On paper, Warrap is an easy election win for Kiir and the SPLM. During the South Sudanese civil war (2013–18) there was no Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO) presence in the state, and Warrap was relatively stable and united against opposition forces elsewhere (Craze, 2022b, pp. 17–25). Under conditions of existential risk, the border between Western Bahr el Ghazal and Warrap states became at once political and ethnic.

After the signing of the R-ARCSS, however, the SPLM-IO began to have a presence in Warrap thanks to the power-sharing formulas of the peace agreement, and was assigned positions representing the state’s more peripheral communities. Gogrial East, for instance, was initially proposed as an SPLM-IO county before an outcry from its political class; Tonj East, a more politically marginal county, ended up receiving an SPLM-IO commissioner (Craze, 2022b, pp. 27–31). The SPLM-IO appointments in

Warrap were not meaningfully connected to Riek Machar’s opposition party in Juba. Rather, they were composed of disaffected members of Warrap’s elite who were excluded from SPLM positions in government and were looking to take advantage of the technocratic formulas of the peace agreement. In such a situation many think the elections postulated for 2024 will be a chance for Kiir to ‘clean house’, with Potemkin SPLM-IO politicians being reabsorbed into the SPLM.[1]

Since the start of the civil war in 2013, however, the SPLM has been dismembered as a party, and decision-making power concentrated in Kiir’s inner circle (Craze, 2022a; 2022b). Political power is now more about individual politicians and community identity than about the SPLM party machinery. In such a situation, the SPLM-IO may prove to be more divisive than many think. In August 2023, one young Juba-based politician mused that the line for SPLM positions is very long and organized by seniority. One way to jump the queue would be to join an opposition party and so cause sufficient problems for the SPLM to be invited back into it.[2] This may artificially boost the number of opposition cadres in the run-up to elections in 2024.

Kiir’s problem in Warrap is that there are more politicians than there are government positions, a situation that will not be entirely assuaged by the expansion of the National Legislative Assembly by 82 seats, from 250 to 332. In particular, figures such as Aleu may seek to run as independents, capitalizing on popular disquiet with the SPLM in Warrap. Legislative attempts to force all parties who wish to stand for election to have representation in multiple states across South Sudan are bids to foreclose the possibility of independents’ running for gubernatorial positions, and thus avoid the challenge to Kiir’s coalition that was posed by politicians like Angelina Teny and Joseph Bakosoro in the 2010 elections. Such restrictions, however, may strengthen the SPLM-IO’s hand by forcing would-be-independent politicians into broader opposition coalitions.

The SPLM-IO is clearly preparing for elections in Warrap, with the opposition’s secretariat being launched in January 2023, and a sweeping change in almost all SPLM-IO positions in the state announced on 25 September, including the opposition’s two commissioners in Twic and Tonj East counties. Even if the SPLM-IO profits from divisions within the Warrap political elite, however, it is not clear that it will have sufficient political space to manoeuvre. On 14 February, two SPLM-IO members were arrested in Tonj South following attempts at mobilization, while further arrests of opposition cadres occurred in Tonj North and South in May 2023. Despite the formal guarantees of the 2023 amendment to the 2012 National Elections Act, which was signed into law on 26 September 2023, there is effectively no space for political opposition to function in Warrap (UN HRC, 2023). This fact, when combined with the sheer number of politicians vying for political office, threatens to create an explosive electoral process in Kiir’s home state.

[1] Author interviews with Dinka politicians, names withheld, Juba, August 2023.

[2] Author interview with Dinka politician, name withheld, Juba, August 2023.