By Duop Chak Wuol
March 21, 2020 (SSNA) — The 17th of March 2020 defection of a Sudan People’s Liberation Army-In Opposition (SPLA-IO) high-ranking military officer Lieutenant General James Koang Chuol Ranley—a former armed opposition deputy chief of General Staff for Administration and Finance and former co-chair of Joint Defense Board (JDB) has raised many questions whether the SPLA-IO political wing, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-In Opposition (SPLM-IO) still champions political, military, and economic reforms in the country. Three other senior generals namely Maj. Gen. Joseph Yata Erasto, a one-time commander of the SPLA-IO Division 2B and former member of JDB, Maj. Gen. Gatkhor Gatluak Koryom—a former co-chair of Joint Military Ceasefire Commission (JMCC), and Maj. Gen. Wang Chany Thian, a former Deputy Director-General for National Security Service (NSS) and ex-member of the JDB Technical team also deserted the SPLM/A-IO. All four generals switched their loyalty to the South Sudan People’s Defense Forces (SSPDF) and the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) party led by President Salva Kiir. This is an attempt to show that the alleged practice of nepotism by the SPLM/A-IO was not the cause of the defection and that distrust among the armed opposition’s officials is the problem.
In a statement obtained by this writer, the SPLA-IO ex-generals claimed that they have many reasons to back up their defection, accusing the armed opposition leadership of nepotism. The military officers assert that the SPLM/A-IO under the leadership of Dr. Riek Machar “has lost direction, vision, and command of the forces.” The generals also alleged that the movement has transformed itself into a family-run enterprise, citing Angelina Nyajany Teny’s appointment—the wife of the SPLM/A-IO Chairperson to the defense ministry as the basis for their decision to leave the Machar-led movement. There is no question in my mind that these allegations labeled against the armed opposition leadership are serious and that any sound-minded South Sudanese, especially those who support the SPLM/A-IO, deserve a clear explanation from the SPLM-IO leadership. Besides, I would like the armed opposition followers to know that lack of trust between the deserted generals and SPLM/A-IO was slowly building, intensified a few hours after the names of SPLM-IO’s ministers and deputy ministers were announced, and exploded on March 17.
It is no secret that some people who are supporting the decision made by the defected military officers agree with the notion that Riek Machar only hires his family members, relatives, and close friends and that he usually abandons his staunch supporters when it comes to the issue of positions. It is good to remind people that James Koang noticed in a news conference in Juba that Dr. Machar’s family holds at least three positions in the new transitional government of national unity. The positions in question here are the First Vice President and Defense Minister. The third post alleged by the former SPLA-IO general remains elusive as it cannot be logically verified given that the only ministry given to the SPLM/A-IO in Unity State is the defense—not even a single deputy minister was given to the armed opposition in that state. In a logical sense, the September 2018 revitalized peace agreement gives the SPLM-IO nine ministers and three deputy ministers (12 in total). To be precise, the ministerial portfolios that were given to the SPLM/A-IO on March 12 only one was given to Machar’s wife. The position in question is Defense and Veteran Affairs Minister (Unity State). The rest of the positions were allocated based on the SPLM-IO inclusive and country-wide policy. Anyone who questions this assertion should ask the SPLM/A-IO leadership for official clarification. As you can see, the only ministerial portfolio given to the family of the SPLM/A-IO leader is the defense minister. It is hard to find the other third cabinet position alleged to be held by an unnamed Machar’s family member. Logic dictates that there is no other minister or deputy minister related to Dr. Machar. A nameless government official is probably not a good reason to prove a claim. One thing is clear: It remains a constitutional right for Machar to appoint anyone, regardless of his association with that person. But this is not a practice I would encourage. Given these facts, one wonders where the generals got their information that Machar’s family holds more than three posts in the central government.
The defection of the four officers reminds people about past desertions. Many defections have occurred before and the SPLM/A-IO should not panic as this culture of switching allegiance appears normal in South Sudan. It is worth revealing that there were rumors months before the recent defection that Lt. General James Koang Chuol and other unnamed SPLA-IO generals were planning to rejoin the government. These rumors started circulating well before their March 17, 2020 departure. People who closely monitor South Sudan’s politics know that General James Koang was working as a co-chair for the Joint Defense Board—a body tasked to exercise command and control over all the rival forces as stipulated in the agreement. However, in January 2020, SPLM/A-IO leader Dr. Machar recalled him, saying the armed opposition leadership was reorganizing its structures before the February 22nd formation of a transitional government. James Koang was recalled back to the armed opposition’s headquarters along with General Yie Dak Wie—SPLM/A-IO Director-General for National Security and Intelligence Service.
Soon after Gen. James Koang was relieved from peace implementation duties, he issued a statement on the 9th of January 2020 saying, “Comrade Chairman [Machar], I have signed off…hopeful that your current engagement with H.E the President [Kiir] continues to bear fruit which shall lead to lasting peace in our country. The people of South Sudan have suffered…they need peace. It is incumbent upon the leaders to deliver peace.” A careful analysis of his statement shows that James Koang Chuol, who at that time enjoyed solid support from the SPLM/A-IO base was a measured leader who exercised true leadership. At that time, many government supporters and anti-peace elements used his recall as a way to further divide the armed opposition. Some even went further, claiming that Lt. General James Koang was bribed by the SSPDF’s Chief of Defense Forces, General Gabriel Jok Riak. Nonetheless, the SPLM/A-IO quickly dismissed the rumor as “rubbish.” At that time, I did not blame the SPLM/A-IO for treating the allegation as “unfounded” since many previous defections were linked to unverifiable accusations.
But there are irrefutable facts that imply that most of the SPLM/A-IO officials—both in military and politics who left the armed opposition have a history of leaving days, weeks, or months after they were recalled back, relieved of their duties, downgraded, or failed to secure promotions. SPLM/A-IO public record also suggests that a good number of people who have already defected were in high-profile posts or worked in temporary positions considered profitable. This disclosure alone, suggests that personal interests or materialistic thinking may have played a greater role in their decisions.
A few days after the four generals proclaimed their defection on March 17, I have a chance to talk to many senior SPLM/A-IO officials who demanded their names be kept out of this article due to circumstances surrounding the situation. I asked them tough questions about the decision made by the generals to abandon the movement. I also challenged them to make sure they understand the consequences of defection. After a cautious analysis of my conversations with the armed opposition officials, I decided to keep their names anonymous as they requested. Based on what they told me, I ended up with my conclusion which suggests that the allegations categorized against the SPLM/A-IO leadership by the deserted generals seem to have been made up for reasons best known only to the ex-military officers.
First, all the SPLM/A-IO officials I had discussions with agreed that the choice of Angelina Teny to the defense ministry was properly vetted and that many consultations were conducted for at least one week. Second, the officials said the leadership of the armed opposition has not lost vision as alleged by the generals. Third, the same officials question the officers’ motive behind their defection and suggest that their decision to join Salva Kiir’s side was influenced by an external influence. Fourth, my conversations with these officials also revealed that a minor misunderstanding happened in late 2019 between Lt. Gen. James Koang and two SPLA-IO generals and that this squabble may have played a key role in the January 2020 recall of Gen. James Koang and Gen. Yie Dak Wie back to the SPLA-IO headquarters. The officials, however, refused to disclose to me what exactly happened between those involved in the dispute. Fifth, the SPLM/A-IO officials during our talks further asserted that the nepotism case exploited by former SPLA-IO officers is fictitious. These points are based on what some of the armed opposition leaders know. It is, still, not clear what really happened since most of these officials I talked to offer their opinions as loyal members of the SPLM/A-IO leadership.
Let assume the claim by the forsaken generals that Riek Machar practices nepotism within the SPLM/A-IO and that the armed opposition chief failed to consult the SPLA-IO military command before naming his wife. Anyone without internal knowledge of the armed opposition leadership would presumably succumb to this assertion even though the SPLA-IO Chief of General Staff 1st Lt. General Simon Gatwech Dual trashed such a claim. In his March 20 interview with the Radio Tamazuj, the SPLA-IO top General questioned the plausibility behind the defection.
“I don’t see any reason for those officers to defect. The distribution of ministerial portfolios as part of the peace agreement was meant for politicians, not military officers. We are expecting the first vice president to come and brief his forces in our headquarters in Diehl, following the formation of the transitional government. Also, I have no problem with the newly appointed SPLM-IO ministers,” SPLA-IO Chief of General Staff said, adding, “I am following what is stipulated in the peace agreement. I am also calling upon President Salva Kiir to expedite the implementation of the security arrangements because resources are in his hand.”
The above statements were not invented, they are from the SPLA-IO’s top army General Simon Gatwech Dual who has a full understanding of the matter. These words should make any South Sudanese think critically, given the seriousness of the situation. In reality, the statement by the SPLA-IO Chief of General Staff raises more questions about the credibility of the allegations designated against the SPLM/A-IO by the four generals.
Did Machar consult the SPLA-IO command before picking his wife for defense post? Was Lt. General James Koang Chuol sidelined in the deliberation process? Was James Koang being truthful when he openly criticized the SPLM/A-IO leadership at a press conference in Juba? Who is lying and who is telling the truth? Did SSPDF Chief of Defense Forces General Gabriel Jok Riak bribe Gen. James Koang? Why would a top general like James Koang run away after the much-anticipated provisional government is formed? Will James Koang’s defection impede the implementation of the revitalized agreement? Could it be possible that James Koang became furious simply because he was not appointed to any national post? Did the SPLM/A-IO betray the four generals? Has the movement transformed itself into a family-run corporation? Was Angelina Teny’s appointment conveyed without proper discussions as declared by the former SPLA-IO generals? If consulting the armed opposition before Angelina’s appointment was necessary as stated by the generals, then who—within the SPLA-IO, should have been asked? Are the grounds provided by absconded generals enough to justify their abandonment of the SPLM/A-IO? Why do the four generals choose to shift allegiance when they know the movement, they are leaving is a main part of the new government? What exactly is behind the disloyalty of the generals? Is the perceived use of nepotism by the SPLM/A-IO leader enough for the officers to shift their support to President Salva Kiir—who they have for more than six years, accused of dictatorship, war crimes, and crimes against humanity? Has Machar broken any SPLM/A-IO law by selecting his wife to the defense ministry? What went wrong within the SPLM/A-IO administration? All these questions are for you to draw your conclusions.
I would like to publicly praise the former SPLA-IO generals for leaving the movement peacefully without the loss of a single life. This is a good move by any measure and Lt. Gen. James Koang deserves appreciation for choosing such a moral judgment. I believe James Koang is a man of immense leadership traits. His contribution has undoubtedly benefited the SPLM/A-IO. I also think that the general has shown to the people of South Sudan, particularly SPLM/A-IO’s supporters that killing each other is not in his blood. I believe this is one of the reasons why he left in peace. This is clear in one of his past videos where he spoke to troops at one of the SPLA-IO military bases. In the video, he revealed to the armed opposition soldiers that he had rejected to kill people in Unity State when he was directed by the Command of South Sudan national army to do so. He also said in the same video that he cannot kill South Sudanese including non-Nuer even if his superiors want him to do so. To refresh your mind, General James Koang was referring to an order he received from Bilpham headquarters after the civil broke out in Juba in December 2013. For the record, James Koang was the lead commander of South Sudanese forces in Unity State. I strongly urge the SPLM/A-IO leaders to try their best to reconcile their differences with him.
The allegations claimed by the former SPLA-IO officers seem to depend mainly on rumors, lack of trust, and personal interests. There is no reason to believe that the defection was triggered by SPLM/A-IO’s alleged practice of nepotism. Indeed, Machar’s decision to appoint his wife as the country’s defense minister can make some people think that the armed opposition leader has overlooked those who have been supporting the movement for the last six years. However, this claim is a pure assumption since most political leaders worldwide, not South Sudanese politicians alone, are constitutionally (one way or another) to name anyone they want. The people of South Sudan need to know that there is nothing in South Sudan’s constitution that says that the head of the ministry of defense must always be a military officer or someone who has military knowledge. Those who are spreading this argument are wrong because the assertion is self-defeating since the defense minister’s position is technically a civilian portfolio. The only possible argument would be to propose that the SPLA-IO has so many experienced military generals and that Dr. Machar should have selected one of them, instead of his wife. This is a logical argument even the armed opposition leader would have a hard time refuting it. Nevertheless, it is wrong for people to believe that the nomination of Angelina Teny to the defense ministry warrants defection. It is sensible for a person to question a system while he or she is a part of the system. The decamped generals would have been in a better position today if they did not choose to leave the movement. Now their central claim has been trashed by many SPLM/A-IO senior politicians and military officers. The issue is now directly heading to a graveyard of Juba’s political blame game. It is up to the people of South Sudan to assess the entire saga based on logic and facts, not wild accusations seemingly fabricated by disgruntled politicians and those who seem to thrive in a planet of chaos. The people who seem to have missed the point should know that the primary reason for the generals’ departure is no longer political or military—it is merely a situation created by intolerance, twisted thinking, political immaturity, rivalries over positions, and rush to judgment.
Duop Chak Wuol is the editor-in-chief of the independent South Sudan News Agency (https://ssnanews.com/. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Note: The views expressed in this article are his and should not be attributed to the South Sudan News Agency.