Former South Sudanese Army Commander Forms New Splinter Group, Fragmenting Opposition Further

On Monday, April 9th, Paul Malong Awan, until recently the most senior military official in South Sudan, published a document announcing the formation of a new opposition group – the South Sudan United Front (SSUF). Since May 2017, when Malong was sacked from his position as Chief of General Staff of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the government has viewed him as a traitor and threat to peace. In the document, addressed to his fellow South Sudanese compatriots, Malong stated that “Our movement is a just and urgent call to our compatriots and a struggle to first arrest the carnage that has befallen our country.” He also accused President Salva Kiir and his inner circle of abusing their status as liberators, declaring them responsible for running a country where corrupt officials operate with complete impunity.

Malong is a former close ally of Kiir, having served as the SPLA Chief of General Staff for three years between April 2014 and May 2017, when he was dismissed due to alleged cronyism within the military’s higher ranks. Since his dismissal, widespread rumours have circulated about Malong’s desire to challenge the President, fuelled not least by public statements from Malong himself. On April 11th, a presidential spokesman declared that the former army chief had “almost staged three attempted coups against the President.” He claimed that Malong’s intent was to obstruct the 2015 Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan (ARCSS), of which Malong had been a vociferous opponent.

The entry of a new opposition stakeholder into South Sudan’s conflict comes at a time when peace negotiations are being hampered by disunity among the opposition groups. Sponsored by the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a multinational regional body, peace accords known as the High-Level Revitalization Forum (HLRF) began in December 2017. The third-round talks were due to begin in Addis Ababa on April 26th, but were delayed to allow more time for consultation among the various stakeholders. While the formation of an opposition alliance in March, which Malong has indicated his group will join, signalled a shared constructive approach, the alliance was notable for its exclusion of the SPLM-In Opposition (SPLM-IO), led by former Vice President Riek Machar.

Dr. Machar, who has been under house arrest in South Africa since 2016, is seen by many as instrumental to the peace process. In his absence, however, Taban Deng Gai was appointed Vice President, splitting the SPLM-IO into two factions; one loyal to Machar and one to Taban. South Sudan’s Civil War, in which up to 300,000 people have been killed and over 3.5 million displaced, began in 2013. Following a brief ceasefire in 2015, Machar fled South Sudan in July 2016 due to violent clashes between the SPLM and SPLM-IO. Paul Malong, then commanding the army, is widely believed to have orchestrated this violence. Nonetheless, Machar is still considered the leader of the largest opposition movement. As such, many SPLM-IO supporters are likely to reject a peace agreement negotiated without him as illegitimate.

Regional power-brokers understand this predicament. On April 12th, Machar met with Moussa Faki Mahamat, the head of the African Union Commission, who reiterated Machar’s commitment to the peace process. However, Kiir will almost certainly reject any proposal that allows Machar to assume a senior position in government. The President has also recently defied widespread calls by opposition groups to resign. These obstacles to peace, along with repeated ceasefire violations, are likely to result in continued violence. The injection of the SSUF led by Malong, who claims vast support in his native Aweil State and is backed by the notorious Mathiang Anyur militia group, into the conflict may complicate the peace process further.