Death Of Army Leader A Setback To Peace Process In South Sudan

General James Ajongo Mawut of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) died last Friday, April 19th, in a setback to peace and stability in South Sudan. His death leaves an important and contentious post empty and makes a new vulnerability in the Government of President Salva Kiir.

General Ajongo was appointed Chief of Defence Force last year following the sacking of Paul Malong due to accusations of abuse and tribal/ethnic bias in the military. Malong is now the main rival to the government of President Kiir. General Ajongo’s death, therefore, leaves an opening for Malong to use his connections to disrupt President Kiir’s government and weaken the SPLA. Malong announced he was creating a new opposition party less than 10 days before General Ajongo’s death, adding an extra element of uncertainty into the conflict.

South Sudan researcher and journalist Alan Boswell notes that General Ajongo’s death creates a plethora of problems for President Kiir. “Kiir now has to manage the competing interests within a sidelined military even as he faces ramping external pressure from the trump administration and increasingly fractious coalition politics in his own government,” he argued. “Meanwhile, Ajongo’s predecessor is trying to start a new rebellion and still has many friends inside the military.”

Coming on the heels of the unexplained postponement of peace talks brokered by IGAD, General Ajongo’s death is an untimely blow to any peace agreement in South Sudan. Having a weakness in the top echelons of the armed forces in a civil conflict would be problematic enough in regular circumstances, as rebel and opposition groups may see this as an opportunity to grow their base and be less inclined to participate in peace talks. However, the influence of Malong in the military means that any process through which General Ajongo could be replaced is likely to be disturbed by political machinations and power plays, further weakening the SPLA. Finally, the ethnic elements of the conflict often are played out in government through hiring and firing of important government posts; President Kiir has to balance all these considerations so as to not inflame the conflict any further.

South Sudan has been in a state of civil war since 2013 when President Kiir (an ethnic Dinka) fired his deputy Riek Machar (an ethnic Nuer) after accusing him of attempting a coup. A peace agreement was signed in 2015 but was violated almost instantly, and the conflict has since splintered across various lines, with ethnic and communal conflicts over land, resources and power becoming more significant in the national picture. An attempt to reinstate the peace agreement in December 2017 was violated within hours. Over 50 000 have died, with some death toll estimates ranging up to 300 000. Over 1.5 million civilians have fled South Sudan as refugees, while over 2 million have become IDP’s. The UN refugee agency estimates 3.1 million people will be refugees in neighbouring countries by the end of this year.

In this complicated situation, General Ajongo’s death represents a minefield which must be successfully navigated by President Kiir to mitigate its impact on the conflict. The significance of government figures (and their ethnic ties) to the conflict, as well as the influence of Malong in the military, mean that President Kiir will have a difficult time replacing Ajongo; however, the longer the position is open the less incentive rebel groups have to acquiesce to peace negotiations. The ethnic nature of the conflict also means that civilians are regularly targeted by military or rebel forces, and the longer the delay in finding a peace accord the higher the civilian impact will be.