The sacking of an army chief anywhere in the world, particularly Africa, is usually big news.
But the panicked reaction to the news that South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir fired army head General Paul Malong on Tuesday was extraordinary.
Many feared that the situation could get worse in the world’s newest nation, which has been ravaged by war since Kiir fell out with his deputy Riek Machar, resulting in savage fighting that made many ashamed of knowing the South Sudanese.
They had reason to be afraid. Malong was no longer an ordinary army chief. A polygamist with 40 wives and enough children to fill two villages, he was seen as the puppet master in South Sudan, and Kiir the puppet. He was the hardline Dinka iron fist behind the throne.
On Wednesday, Kiir trotted out the SPLA spokesman to say that Malong had withdrawn with his security guards to outside of the capital, Juba, but was not planning a rebellion.
Maybe he won’t, because the new army chief James Ajongo is alleged to been picked by Malong. He is a kind of Malong lite.
Hopefully, Kiir will now strike a more moderate posture, because he may still have a country, but will soon run out people.
More than 1.8 million South Sudanese have fled the country as refugees, according to the latest UN figures. Most have ended up in Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Sudan.
Uganda hosts most of the refugees, nearly 800,000. In Kampala on Tuesday, Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda said the country would next month seek $2 billion at a UN refugee summit in Kampala to help fund relief operations for the South Sudanese refugees.
With a population of 12.4 million, South Sudan has made nearly 15 per cent of its population refugees in fewer than four years.
In addition, more than 3.5 million people have been internally displaced since the fighting erupted in mid-December 2013.
If the war doesn’t end, and intensifies, in another three or so years more than 25 per cent of South Sudanese could be refugees. And if the number of IDPs were also to double over the same period, accounting for those who will have been slaughtered in war, fallen to disease, or starved to death in the famine, virtually the whole population of South Sudan would be living outside their homes and off their land.
For a country like Uganda, the prospect of say two million South Sudanese pouring into the country by 2020 is scary, its much-praised refugee policy notwithstanding.
The only place where the South Sudanese are living properly at home could be the street on which Kiir lives in Juba.
That is overdramatised, yes, but it is to make the point that Africa must finally do something bold to stop the madness in South Sudan.
Among other things, it should ensure that Malong leaves South Sudan, either by force, or by being paid off Yahya Jammeh-style. He has a lot of prime real estate in Nairobi and Kampala, and a small country of a family to feed, so he may be susceptible to generous inducements.
And Africa needs to read the riot act to Kiir to piece the country back together, or marshal an invasion force and oust him if he won’t. South Sudan makes us all look bad.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs. [email protected]