South Sudan’s Chief of General Staff, Gen Paul Malong Awan, is a man under intense focus both locally and internationally following a series of defections of senior military commanders from the national army.
Gen Malong —who took over the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLA) leadership in April 2014— is perceived as the “real” power behind President Salva Kiir by working closely with the Jieng Council of Elders, the Dinka cultural association, to control the government and thereby alienate other communities from the country’s leadership.
Since February, four top military and government officials have resigned accusing the populous Dinka community of nepotism, corruption and perpetuating ethnic cleansing in various part of the country.
On March 7, former deputy chief of staff in charge of logistics, Lieutenant General Thomas Cirilo Swaka announced that he is forming a new rebel group, The National Salvation Front (NSF) to liberate the country from the grip of ethnic Dinka.
Gen Swaka —who was the first to quit in February— accused President Kiir of turning the country’s military into a “tribal army.” Others who have resigned include Col Khalid Ono Loki, who headed the military court in Juba; Brig-Gen Kamila Otwari Aleardo, a former commander of the Logistics Support Brigade; and Minister for Labour and Public Service Gabriel Duop Lam. Mr Lam accused President Kiir of failing to implement the August 2015 peace deal.
In an interview with The EastAfrican, Gen Malong dismissed the allegations saying he was experienced military manager treating all SPLA cadres fairly. He also dismissed claims that he is angling for the top seat should the opportunity arise.
“President Kiir is not at the mercy of any individual. He is a legitimate president, elected by over 90 per cent of citizens in 2010. I am concentrating on my defence portfolio, working hard within my capabilities to prevent the country from collapsing,” he said.
President’s number one ‘protector’
“I am an insider in the Kiir presidency and I am committed to assisting him steer the country to the right path and not somebody with political ambitions out to usurp his power and authority”.
Gen Malong has been making political statements that portray him as the number one “protector” of President Kiir and that of the country following the rebellion led by Dr Riek Machar in December 2013.
In January, Gen Malong, known to his admirers as “King Paul”, raised fresh national debate when he was awarded an honorary degree from Al Neelain University Centre for Human Development Studies in Khartoum for his efforts in brokering a peaceful co-existence among the Rizeigat and Messiryia of Sudan and the Dinka Malual of South Sudan in the volatile border when he was the governor of northern Bahr-el-Ghazal from 2008 to 2014. President Kiir attended the ceremony in Juba.
The move was, however, seen as Khartoum trying to appease the general over the disputed border region of Abyei.
Admirers and critics
To his admirers, Gen Malong is an embodiment of sacrifice and patriotism due to his contribution to the Independence struggle and the role he is 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.
According to Philip Achuoth Deng, the director at Leading Minds Institute —a non-governmental organisation that trains on life skills, Gen Malong has proven that he is brave enough to protect South Sudan’s national interests, making him an indispensable partner to President Kiir.
“However, he at the same time evokes a lot of phobia and hatred in certain quarters, not only locally but internationally. But he remains steadfast in his belief that power struggles should not obscure South Sudan’s national interest,” says Mr Deng.
To his critics, he is an ambitious and ruthless soldier being driven by his desire for the continuation of his Dinka hegemony over the remaining 64 ethnic groups of South Sudan.
Col Loki after his resignation accused Gen Malong of engaging in “relentless endeavours” to promote and protect his Dinka tribesmen at the expense of others.
International partners in the South Sudan peace process perceive Gen Malong as “the architect of immense human suffering” having been fingered by the Obasanjo Commission as one of those who have committed war crimes.
The commission accused him of mobilising Dinka ethnic militia, Mathiang Anyor (Brown caterpillar) with the slogan Dot Ke Beny (Rescue the President), to massacre the Nuers in Juba in the first days of the civil war.
Gen Malong is also seen 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 Dr Machar would become president only “in his presence”.
But Gen Malong says his main complaint with the peace agreement is that its guarantors and financiers fail to recognise South Sudan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. He says that having two armies with parallel allegiance as provided for in the agreement creates different centres of power and compromises the security and sovereignty of the country.
“I am not bothered about my critics because I am always committed to the wellbeing of the country and its citizens and not to the international community,” he said adding that “my rivals and particularly in politics will always consider me as a villain and a war criminal.”