South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir has again replaced the army chief of staff, about three years to the day he fired former holder of the position Gen Paul Malong and a few days after firing Gen Jok Riak.
The decision, seen within the prism of the recent government of national unity formed in February, means new heads would be leading one of the most important departments in the South Sudanese government.
This week though, sacked military chief Gen Jok said he welcomed the changes that saw him lose his job as the head of South Sudan’s People Defence Forces (SSPDF).
In a post on his Facebook page, Gen Jok said he was pleased with the move. “I wholeheartedly welcome the bold decision or decree by the president and the commander in chief. I am now the most relieved, happiest and a normal citizen of this beloved country.
“I also congratulate the Gen Johnson Juma and wish him good endeavours in his new position. I assure my loyalty and dedication to the country and to your humble leadership,” said Gen Jok.
Gen Gabriel Jok Riak was removed from his position on Monday without explanation – apart from President Kiir citing his constitutional powers to appoint and remove army officials.
Some political analysts worry that sackings in the past have resulted in leaders ending up as rebels.
Adhieu Majok, a South Sudanese analyst, said that the president’s previous military and government changes created new rebels.
“Sackings in the past, notably Gen Malong and Dr Riek Machar, have shown that those officials can continue pushing their grievances through rebel movements," Majok said.
In December 2013, a disagreement over how to run the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) created a mutiny within the army as those loyal to Vice President Machar fought against those loyal to President Kiir.
That split the SPLM into Machar’s SPLM-In Opposition, Kiir’s SPLM, as well as several other splinter groups.
The result was a civil war that has lasted until this year, despite numerous ceasefire agreements. It ended with Dr Machar back in government as the First Vice President, a result of a 2018 peace deal known as the Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS).
Since the war began in 2013, President Kiir has changed military chiefs five times: James Hoth Mai, Paul Malong, James Ajonga Mawut, Gabriel Jok Riak and Johnson Juma.
When Malong was fired in May 2017, he formed the South Sudan United Front, which refuses to sign on the R-ARCSS. His former deputy Thomas Cirillo also formed a rebel group, after he was shown the door. He too hasn’t signed on the peace deal.
Adhieu hopes the changes are part of efforts to unify the national army from the various splinter groups that emerged during the war.
Prof Kuol Nyuon, a lecturer in the Department of Political Science at the University of Juba argued the appointment of Gen Jama as paramount since he is the first army man from the Equatoria region to hold such a rank since South Sudan gained its independence in 2011.
“This reshuffle is different with what happened between Gen Malong and the president, because Gen Malong’s relief of duty was triggered by a number of misunderstandings between him, the president and other officials. And I believe that since Gen Jok was replaced by his deputy, it’s also another way of saying you have served your term and its time now for the next person in your team, whom you mentored, to lead and widen his experience.” said Kuol.
Prof Kuol said sackings could serve as an example to all senior military officials that they can serve, be retired and don’t need to counter his moves by defecting.
Gen Johnson Juma Okot, who has been the Deputy Chief of Defence Forces, joined Sudan People Liberation Army in 1984, and later graduated as 2nd Lieutenant at War College in the southern Sudan in 1987.
Gen Juma became a platoon commander and the Chief of Staff – Eastern Equatoria Command in 1987 and served those offices up to 1991. Juma also served as deputy governor of Greater Equatoria from 2002-2002.
His experience at a time South Sudan was preparing to secede could stand him in good stead, especially now that the country plans to train, equip and unify the unified army.