South Sudan: Fears of purge fuel tensions in ruling coalition

President Salva Kiir with his then top general, Paul Malong, seen at a meeting with SPLA officers in September 2015

Six months after the removal of South Sudan’s army chief Paul Malong, fears of a purge of his supporters from the army and political posts are fuelling tensions in the nation’s capital Juba and in his home area of Northern Bahr al Ghazal.

Malong’s family and supporters had engaged in lobbying and peaceful protests following his removal and house arrest earlier this year, but the situation escalated dramatically last week after the rebellion of an officer loyal to him in Division 2 in Torit.

Northern Bahr al Ghazal, also called ‘Mading Aweil,’ has provided a disproportionate number of recruits for the ranks of the SPLA throughout the civil war, as well as an irregular militia called the Matthiang Anyoor that was active in the early part of the conflict before being integrated into the army. Disaffection there with the government of President Salva Kiir threatens to weaken the ability of the government to fend off rebellions elsewhere in the country, particularly in the Equatoria and Upper Nile regions.

On Saturday the United Nations raised its security status for Juba to ‘white,’ its highest level, following troop deployments around Malong’s home the previous night. The troops are acting on written orders from President Salva Kiir to “disarm and arrest” Malong’s bodyguards, remove his phones and other communications devices, and prevent him from receiving visitors.

“Any resistance posed by the Former Chief of General Staff must be met with reasonable force,” reads Kiir’s decree dated October 30th, 2017. By Saturday night, November 4th, a handful of Malong’s bodyguards had refused to surrender their guns and were surrounded by hundreds of Kiir’s forces, according to a report by Radio Tamazuj, an independent broadcaster whose website has been blocked in South Sudan.

Kiir’s orders reflect a fear that Malong could lead a rebellion if allowed more freedom. The presidential press secretary, Ateny Wek, who hails from Kiir’s home area of Warrap, and more specifically Gogrial, was quoted in a leaked audio last month explaining why the former army chief was denied permission to travel to Nairobi to identify the remains of a daughter who had passed away: “If Malong is allowed to go to Nairobi in this kind of situation we are in… Mading Aweil would fight with Gogrial tomorrow.”

“The situation we are in right now is very volatile. Malong’s being in Juba is related to peace in Bahr al Ghazal. Having him in Juba is to keep peace in Bahr al Ghazal,” said the presidential aide.

Some observers, however, question whether Malong is able or even willing to direct a rebellion. They instead say that the government’s heavy-handedness, including a perceived purge of Aweilians in general, is fuelling division within the Juba government and aggravating existing social tensions between various Dinka sub-groups, which hitherto had been held in check.

Paul Malong
Paul Malong Awan

Malong himself is aging, points out a South Sudanese writer who is also a relative of the ousted general. He is “unable to withstand bush life” and has already been deserted by many of his followers, according to this observer. Seen from this perspective, the recent escalation stems from factors largely beyond Malong’s immediate control.

Grievances now run beyond Malong’s personal ambitions and have taken on an ethnic dimension, pitting the Dinka of Northern Bahr al Ghazal against the Dinka of Warrap, according to a dissident officer from Aweil who abandoned his unit last week and took to the bush with dozens of soldiers.

In an interview with SBS Dinka, an Australia-based diaspora radio, Lt-Col. Chan Garang Lual of Division 2, Brigade 6, claimed that many senior officers from Northern Bahr al Ghazal have been threatened, provoked and insulted by others in the security forces, including by troops of the National Security Service, which is headed by an officer from Warrap.

‘Grievances now run beyond Malong’s personal ambitions and have taken on an ethnic dimension, pitting the Dinka of Northern Bahr al Ghazal against the Dinka of Warrap.’

“As we speak, we have about 30 officers and other 70 individuals who are arrested in the Blue House in Juba,” he said, referring to Aweilians allegedly held at the the National Security headquarters. “Three have died and the reasons for targeting them is not known to us. I have now decided to fight the government of the president and those who are supporting his activities.”

The purge is not limited to the army but has extended to political branches of the government, according to commentators from Northern Bahr al Ghazal writing on social media and blog sites. Among those affected so far is Joseph Anok Anei, undersecretary in the ministry of foreign affairs, who was sacked by presidential decree in August. “A son from Warrap was appointed as his replacement,” complained Kuol A., a Juba resident sympathizing with Malong.

The president offered no explanation for his removal of Anei, though the undersecretary had last year been suspended on orders of the foreign minister, Deng Alor, who questioned his performance.

There is a perception that Northern Bahr al Ghazal politicians have lost influence also in the presidential office, known as “J1”. Mabior Riiny, another Malong sympathizer, describes a “deliberate attempt to purge J1 of Aweil people and anybody seen closer to Paul Malong.”

In a Facebook post shared by a prominent pro-government journalist, Mabior pointed to a feeling of general persecution since Malong’s removal earlier this year: “Most of the personnel hailing from Aweil and elsewhere have either been returned to Blue House to loiter there aimlessly or transferred far away… for they have overnight become traitors, rebels etc.”

In the meantime, some Warrap citizens report being on the receiving end of resentment by other South Sudanese who suspect them of benefiting from the patronage of Kiir and his top political and security aides, many of whom hail from the state.

For example, Abraham Mabior Rioc, a teacher based in Juba but hailing from Tonj, the home area of South Sudan’s intelligence chief, tells of “mistrust, hatred (and) segregation” stemming from this perception. Writing on the popular South Sudanese blog site Paanluel Wel, Mabior relates a conversation with an acquaintance who lashed out owing to his frustration with his poverty and the worsening economy. “You people of Tonj are better because you are the one controlling the government and meagre resources,” the man reportedly said. Mabior recalls that he was “shocked” and “he wanted to slap his face,” but restrained himself.

Such accusations of favoritism are echoed in the recent writings of Dut Kuot Akok, a Juba-based writer and student at the University of Juba. In a piece last month, he downplayed the likelihood of outright violence between the Dinka communities of Northern Bahr al Ghazal and Warrap, while nonetheless highlighting a feeling of resentment: “…Mading Aweil and Gogrial will not come into confrontation violently come whatever… Perhaps, the only community in Gogrial that is ready to confront everything physically could be Awan community [Kiir’s sub-group] because it is where the fruits of this milk and honey nation are accommodated.”

In the meantime, the threat of violence is implicit in remarks Saturday by Lucy Ayak, a wife of the detained former army chief Paul Malong. She wrote on Facebook, “President Kiir should stop provoking my husband if at all he need peace‬.” Similarly, a South Sudanese on Twitter going by the handle @kuoloneking writes, “Salva got South Sudan in such a dangerous position now – how can you disrespect the Aweil majority that has the biggest percentage in your army?”

Lt-Col. Chan Garang Lual, the defected army officer, says he is “ready to fight.” “I left Torit with three platoons and I was joined by another 150 soldiers. The government tried to arrest me on October 24th and we resisted their attack. We are now in Amandi area and they know where I am ready to fight back,” he told the SBS Dinka Service.

On the other hand, South Sudan’s government last week reported making amends with a separate group of Northern Bahr al Ghazal dissidents that the government claimed had been loyal to Costello Garang Ring, a politician who divides his time between Germany and Sudan. The group’s choreographed surrender took place at the Division 3 headquarters in Wunyiik, Northern Bahr al Ghazal, in a ceremony aimed at downplaying tensions within the state.

In general, Sudan-based dissidents from Northern Bahr al Ghazal such as Costello and Abdelbagi Ayii have had little success in gaining a foothold in Northern Bahr al Ghazal in recent years, and they do not have good relations with Malong or his supporters, nor do they hold sway within the SPLA.

The connection between developments in Juba and the surrender last week at Wunyiik is therefore tenuous. Whereas conflict between the SPLA and the northern rebel groups has played out mostly in marginal areas of Northern Bahr al Ghazal along the border with Darfur, the drama involving Malong and his supporters or perceived sympathizers is playing out in the heart of Juba and at military installations throughout the country and involves a broader set of social and political tensions.