The towering 60-year-old president of the autonomous south, with its 8.5 million inhabitants, has led the region since the death of veteran rebel leader John Garang in 2005.
“Salva,” as he is known in the south, has made no secret of his ambition to lead the vast, underdeveloped region to nationhood in the referendum that wrapped up on Saturday, breaking with Garang’s longstanding campaign for a new, federal and democratic Sudan.
Hailing from Bahr Al Ghazal, near the flashpoint Abyei border district, Kiir belongs to the Dinka tribe, south Sudan’s largest ethnic group, and preaches at mass every Sunday at the main cathedral in Juba.
He took over from the charismatic Garang, with whom he co-founded the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in 1983, after the latter was killed in a helicopter crash in Uganda shortly after signing the 2005 peace agreement that ended the resulting civil war with the north.
Kiir at once became the group’s political and military leader, president of the south and vice president of Sudan, which led to him working for six years alongside civil-war foe President Omar Al Bashir in a government of national unity.
A career military man who is more comfortable speaking in Juba Arabic dialect than in English, Kiir has failed to shake off the shadow of his predecessor, whose legacy is honoured by both southerners and northerners.
“Salva Kiir is not flamboyant. He is not very communicative but he has nevertheless managed to steer the boat successfully to the referendum. He has also to a certain extent managed to rally some of his opponents in the south,” says one political observer.
Over the past year, Kiir has made peace with his main rivals in order not to let the internal politics of south Sudan undermine the referendum, in which partial preliminary results released this week show an almost unanimous vote in favour of secession.
But Kiir faces the daunting task of building a country that still lacks basic infrastructure after a devastating 22-year war with Khartoum, and which is divided by historical ethnic rivalries and struggling to reintegrate those displaced by the fighting, which killed an estimated two million people.
If Garang made history as pioneer of the southern rebellion and architect of peace, Kiir is set to become an iconic figure in his own right as father of a newly independent south Sudan.
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