South Sudanese President Salva Kiir succumbed to international pressure to sack Chief of General Staff Gen Paul Malong, who represented an ethnic clique that has been holding him hostage.
The sacking on May 9 coincided with the pending deployment of the United Nations-funded Regional Protection Force, which had an open mandate to deal with those who have been committing atrocities against civilians.
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United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, has been on President Kiir’s case, accusing him of lacking the will to end the fighting and being reluctant to accept the deployment of the 4,000 Regional Protection Force.
Commonly known as King Paul, Gen Malong was widely perceived as the “real” power behind President Kiir and the face of the Jieng Council of Elders (JCE) — the ethnic Dinka cultural group that controlled Cabinet appointments and key government decisions.
But Gen Malong in a recent interview with The EastAfrican denied that he either held the president hostage or had presidential ambitions.
“President Kiir is not at the mercy of any individual. He is a legitimate president, elected by over 90 per cent of the people in 2010. I am concentrating on my defence portfolio, working hard within my capabilities to prevent the country from collapsing,” he said.
Diplomatic sources revealed that President Kiir had found himself between a rock and a hard place in deciding whether to retain Gen Malong or face the wrath of the international community led by key Western powers, who have been quietly working on a strategy to haul those responsible for crimes against humanity to the International Criminal Court.
'A scapegoat of inefficiencies'
On Thursday, President Kiir told a group of JCE that he sacked Gen Malong because he was tired of receiving constant negative reports about the former head of the army. He replaced him with Deputy Chief of General Staff for Administration and Finance, Gen James Ajongo Mawut, who also hails from his region in Aweil in Bahr-el-Ghazal.
Yet, he maintained that he wanted Gen Malong, his long-time ally, out of the way so that he doesn’t become a “scapegoat of inefficiencies” in the government and the army, a statement insiders say is an admission that his hands were tied.
Steve Paterno, a research consultant based in South Africa and an expert on South Sudan, told The EastAfrican that the replacement of Gen Malong could have a major impact on the behaviour of the army.
“At the moment, it creates some perception that things have changed or are likely to change, but the reality will soon set in, and things will get back to normal,” he said.
The sacking of Gen Malong came a day after President Kiir had a heated exchange at a Cabinet meeting with another Dinka diehard politician, Information Minister and government spokesperson Michael Makuei.
President Kiir had asked Mr Makuei to explain why he was being accused of using his Bor community to attack the Merle community using military assets. Sources in Juba said that Mr Makuei is contemplating resigning but still weighing the consequences.
After his sacking, Gen Malong left Juba on Tuesday night on his way to his hometown of Aweil in Bar-el-Ghazal, after soldiers who had been sent to arrest him reportedly defected. He was holed up in Yirol town, Eastern Lakes State, having escaped with a large number of soldiers and several tanks and artillery, after government sent forces by helicopter to block his way.
The government was concerned if he reached Aweil, where he is considered as a hero, he was likely to start another rebellion. But Gen Malong has denied that he intends to fight the government, saying that he was just going home to rest.
The government sent a helicopter to pick him up and take him back to Juba after a telephone conversation with President Kiir, but he was said to have later changed his mind.
There are strong indications that Gen Malong forces and government forces given the sentiments by President Kiir on Friday that the former head of army was in a “fighting” mood when he called him to return to Juba.
When Gen Malong was moving from Juba, soldiers manning the road block either opened the road for him to pass while some boarded his vehicles and left with him because he had recruited most of them.
While he went away with most of his Mathian Anyor ethnic militia that have been accused of committing war crimes in Equatoria, there are fears that some of his supporters that remained in Juba could create some disturbance.
Still, his sacking has divided the Dinka into three. Those in Warrap remain loyal to President Kiir, those in Aweil support Gen Malong, while Mr Makuei has strong support in Jonglei.
The international community considers Gen Malong as a major stumbling block to the implementation of the August 2015 Peace Agreement. In February last year, he was quoted as warning President Kiir of serious unrest should he be removed from his position. He also said that rebel leader Dr Riek Machar would become president only “in his presence.”
But to his admirers, Gen Malong is an embodiment of sacrifice and patriotism due to his contribution to the Independence struggle and the role he has been playing in keeping the Kiir regime in power. Both he and the president hail from neighbouring districts in Bahr-el-Ghazal state. The president comes from Gogrial while Gen Malong is from Aweil.
On Saturday, Gen Malong returned to the capital Juba, saying he had no intention of staging a revolt against Kiir's government.