The whereabouts of former South Sudan chief of general staff Gen Paul Malong are unknown, with President Salva Kiir’s regime fearing that he could instigate a new conflict.
The last time Gen Malong spoke publicly was in Uganda on December 30, at thanksgiving prayers in Kampala, where he reiterated that he remains loyal to President Kiir.
Gen Malong had gone to visit his family in Kampala and was to return to Kenya to continue with his treatment.
Gen Malong was finally released in November to seek medical treatment in Nairobi after previous requests were rejected since his sacking in May last year.
He has since been placed in Kenya or his home district of Aweil.
President Kiir told Dinka elders who brokered the release of Gen Malong from house arrest in November last year that they must ensure his return to Juba as proof that he is not planning a rebellion. President Kiir and Gen Malong are from the Dinka ethnic group in Bahr-el-Ghazal.
Government officials believe that Gen Malong is in Aweil, saying he entered South Sudan through the Central African Republic just days after he celebrated Christmas in Uganda.
Gen Malong, who became the army chief in 2014, has loyal troops in the army including the Dinka militia, Mathiang Anyoor, which has a presence in Juba and across the country. The militia can be mobilised to foment trouble against President Kiir.
South Sudan deputy ambassador to Kenya Jimmy Deng however said Gen Malong has only been moving between Kenya and Uganda where he has relatives.
“President Kiir has been made to believe that Gen Malong is mobilising for a war, but we are still waiting for his word. If he has not rebelled, then he should go back to South Sudan,” said Mr Deng.
On January 7, while speaking to Dinka elders who mediated the release of Gen Malong from five months of house arrest in November, President Kiir said the former army chief was caught on tape instructing military personnel to rebel and attack towns in Bahr-el-Ghazal.
President Kiir told the elders that, based on his lengthy interaction with the general, Gen Malong wanted to blackmail the government to return him to the army or else he would rebel.
Gen Malong is a former close ally of President Kiir. He was credited with keeping the president in power when the civil war broke out in 2013.
He claims that individuals close to President Kiir are spreading propaganda aimed at putting a wedge between him and the president, with a view to having him killed.
In a statement released on January 9, Gen Malong said he would respond with appropriate and proportional force should the constant provocation and false accusations by “the enemies of peace” continue.
A day earlier, Gen Malong said there was a threat to his life and that of his family and disowned leaked audio tape recordings of conversations he had with commanders on the ground to take up arms and fight President Kiir’s government in Aweil and Wau.
In one of the recordings, Gen Malong is allegedly speaking to Major Baak in Wau asking him to start fighting immediately to capture Wau airport.
In another tape, he is recorded talking to Manut Yel Lual, Kuol Athuai Hal, and Lt Col Chan Garang Lual who have protested over of the way Gen Malong was handled after his sacking.
The government says the communication Gen Malong had with Chan Garang Lual took place on December 28, 2017 at 11:31:04 in Kuda, Equatoria, and that the conversation with Manut Yel Lual in Malual-Bai, Aweil East State was on the same day at 18:57.
Suspicion arose in December when some of Gen Malong’s associates such as Gen Manut Yel Lual — who had gone into hiding in Aweil East — announced that he had joined the rebels with 1,500 soldiers because he had been “chased away” from Juba.
While some of his supporters say that the government is building a case against Gen Malong because of the influence he still enjoys in the army, critics say that he wants to take up arms to avoid being held to account for war crimes.
Gen Malong has been indicted in various reports by the African Union and the United Nations for war crimes and crimes against humanity, while the US has called for the freezing of his accounts and businesses worldwide.
The Inter-Governmental Authority on Development is working to revive the August 2005 peace agreement that collapsed in July last year when fresh fighting broke out in Juba, leading to the flight from South Sudan of former vice president Riek Machar.
Last March, Lt Gen Thomas Cirillo Swaka, the then deputy head of logistics in the army, resigned after he accused President Kiir of turning the country’s military into a “tribal army.” He subsequently formed his own rebel group — the National Salvation Front.