By Brian Adeba
The recent move to remove Paul Malong’s “privileges” is not so much about the escalation of restrictive measures around his person, but a referendum on where the loyalty of his home turf Aweil will pivot to. In this configuration, is a widely-held assumption that Malong is “king” of Aweil; that he commands a significant following that is unparalleled.
Indeed, the Kiir regime is keen to counter his strangle-hold on the populous Aweil region, which in an election (an idea the government has been toying with), could prove crucial in determining support for the Northern Bahr El Ghazel ruling elite. Malong’s fall from grace was accompanied by a quick reinstatement of Dau Aturjong to the army with all benefits intact.
Aturjong had fled the country and one point, joined the armed opposition, but after the SPLM-IO (Crown Hotel faction) was formed, remained in Juba. Subsequently, the NBEG Jieng elders convinced him to return to the government. Truth be told, Aturjong’s main beef wasn’t with Kiir but with Malong himself. It is fair to argue that Malong’s removal was probably contemplated long before May 2017. Aturjong’s hasty reinstatement to his former position as a general in the army speaks to that in the event a pro-regime leadership vacuum was created by Malong’s dismissal.
Before we dissect whether this move is going to be beneficial to the regime, it is worth exploring how Malong came to be “king” in Aweil.
By any stretch of the imagination, Malong is the epitome of a “successful” warlord in the perverse sense of the term during the liberation war. His “success” was a by-product of the predatory war-economy established by the SPLA during the liberation struggle, in which coercive methods of acquiring resources was de jure. Out in remote Aweil, and largely left to his own devices in the region, Malong as commander, also displayed incredible political and business savvy typically found in a war-economy. Using his power as chief SPLM politician and military commander, he established relations that transcended the North-South political divide with Arab nomadic tribes across the border in Sudan.
This relationship was crucial to the establishment of a cattle market at Warawar which enabled cross-border trade that was subject to taxation by the SPLA that Malong commanded in Aweil. As the eminent journalist and politician Bona Malwal tells us in his book Sudan: From One to Two, the SPLA leadership opposed the idea in the beginning but reluctantly agreed to it at the end. In the meantime, Malong was able to amass significant personal wealth as well as influence. As a practicing polygamist, he buttressed his patronage network by marrying into almost every clan in Aweil, ensuring a wide berth of communal ties in the region. In the book, A Poisonous Thorn in Our Flesh: Sudan and South Sudan’s Bitter and Incomplete Divorce, the BBC journalist James Copnall writes that Malong has more than 80 wives.
But despite his larger-than-life image in Aweil, groans of displeasure were evident. In the early 2000s, a delegation of Aweil chiefs and elders criticized the SPLA leadership for imposing Malong on them. In the end, with his vast financial resources, and for political expediency, Malong was indispensable to the war-time leadership of the SPLA for the support he brought to the table. In the 2010 elections, he was nominated as the SPLM flagbearer in a contest with Aturjong that was allegedly rigged in his favor.
If the regime is contemplating on projecting Aturjong as a replacement for Malong, it is going to face an uphill task. With more than 20 years as overlord in Aweil, Malong’s extensive network is going to be difficult to dismantle. He continues to command extensive loyalty in the SPLA units from Aweil and elsewhere in South Sudan. Evidence of this was apparent in the alleged botched attempt by a contingent of 200 loyalists to undo his house arrest and “rescue” him from detention. These loyalties have now withdrawn to the bush and announced that they intend to use violence to engage the government. A demonstration in Aweil town to protest his continued detention was “allowed” to proceed without interference from state authorities, a sign of the influence he continues to wield. (I hear the governor was “called” to Juba, may be for this purpose?) The reported arrest and detention of Aweil officers in the army following Malong’s dismissal from the post of chief of defense staff has created a feeling of alienation among Aweilians. The result has been an unwitting bulge in support, albeit emotional, for Malong in Aweil.
Any regime favorite to replace Malong is going to encounter some difficult hurdles. First, the current wave of sympathy from Aweil, will likely bury any attempt by Aturjong (or any other person for that matter) to project and establish himself/herself as leader in the region. Secondly, the pervasive patronage culture will be their undoing for the moment. For instance, as second fiddle to Malong for over 20 years, Aturjong lacks the resources and networks necessary for asserting his presence. A similar fate awaits any other chosen pick by the regime. With South Sudan’s economy in free-fall at the moment, it is unlikely that the government will step in with the resources to support efforts to purchase loyalty. In the end, the government will be drawn into perpetuating the same sin of imposing a leader on Aweil by force. In return, the people of Aweil will reject the government and the imposed leader.
Malong will eventually be completely sidelined. However, his cause will continue to be championed by his proxies in Aweil and other parts of South Sudan. In this manner, he will continue to retain his influence by proxy and therefore remaining “king” from the shadows long after his exit from political office.