S. Sudan officer tells of ousted army chief’s short-lived flight from Juba

General James Akec Adim (right), a close associate of General Paul Malong (left)

South Sudan’s capital went on lockdown in mid-May this year when General Paul Malong was sacked from his position as army chief of staff. Nervous Juba residents had already seen war in the heart of the capital in December 2013 and July 2016; they feared another fight for power.

Yet there was no violence in Juba; instead, Malong left with a retinue of bodyguards and senior officers and headed north toward Aweil, his home area and powerbase. What were his intentions? Troops loyal to President Salva Kiir feared another rebellion and blocked Malong’s journey in Lakes State, midway between Aweil and Juba.

Days of negotiations followed before the ousted army chief was persuaded to return to Juba, where he has remained under house arrest ever since. In order to learn more about what transpired, The Messenger caught up with Major General Akec Adim, head of the SPLA Military Police and a companion of Malong during the May crisis.

As head of the military police, Akec was partly responsible for providing security in Juba and held a very key position in the SPLA overall. He could have played a role in calming down the situation, yet he opted to depart Juba with Malong, sparking fears of a coup d’etat or rebellion. In this exclusive interview, Akec explains his decision.

Presently, General Akec remains with General Malong in Juba despite the fact that he has not removed from active military service. He says his movements have been restricted but his actual status as a detainee is not clear.

South Sudan's President Salva Kiir is received by SPLA Chief of General Staff Awan at the airport in Juba
General Paul Malong (left) with President Salva Kiir, prior to his removal from office

What actually happened why you decided to leave Juba immediately after the announcement of the relief of General Chief of Staff Paul Malong Awan? Did you feel any danger for you to leave or what actually pushed you to leave?

I received several calls from people I know in the security telling me where you will be now that Paul Malong is removed. I was surprised but I did not respond. I thought they were excited with the changes because it is always a normal thing that changes generate mixed reactions.

But then two officers I know in the security service, actually one of these officers was someone I used to consider as a friend came to me, just some minutes after the order relieving Gen. Paul Malong was announced on South Sudan Broadcasting Corporation and told me point blank that you are being targeted because of your relations with Paul Malong and it is better you act. I decided to ignore the information but then a platoon came and started deploying around my place. When I asked, they refused to talk.

They only told me if you want to go, you go peacefully, we are on a duty to execute directives and orders from above. I consider the use of ‘above’ seriously and I decided to call the operation centre but there was nobody. The phone usually used by the intelligence officer on duty was switched off.

So it was difficult to find out what was happening and the time was running fast. A lot of activities were taking place after the decree was announced. Then Gen. Paul Malong called asking whether I was okay, I said yes but there are a lot of unusual activities going around me.

He asked about the patrol force which surprisingly disappeared from the place near my place and the officer on duty had switched off the phone. I could not reach him. I lost contact with him. His telephone has been switched off. On hearing loss of contact with the duty officer, he then told me to join if I were not sure about my personal safety. So I decided to go to his place (Malong’s) and I when I went to his place, I found that he had decided that we leave Juba in order to reduce tension and avoid misunderstanding.   That was how I left with General Paul Malong. We wanted to avoid confusion.

While leaving Juba, did you encounter anything strange, something like people wanting to stop you from continuing with your movement towards Aweil before reaching Yirol?

We left Juba peacefully but we started receiving calls from people asking why we decided to leave; we said clearly we were going home to avoid tension and confusion from escalating further. When we reached Yirol, we received calls and reports that there were troops deployed to attack us. We were surprised, especially by reports that there was a huge deployment involving troops being airlifted to Rumbek and were instructed to start moving by land to meet us if we were continuing with our journey.

When we reached Yirol, we were told by the governor that he was ordered to stop us from continuing with our journey and if we refuse, he should deal with us. We were surprised again and started asking why all these panic after we left Juba peacefully. The governor said clearly that he was instructed to stop us and so we should not continue with our journey.

‘We received calls and reports that there were troops deployed to attack us.’

Because we did not want to get into misunderstanding with the governor and people who received us well, we decided to stay in Yirol and from there the president started talking with the governor and General Paul Malong and a delegation of elders from Aweil and the friends of General Paul Malong also started talking to him and we were persuaded to return.

How do you feel now, do you move freely like before the changes?

Actually, there has been misinterpretation of our departure and since we returned our movement in Juba alone has been limited and we are not allowed movement outside Juba. We have families who need us but our requests have not been granted by relevant authorities.

We are told any movement outside Juba has to be approved by the president and we have not heard anything from him since we returned. He says he will do it and we should not worry but nothing has changed.

It is a confinement and we don’t know what this means. When we ask to tell us to know if we are arrested, they say no. So it is a total confusion. We are living in a hangup situation. Nothing is clear.

What is the message you would like to convey through this interview as an army general?

My message is simple and clear, our people should not listen to politicians who are talking things that do not encourage peaceful coexistence, things that portray others as bad, power hungry and want to cause a problem. Such divisive people should be isolated. Such people are trouble-makers and they are dividing the country and people should work together to identify and tell them what they are doing is not what the country needs at the moment.

The country needs peace; it needs stability and strategies to restore hope, love and understanding among and between communities. To my colleagues in the army, I would like to say that our role is clear. The SPLA white paper is clear about our duties and role. We are a non-partisan institution. Our role is to guard the country against foreign aggression. Our borders with our neigbours are porous and this is where we should keep a close and constant watchful eye. We need to keep away from politics and allow politicians to do their work.