Gen Paul Malong Awan’s dominance over South Sudan’s military, political and economic landscape is one that allies and foes alike cannot deny.
Since the appointment of “King Paul” as the Chief of General Staff of the military in April 2014, he has become the real power behind the throne in Juba, according to multiple reports.
“I believe he is behind the mess in Juba. His forces are the ones who started the fighting at the presidential palace on July 8. He has been very vocal against the peace agreement and the formation of the transitional government,” Vice-President Riek Machar’s spokesman James Gatdek Dak told the Sunday Nation.
Supporters of President Kiir however dispute this account, blaming Dr Machar’s troops of starting the conflict after false reports emerged that President Kiir had detained Dr Machar.
As the world waited for the return of Dr Machar to Juba in April, Gen Malong openly rejected the peace deal and reportedly vowed to never sit and watch the formation of the transitional government.
He later denied making both claims though the SPLA in Opposition (SPLA-IO) that Dr Machar heads accused him of sneaking in a large number of Dinka militias to destabilise the implementation of the peace agreement negotiated by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD).
But as the transitional government again totters on the brink of collapse since last week’s fighting broke out, the man friend and foe describe as a “serious polygamist” is undoubtedly seen as the architect of the turmoil.
As is with most South Sudan warlords, Gen Malong walks in and out of Nairobi unhindered. He has a home in an upmarket Nairobi estate though the exact estate remains unclear with some suggesting it is in Muthaiga while others say it is in Gigiri. Some of his family members live there.
His children school in some of the best private academies in Kenya, including a famous one in Machakos County.
But Nairobi is just one of the regional capitals he escapes to for a break from the civil war in South Sudan.
“He has many wives. Some are in Kenya but others are in South Sudan and Kampala,” a Western source told the Sunday Nation.
Born and raised in Aweil, Bahr el Ghazal region, the ruthless ex-independence fighter has gone up the military and political ranks to become President Kiir’s puppeteer.
“I have written about Paul Malong and Salva Kiir’s relationship in other publications, and I have come to the unsurprising conclusion, as many South Sudanese have, that Malong is the one that holds the real power,” Clémence Pinaud, an Assistant Professor at Indiana University’s Department of International Studies whose research focuses on the SPLA’s military history, predation strategies and marital practices wrote in Africa Arguments, a comment and analysis site.
On the one hand, both Gen Malong and President Kiir are Dinka, one of the major ethnic communities of South Sudan.
Dr Machar, on the other, is from the rival Nuer community, which has for centuries been at war with the Dinka over water resources, grazing land and competition for women, according to Jervasio Okot, a South Sudan national who previously worked for Juba in its Nairobi Liaison Office before the cessation in July 9, 2011.
“They have traditionally been fighting amongst themselves using crude weapons but the availability of modern weapons in the hands of both communities has complicated the situation,” said Mr Okot.
Gen Malong is among the senior political and military figures from both sides of the conflict that the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) in May 2014 slapped with sanctions for fomenting the civil war and holding to hard-line positions.
Before the civil war of independence broke out in 1983, he was largely unknown.
When the late Dr John Garang formed the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) in 1983, the largely unknown Malong helped mobilise militia from his home area of Bahr el Ghazal and took them to Bilpam SPLA military base in Ethiopia.
A former Garang bodyguard who now lives in Nairobi and who worked alongside Gen Malong told the Sunday Nation that impressed by his efforts, Dr Garang rewarded him with a junior position within SPLA/M hierarchy. He was then sent for an operation in one of SPLA/M’s outposts.
At one time, locals reportedly rose up against him over his alleged high-handedness and brazen corrupt practices. He would demand that the people pay protection fees.
With the money, he started building his forces that immediately caught the attention of Dr Garang and the SPLA/M top brass who feared he could use the new-found wealth to establish a splinter group within the rebel movement.
As a result, then SPLA’s Chief of General Staff William Nyuon Bany in 1992 transferred him to Yei in South Sudan’s southwest.
“He was essentially under then rebel detention,” a South Sudanese officer based in Nairobi said.
In 2004, as the independence talks advanced in Nairobi, he seized his opportunity. Around that time, there were reports that Dr Garang was planning to replace Kiir as the SPLA Chief of Staff.
Kiir and Malong joined forces with the latter providing militia, as well as substantial financial resources. Even though the mutiny did not materialise, a long-lasting but complex relationship between Kiir and Malong was born. Kiir had retained his position as the second in command of SPLA/M. Dr Garang died in a plane crash on July 30, 2005 shortly after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA).
In 2008, Kiir, then the First Vice-President of Sudan appointed Malong the Governor of his home area of Northern Bahr El Ghazal.
Ms Pinaud says that: “In the following few years, as episodes of fighting with Sudanese forces continued, Malong managed to convince Kiir of the need to create a militia that would be loyal to them both. He took advantage of the economic disarray in his home region and began recruiting and training men into this new fighting force. Some members originated from Kiir’s home state of Warrap, but the majority were from Malong’s Northern Bahr El Ghazal. Malong was trying to position himself as the first leader from Northern Bahr El Ghazal with national stature.”
HOSTED REBEL FIGURES
“The militia went by the name of Mathiang Anyoor (meaning ‘brown caterpillar’ in Dinka), but was also known as Dot ku Beny or Gel-Beny (meaning ‘rescue the President’). It was financed with the help of Ambrose Riing Thiik, the chairman of the Jieng (Dinka) Council of Elders (JCE),” writes Pinaud.
When the war broke out in December 2013, Malong reportedly let loose the militia who went on targeted killing of members of Dr Machar’s Nuer ethnic group.
Dr Machar had by then fled Juba and was also rallying his troops from his various safe havens, including Nairobi which has for years hosted senior rebel and government figures.
In April 2014, President Kirr appointed Malong the SPLA Chief of Staff, a position he has used to great effect over South Sudan’s military, political and economic formations.
Attempts by the UN to impose sanctions on Gen Malong in 2015 for his role in the humanitarian crisis were thwarted by Russia and Angola who voted to block the proposed sanctions.
The UN’s South Sudan Sanctions Committee had found “clear and convincing proof” that most acts of violence had been perpetrated under the direction, or with the knowledge, of high-level members of the government and opposition, including Gen Malong.