nuer fighters in November 1991); and for shifting the ultimate goal of the armed struggle from a united, reformed Sudan (Garang’s ‘New Sudan’ vision) to national self-determination for South Sudan. The Nasir faction as it was known did not have the international support and logistical capacity of the SPLA and became increasingly isolated and turned to Khartoum for support. This led to the Khartoum Peace Accord of 1997 and the formation of the South Sudan Defence Forces (SSDF) led by Machar – and his lieutenant Deng. Following the peace accord, Deng was instrumental in the formation of the United Democratic Salvation Front (UDSF) for whom he won an election to be governor of Unity from 1997 – 1999. In 2000 Deng again joined Machar after he had resigned from the (Khartoum unity) government and SSDF, forming a separate militia named the Sudan People's Democratic Forces (SPDF), and in 2002 Deng along with Machar re-joined the SPLA.
2005 – 2012
Following the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005, Deng was again appointed governor of Unity. Seen at the time as a close ally of Salva Kiir he apparently developed this relationship and was rewarded at the 2008 SPLM convention when Kiir urged members to endorse James Wani Igga (the current second vice president) as vice president to replace Machar for the 2010 elections and Deng to replace Pagan Amum as Secretary-General of the SPLM. With the party facing a potential split, external mediators were brought in and the status-quo was maintained – though Machar made his interest to run for the party presidency known and critical fault-lines in the party were revealed. Deng then won a contested election for Unity governor in 2010 – running against Angelina Teny (Machar’s wife). Though Angelina Teny accepted the defeat, many did not, believing Deng had stolen the election. Significant among these was the newly-formed South Sudan Liberation Army (SSLA), a faction comprised largely of Bul Nuer former SSDF fighters that mobilised in opposition to the Unity government – and in particular Governor Deng. The SSLA was for a time led by serial-defector Peter Gadet, and after his return to the SPLA, by Bapiny Monytuel. During this time, Deng was seen by many as very close to Kiir. As the International Crisis Group noted in 2011, his leadership and legitimacy were both regularly questioned and a source of considerable controversy. Opponents blamed Juba for imposing him, arguing “he is not the governor of the people; he is the governor of [President] Kiir”.
2013 – 2015
By 2013 however relations between Deng and Kiir appear to have soured. In February his military rank was withdrawn (ostensibly as a part of SPLA reforms) and in July he was removed from his position as governor of Unity (and replaced with Joseph Monytuel, the brother of SSLA leader Bapiny). No official reason was given for the move but Deng claimed at the time he was removed because of rumours he was supporting Machar’s bid for the presidency in 2015, and dismissed rumours that he was being lined up as Machar’s running mate. After being dismissed as governor a number of stories circulated that Deng was collecting weapons and he was alleged to have told a comrade that “they must do something”. Former UNMISS SRSG Hilde Johnson notes in her latest book that Deng was rumoured to have visited Machar’s house on several occasions during this time, and was said to be “pushing very hard [for some kind of response to their dismissals].” Machar is supposed to have said he didn’t want another 1991 and that Deng was a “loose cannon.” Johnson goes on to note that “most interviewees confirm that Deng was mobilizing.” Though she cautions that the extent to which he was trying to start a rebellion through acquiring weapons is disputed. It should also be noted however that national-level politicians in South Sudan are rarely successful without some implicit military backing. So while there were doubts in 2013 that Machar would be able to orchestrate a military coup because of his limited following in the army, Johnson quotes a source as saying “Taban is the best mobiliser, and can be dangerous”. She goes on to claim that people close to Kiir warned him of this before his dismissal as governor and recommended that Kiir reconcile with Deng for this reason.
While Deng’s role in the tensions that led up to explosion of violence in December 2013 will probably never be known, his (along with Machar and his wife Angelina Teny) apparently hurried and narrow escape from Juba imply they were caught unaware by the speed with which the conflict escalated and spread. Fleeing Juba with the assistance of Peter Gadet (who was among the first of the SPLA commanders to defect to the as-yet unnamed opposition), Deng made his way to Addis Ababa where he led SPLM-IO negotiations through the many IGAD-sponsored talks that followed.
The various defections and dismissals of commanders (most notably Peter Gadet and Garouth Gatkouth in July 2015) pointed to existing deep divisions within the SPLM-IO. But the high-profile defection/dismissal of Deng is perhaps the most significant and adds to the fluidity – and fragility – of the current political context. During the months of negotiations between the SPLM-IO and the government Deng was accused by some military commanders of seeking a political deal that would betray the armed struggle and he emerged as a central character in the SPLM-IO. It is also worth remembering that the SPLM-IO emerged as a political entity after a military rebellion had already begun (driven by Nuer commander’s desire for revenge following the killing of Nuers in Juba). Thus the organisation lacked an ideology and its achievement in the ARCSS was in effect a return to the pre-July 2013 status quo – so the events of July 2016 created a new landscape for ambitious political manoeuvring.
The full implications of Deng’s elevation to First Vice President are still to be determined but it has allowed the government to promote a narrative that it is continuing to implement the August 2015 agreement. This narrative has been undermined however by the public declarations from Lam Akol and Pagan Amum that the agreement is dead – as well as Deng’s failure to mobilise support behind him (and in opposition to Machar). It currently appears that his attempts to convince SPLA-IO commanders to join him have been largely unsuccessful. Though recent SPLA advances against SPLA-IO forces in Leer County (including the capture of Adok) could be viewed as evidence of defections, divided loyalties or confused command-and-control messages within the SPLA-IO. A further complexity is that it is unclear how Bul Nuer (many former SSLA fighters) within the SPLA will respond to Deng’s new position – especially if his attempts to rally support increases his presence and influence in Unity State. Indeed it seems that recent fighting in Rubkuai was internal within the SPLA – with Koch SPLA and affiliated youth allegedly clashing with fighters from the more moderate Mayendt side. There is however no evidence at this stage that these clashes were any way linked to Deng, but they do point to a deeply complex and fragile region where he will no doubt continue to exert influence.
But beyond Unity State, Deng’s legitimacy – especially in the eyes of SPLM-IO supporters – is undermined by the ongoing attacks by government forces on areas where Machar is believed to be hiding. Indeed the intensity of the SPLA attempts to neutralise Machar underpins the importance of his removal in legitimising Deng, as well as the increasingly unsteady narrative of the continuity of the TGoNU. But if the conflict in the Equatorias continues – and intensifies – there is the potential that Machar will become a rallying figure for Equatorian militias opposed to the government. Thus while Deng is attempting to usurp Machar’s de facto Nuer leadership, the ongoing military operations are potentially elevating Machar to become a more universal opposition figure for all those opposed to Kiir/the government/Dinka dominance.
As with most prominent political leaders in South Sudan, Taban Deng is not a unifying figure. His past is characterised by alignment with a number of factions and armed conflict. Thus the short-term impact of his appointment will largely be defined by his ability to legitimise his new position – both with the international community and within South Sudan. Secondly, his ability to mobilise support within the Nuer community will likely impact the fallout from the various scenarios linked to Machar – that is, if he is killed, returns to war, or returns to Juba with an international protection force. But for now, it appears that Kiir’s strategy to capture the SPLM-IO and marginalise Machar through elevating Deng has not worked; though in the shifting sands of alliances and opportunism that characterise politics in South Sudan, the full repercussions of the events in July are still to be seen.