General James Hoth, SPLA Chief of General Staff

By Deng Vanang

‘’Is he a professional soldier asserting independence of the army divided by ethnic loyalties or a political tactician weighing survival options at the military helm, asks Deng Vanang?’’

April 3, 2014 (SSNA) — The double edged question posed above vividly reflects the hard times General James Hoth Mai is currently sailing through ever since the beginning of 2013. Probably this period marks his most trying moments in his successful army career, straddling well over three decades. Married to Nyawaragak Pal Chang with children and several others out of wedlock, Hoth was born on 30th November 1959 in Manchom, Ulang County of Upper Nile State to Mai Nguth Bol and Nyakoor Deng. He began his military career in SPLA Jamus Battalion, 1983 with just strips on his once energetically youthful arms as one of the trusted body guards to late SPLM/A veteran leader, Dr. John Garang De Mabior. That was after he finished his secondary education in Malakal under the care of his undisputedly humble and kind paternal Uncle Politician Peter Lam Nguth. He briefly taught as secondary school teacher in one of the schools in the same town. Teaching was not his calling but army he was denied of joining in the former Sudan. 

With the founding of guerilla movement, SPLM/A, Hoth’s hope of pursuing the army as a career choice was rekindled. His undying love for the boot and uniform was also bolstered by his quest to topple Jafaar Mohammed Nimiery regime which denied him, like several other fellow Southerners, the right to choose and manage his future as he so wished. Joining the guerilla army he believed would one day become regular one was an opportunity he tenaciously grabbed with both hands.  Being a profession that hugely demands discipline and loyalty, it is no rocket science for many South Sudanese to know that Hoth’s ever calculated patience, cautious bravery and unequivocal commitment to the systems, even at times many lose hope in, helped him race through to the top and immovably remain there against the stark odds. General Hoth was weaned off from humble body guard by his boss, Garang into a cadet officer, effectively taking courses in several cadet schools both abroad including Cuba and United States of America as well as neighboring Ethiopia that in early years played host to the movement. He is now the holder of Masters Degree in public administration at University of Fort Hare, South Africa with about two books he authored under his belt. He is known to be a living witness of SPLM/A’s founding in September 1983 and its subsequent split between Garang and Samuel Gai Tut over the leadership and unresolved objective of the newly inaugurated movement. With Garang leading SPLM/A based in Ethiopia while Samuel Gai led Anya – Nya two that set up camp in Sudan.

In all Nuer – Dinka power struggles in which he prominently takes part, Hoth always sides with the latter, a clear testimony to his disapproving description of the Nuer political system as anarchic with little respect for leadership. The definition seems to have struck a relative but unfamiliar agreement between the quite general’s gun barrel and the pen of a British prolific writer of the Nuer anthropology, Edward Evans Pritchard. In 1986around Nasir area, he was commissioned captaincommanding largely Eastern Jikany Nuer Battalion of Yoany, after which his elder son is named, facing off with Nuer dominated Anya-Nya two that fought over dominance of Southern Sudan politics  with Dinka dominated SPLM/A. He never blinked an eye in the face of adversity to consider switching side to Anya – Nya two to which his Nuer people pledged a near fanatical loyalty. He stood his grounds firm until in early 1988 when he with then SPLA first Chief of General Staff, William Nyuon Bany, a Nuer and a group of Greater Nasir politicians Daniel Koat Mathews, David Dak Gai and John Jok Reth mediated a successful unity agreement between SPLM/A and Gordon Koang Chol led A2 in an Ethiopian border village of Kuanylou. The agreement re-integrated A2 into SPLM/A, giving stronger muscles to the latter in capturing several garrison towns from successive Khartoum-based regimes.

But the agreement lasted up to August 28th 1991 when the movement split a second time between South Sudan two leading ethnic groups, the Nuer and Dinka. With Machar renewing Nuer and other South Sudanese popular objective of self-determination for the South Sudan John Garang stood opposed in favor of fighting for justice and equality in a united, secular Sudanese state. In a sharply divided movement with huge economic devastation and high death tolls where almost every Dinka and Nuer turned against one another, Hoth remained unshaken and resolved to stay put with his boss, Garang. Hoth rubbished a public rumor peddled on BBC focus on Africa in 1996/7 that suggested he shot dead at a closer range his boss of 15 years in a heated argument in the bushes of Southern Sudan. Nevertheless, the rumor mill traced to covertoperations of Sudan government intelligence service adversely failed to affect the close relationship of long time friends. As another sign of still wading through troubled waters around the same period, Hoth virtually became persona non grata in his home area of greater Nasir where SPLM/A Mainstream lost every foothold to Riek Machar’s faction for twelve solid years.

He reunited with his people once again when two factions reconciled and became one in January 2002 with Garang retaining leadership and original name of the movement SPLM/A while losing vision of the movement to Machar who became second Deputy after Garang and Salva Kiir, both Dinka. That is from originally fighting for justice and equal opportunities for all Sudanese, Arabs and Africans, in a multi-racial, cultural and religious country to that of self-determination favored by Machar. The 1991 split also changed the movement’s repressive nature in response to Machar’s aspired democratic principles. The unity between two powerful forces in the South threatened the Arab regime and helped usher in an internationally brokered Comprehensive Peace Agreement, CPA between north and South in which self-determination as the choice of majority of South Sudanese was enshrined. This time Hoth was one of the senior most SPLA field officers in the command of guerilla outfit.

In closing a dark chapter of armed struggle, Garang made his alpha and omega type of appointment that commissioned Hoth in July 2005 as Major general and Deputy Chief of General Staff for logistics among his five other colleagues. The big five constituted a Military High Command Council to steer the SPLA, which then became the standing army of the South, through to referendum in 2011. Following the death of Garang a few days later, Salva Kiir Mayardit took over all Garang’s titles as Chairman and Commander – in – Chief of SPLM/A, First Vice President of the Sudan Republic and President of the Southern Sudan self-government. With army promotions and reshuffles under Kiir saw Hoth becoming Lieutenant general and heading military operations department respectively. In May 2009 he was promoted to the rank of full general as he took over from Oyai Deng Ajak as 4th Chief of General staff of SPLA he is today.

This position was not bed full of roses. It rather put him in nostalgia of enjoying the top rank in the army while struggling to strike a balance in overseeing 2010 mid – term general elections in which SPLA neutrality as the peoples’ army was crucially demanded by opposition politicians rightly suspicious of being still SPLM party military wing. Another test caught up with five stars General was in negotiating on a slippery trajectory alongside President Kiir and Dr. Riek Machar as a Vice President CPA with northern partners wanting to foil it {CPA} under any pretext that could undermine both referendum and possible independence for the South.

Towards the eve of independence declaration on 9th January 2011, Hoth with some politicians popularly referred to as Garang’s blue-eyed boys, most of whom are either in jail or in exile because of the alleged 15th December attempted coup, was unsuccessfully accused of plotting a coup to wrest the flag of an independent Country to be from the hands of the presumed independence President, General Salva Kiir. But the most sweeping storm yet to be weathered by the seasoned and secretive General even to his dad and mum, both alive and well, has been in early and in the run up to mid-December 2013 when each of the two principal protagonists in South Sudan politics, Kiir and Machar, secretly held him as a game changer against the other. Either wanted him on his side or remained neutral in an army ethnically divided into halves between them in the pitched battle over the SPLM party chairmanship. The leadership was to be contested in the same year in a party convention much delayed by several disagreements over ethnic overtones and party controversial internal ground rules. The much coveted prize would see the winner become the flag bearer of the ruling party many still believe, if it is still united, shall win the upcoming 2015 elections. That never came to past. In the ensuing struggle for political supremacy, Kiir badly courted Hoth to stand by his side as the customs demand in defense of his incumbency and legitimacy as democratically elected President in April 2010. Kiir further believed the current differences between him and Machar are an echo of 1991 split when he and Hoth were one and the same on the side of Garang against Machar.

While Machar in particular and the Nuer in general thought it wise for the army to steer clear from politics. And if need be, the blood should be thicker than water for Hoth to quash Kiir hostile tactics and help his tribesman Machar climb to power on his broad shoulders. If that failed again, Hoth should just copy the Egyptian scenario and become strong man, the heroic Field Marshal Abdel Fatah El-sissy of South Sudan as a way of restraining the two men. By so doing, he could take over power while confining them in their own homes till the next elections in which both of whom could vie on an equal footing. On 15th December when conflict erupted many Nuers still believed Hoth was on their side simply because he previously foiled many deadly arrests Kiir was alleged to have plotted against Machar since he removed him as the new nation powerful Vice President on 23rd July. A day after the violence, contrary to their popular view, the General declared his true allegiance to Kiir by sweet talking Machar’s loyal soldiers out of their last foothold in Gaeda, adjacent to Jebel market in Juba.

While in a hasty retreat as they responded to advice of Hoth they still believed was on their side in what they regarded as Kiir’s unprovoked assault, many fell to the deadly bullets of Kiir loyalists hiding behind Hoth. This was followed by massacres targeting the Nuer civilians in Juba neighborhoods including General’s beloved paternal cousin and political confidant Reath Thon Wako by members of security forces Hoth purportedly commands. This shortchanging behavior in the minds of the retreating Machar’s loyalists in the face of hellish fire, smacked off an aura of betrayal by their kinsman they erratically talk of never to forgive. Such highly inflammatory statement resonates very well with the civilians living on every inch of a far away Nuerland. In Nuer local politics what would have been Hoth’s glamorous future political career after he hangs up his boots and uniform seems grounded in a single stroke of a second before a takeoff unless serious miracle happens.

But the issue of Hoth, referred fondly by close relatives and friends as Hothnyang, toeing the line of kiir thinking and refusing to be swayed by ethnic loyalty is a subject of an in-depth political analysis. The writer thinks given his disparaging opinion on Nuer leadership, Hoth is a political tactician weighing survival options at the helm of the military that made him act in self preservation and not necessarily in support of what Kiir thought of him as described above. General Hoth as a man well informed of the goings-on behind the science of an ethnic power struggle, knew one or two things that could not make him succeed whether he paired up with Machar or neutralized him and Kiir altogether.

He knew so well South Sudan army is not like that of Egypt as highly professional, organically united and patriotic on its mission of defending common public interest. And therefore, throwing his weight behind Machar wouldn’t till the balance in favor of the latter since the two could be perceived by Dinka wing of the army as Nuers united in a takeover of power from their fellowman, Kiir and not as somebody trying to ride the country of bickering politicians bent on destroying it with unbridled political ambitions.

This zero sum game of neutralizing the two, couldn’t even strike an iota of a balance as Kiir could lose Presidency while Machar loses nothing. On that note army could be divided on ethnic lines and no longer under him, further irreparably damaging his personal credibility as an honest arbiter as well as taking away his prominent post as the army chief in a fight he was not certain of winning.

Too, General Hoth ostracized by most of his Nuer people and viewed with suspicion by his people perennial rivals, the Dinkas was aware of the Uganda army support for Kiir and which he knew its members were all over in town on that day and quite impossible to be held down by ill-prepared Nuer troops loyal to former Vice President, Dr. Riek Machar Teny – Dhurgon, current leader of the rebellious SPLM/A in opposition fully embarks on toppling Kiir from South Sudan presidency.

On the whole, this Hoth’s general line of thinking or change of attitude towards Machar could be confirmed by one of my journalistic tours of duty on 20th September before the conflict erupted when I met both him and his immediate boss, Kiir’s most loyal defense Minister Kuol Manyang Juuk in their offices adjacent to each other in Bilpam H. quarters. Both were in a relaxed mood and talked cordially about each other in their separate cozy and giant offices different from the picture public had painted as being at loggerheads because of Kiir and Machar divisive politics. Hoth’s warm relationship with Kuol perceived to be an embodiment of Kiir, indirectly demonstrated Hoth good relation with Kiir himself. And the rest is history.

Deng Vanang is a freelance journalist and can be reached at: [email protected].

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