At 8.10pm, on May 8, normal broadcasting on the South Sudan Broadcasting Corporation TV was interrupted with a breaking news announcement. In a decree, the announcer said, President Salva Kiir had fired General Paul Malong Awan as chief of general staff of the South Sudan People’s Liberation Army.
A spokesman for President Kiir set out to calm the resultant tensions. “The removal of the Army Chief Gen. Paul Malong Awan tonight by the President of the Republic Gen. Salva Kiir Mayardit, was a mere routine change of guards,” Ateny Wek Ateny said. “The appointment and the elevation of Gen. James Ajonga Mawut as new Chief of General Staffs is also normal given that James is next in seniority. No political motivation at all, no worries as the situation remained calm and normal in Juba.”
But it was anything but calm and normal. In Juba, revellers quickly downed their drinks, settled their bills and headed for their homes. They were urged on by soldiers and plain-clothed security operatives, more of whom had suddenly appeared on the streets of the South Sudanese capital.
Soldiers loyal to Gen Malong sealed off the road leading to his home. The next morning Gen. Malong left his home in a convoy of 20 vehicles, one of which was said to be full of US dollar bills. He then flew to his hometown, Aweil, population 33,537, about 800km northwest of Juba, and near the border with Sudan.
In South Sudan, where army generals maintain personal militia drawn from kinsmen, and where different factions have been battling for control of the country since armed conflict broke out in December 2013, Gen Malong’s quick return to Aweil seemed ominous.
Gen Malong is not the first to fall out with President Kiir. After being fired as deputy president Riek Machar led a walkout of loyal allies in 2013 that led to deadly clashes in Juba that then spread to the rest of the country.
A tentative peace agreement was reached to create a transitional government but this collapsed in July 2016 after renewed violence in Juba forced Machar to flee back into exile after most of his personal bodyguard was killed.
Since then senior officials have continued to defect from Kiir’s government while the violence and political instability has brought the economy to its knees, paralysed public services, led to a man-made famine and forced about three million people, about a quarter of the population, to flee their homes. The United Nations has warned that the violence, which has taken on ethnic dimensions mainly between Kiir’s Dinka and Machar’s Nuer, amounts to ethnic cleansing and could descend into genocide.
In February the head of logistics in SPLA, Gen Thomas Cirillo Swaka resigned, citing human rights abuses by government forces, and overall domination of affairs by the Dinka. He vowed to take up arms to remove the Kiir government.
As more officials deserted, Gen Kiir became more reliant on Gen Malong, whom he had appointed to the top army job in April 2014, replacing the Gen James Hoth Mai, a Nuer. Malong’s influence did not come with the job, rather the job was acknowledgement of the influence he had already accumulated by that point.
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Malong, who like his successor Ajongo is a member of the small Luo ethnic group, joined the SPLA in 1984 and rose through the ranks. Throughout the long civil war with Khartoum he developed a power base in Northern Bahr el Ghazal state through control of the local economy. Rumoured to have as many as 100 wives, Malong also used his polygamous marriages to build strategic alliances.
He was close to Kiir and is said to have financially supported the latter long before he became president, including in the days when Kiir had fallen out with John Garang, the leader of SPLA/M. In 2008, with Garang dead and Kiir now in charge, Malong was appointed governor of Northern Bahr el Ghazal where he continued to consolidate his power.
At some point – it is not clear exactly when – Malong apparently convinced Kiir for the need to create a militia that was loyal to them both. Malong began recruiting young men, some from Kiir’s home state, Warrap, but most of them from Northern Bahr el Ghazal.
The result was a militia, Mathiang Anyoor, which means ‘brown caterpillar’ in Dinka, but which was also known as Dot ku Beny or Gel-Beny, which literally translates into ‘rescue the president’.
When fighting broke out in Juba in mid-December 2013 Mathiang Anyoor was reportedly involved in the massacre of thousands of Nuer in and around the capital. And as the fighting spread out to other parts of the country the militia beefed up the SPLA, effectively replacing the Nuer soldiers who fled to save their lives and join up with Machar’s rebels.
Malong’s appointment as Chief of General Staff, therefore, was just formal acknowledgment of his role as the regime enforcer. As the country continued to fall apart, pulled in different directions by the warring factions, Malong became increasingly the pillar around which the government was tethered, and Kiir’s right hand man.
With war came more spoils for Malong and those involved in the fighting as the country’s budget was diverted to procuring the civil war. But more than just money, war was also an opportunity for Malong to accumulate more power, to the point of isolating other officials in the regime.
Officials in Juba say Defence Minister Kuol Manyang was so fed up by Malong’s overbearing manner, he tendered in his resignation earlier this year, which Kiir refused to accept.
In such situations, however, power has a tipping point. The more powerful Malong became the more untenable his position became. Externally, he came to be seen as the hand behind the militia and government forces carrying out abuses in the country. He was one of several South Sudanese officials who would have been subject to targeted sanctions by the UN Security Council, but which failed to pass in December after Japan and Russia abstained from the vote.
Internally, Malong’s power came to overshadow Kiir’s, to the point of undermining the president’s authority. This was perhaps best seen last July when Machar’s bodyguard was decimated in fighting at State House in Juba. Although Kiir later accused Machar of provoking the attack and bringing a firearm to a meeting, he apparently was not aware of the order to attack his deputy’s troops, or of many subsequent follow up attacks in other parts of the country.
Earlier this year senior South Sudanese officials began speculating that Gen. Malong was planning a coup d’état. When the rumours refused to go away Kiir was forced to act.
According to well-placed sources in Juba, President Kiir met with Gen Malong a few days before the announcement to explore options. Unconfirmed reports say Kiir offered to make Malong in charge of the internal and external spy agencies, reporting directly to the President. Malong demurred, according to the reports, and demanded either the defence or security ministry.
It is not clear what, if anything had been agreed upon by the two men by the time the sacking announcement was made. But his flight to Aweil was enough to cause concern and panic at the highest levels of the SPLA government.
On Wednesday, Defence minister Kuol Manyang Juuk said he had spoken with Malong and convinced him to return to Juba. On Friday President Kiir accused Malong of failing to hand over his office and revealed that the fired official was in an antagonistic mood.
“Personally, I am in communication with the former Chief of Staff, General Paul Malong Awan and I have assured him of his safety,” Kiir said, in reference to a telephone conversation between the two. “He was not in a good mood. He was in a fighting mood. I tried to calm down but he was rather wild.”
Earlier, Malong had told a UN radio that he had no plans to respond to his sacking and would concentrate on his agricultural projects in Northern Bahr el Ghazal. “Whatever has been said, there is no reality, because if I wanted to have a problem that problem should be in Juba,” he said, but refused to respond to the reporter’s question on whether he would return to Juba. He refused to board a plane sent to take him to Juba on Thursday.
But in a sign of how high the stakes are President Kiir, in his Friday address, claimed that certain foreign countries were inciting Gen Malong, possibly to rebel.
“It is the concern of everybody and nobody wants Gen. Paul Malong to run into such unplanned problems. There are so many foreign hands that are now seen behind Gen. Paul pushing him,” he said.
By Saturday morning plans were underway to send another plane to Malong so that he can return to Juba to officially hand over to his successor. Gen Malong’s removal will not necessarily make South Sudan more peaceful but failure to manage him will add to the political risk and uncertainty. In the political-military chess that is South Sudan, it is Gen Malong’s turn to play.