South Sudan President Salva Kiir in profile

Salva Kiir in Kampala, Uganda (5 September 2013)

Salva Kiir Mayardit became the first president of Africa's newest country - South Sudan - in 2011.

His ascent to the post was the climax of a battle he had waged for some five decades for the rights of the people of South Sudan, who felt they were discriminated against by successive northern-based governments.

He waged the fight for independence mainly through the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) and its armed wing, the SPLA

He assumed the leadership of the SPLM in 2005 following the sudden death of its founding leader John Garang in a helicopter crash.

Mr Garang's death was a blow to the SPLM, coming just three months after he had negotiated a peace deal with the Khartoum government to end about three decades of conflict.

Mr Kiir was said to be more militant than Mr Garang, raising fears that the deal would collapse.

But Mr Kiir, always seen in public with his trademark cowboy hat, proved to be a deft operator, taking the post of vice-president in Sudan's government and making sure that it upheld the peace accord signed with Mr Garang.

This led to South Sudan achieving independence some seven years later in July 2011, securing Mr Kiir a place in history as its political midwife.

Devout Christian

He had always been in the shadow of Mr Garang, but he proved that he was a leader in his own right when he won elections a year before independence by a huge margin, though there were allegations from the opposition of rigging and intimidation.

"Indeed, many political analysts and opinion leaders worldwide describe him as the Biblical Joshua who took the mantle of leadership from Moses just as the Israelites were on the verge of entering Canaan and capably established the then fugitives in the Promised Land," the South Sudan government says on its website.

An independent South Sudan was Mr Kiir's long cherished dream - far more so than Mr Garang, who favoured greater rights for southerners in a united Sudan.

Image caption There was jubilant scenes when independence was achieved

For Mr Kiir, the choice was always clear - either be a "second-class" citizen in Sudan or a "free person" in your own homeland, as he put in 2005.

Unlike Mr Garang, he is not an intellectual.

Mr Kiir is not a natural public speaker either, but he knows how to work the crowds and is greeted with cheers and popular affection when he speaks at rallies.

A committed Christian, he regularly speaks at the Roman Catholic cathedral in Juba, the capital.

Mr Kiir was born in 1951 in north-western South Sudan and first joined the southern rebellion in the late 1960s.

By the time President Jaafar Numeiri made peace with the rebels in 1972, Mr Kiir had become a low-ranking officer. With the accord in place, he joined the Sudanese army.

In 1983 the southern rebellion was renewed and Mr Garang was sent to quell a mutiny by troops in the south - but instead of putting down the mutineers, he joined them.

Mr Kiir then helped Mr Garang to form the SPLM and rose to lead its military wing, which now forms the army of the new state.

Mr Kiir comes from the Dinka community - the largest ethnic group in the south.

Some members of other groups, especially the Nuer, the second most numerous in the south, resent the perceived Dinka dominance.

'Intolerant of dissent'

The two groups sometimes battled each other during the civil war, as well as fighting together against northerners.

Now, the battle appears to be continuing in the post-independence era.

After fighting broke out in Juba, in mid-December 2013, Mr Kiir accused Riek Machar, a prominent Nuer, of attempting to stage a coup.

Mr Machar, who has presidential ambitions and was sacked as South Sudan's vice-president in July, denied this, accusing Mr Kiir of fuelling conflict to cover his own failing in government.

His allies say Mr Kiir has not made the transition from military commander to politician - and remains intolerant of dissent.

For his part, Mr Kiir has accused Mr Machar of being a "prophet of doom", threatening stability in South Sudan.

Either way, it is the biggest challenge to his authority since he became the president of South Sudan.

His supporters are confident that he will emerge victorious, though some analysts say the conflict will probably leave democracy bruised.

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