South Sudan President Salva Kiir surprised both South Sudanese citizens and regional analysts by firing Army Chief of Staff Paul Malong — arguably the most divisive public figure in South Sudan — on May 9. Known as “King Paul,” Malong has exerted enormous influence on the country’s political and military affairs. He is especially popular among hardliners of the majority Dinka ethnic group, of which Kiir and Malong both belong. Immediately following Malong’s removal, many feared that the already desperate situation in South Sudan would deteriorate even further. Fortunately, these fears have not yet materialized and South Sudan’s much-maligned political leaders now have an opportunity in Malong’s removal to begin moving the country towards peace, or at the very least, less violence and some modicum of stability.

Malong’s rise to Army Chief of Staff speaks to his reputation for control and pragmatism. In 2008, Malong became governor of the strategically important Northern Bahr El Ghazal state, which borders Sudan as well as the contested Abyei region. Malong became governor after consolidating his control of Northern Bahr El Ghazal during the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983 to 2005). President Kiir made Malong Army Chief of Staff in April 2014. Malong moved into this leadership position following the December 2013 violence that sparked South Sudan’s ongoing civil war.

In the immediate aftermath of Malong’s firing, there was deep concern and confusion over how he might respond. Kiir issued his decision to relieve Malong of his duties in a May 9 Presidential Decree, which he characterized as a “routine decision.” Malong evidently did not agree, as he quickly left Juba, intending to return to his hometown of Aweil. The following day, during an interview with the Associated Press, Malong said that he did not plan to retaliate, would not take up arms against the government, and instead, planned to retire to a simple life outside of government. However, that evening, Presidential Spokesperson Ateny Wek Ateny said that Malong would return to Juba. On May 12, President Kiir further complicated the situation by offering confusing remarks, stating that he had personally communicated with Malong and that he had directed South Sudan security agents to ensure his safe return to the capitol. Local media outlets reported that Kiir and Malong reconciled late last week. Ateny later confirmed this reconciliation, but also noted that Kiir encouraged Malong to seek medical treatment abroad for persistent high blood pressure. This awkward unfolding of events suggests that Kiir hoped to sideline Malong without provoking him or his supporters to rebel.

Malong has long been a divisive figure and is familiar with controversy. Last December, the United States led a coordinated effort to place Malong under U.N. sanctions for violating the 2015 peace agreement between government forces (the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, or SPLA) and its armed opposition (the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-In Opposition, or SPLA-IO). Although the effort to sanction Malong failed, human rights organizations have alleged Malong’s central role in South Sudan’s civil war. At the very least, critics argue that Malong should face investigation for failing to prevent or punish the many abuses committed by the armed forces under his command. 

President Kiir’s decision to fire Malong was surprising for several reasons. Foremost, many analysts believe that Malong, not Kiir, wielded the “real power” in Juba. Few thought that Kiir could challenge Malong, given his popularity and his support from the Jieng Council of Elders, a Dinka group that is known for its uncompromising politics and exerting a disproportionate amount of influence on South Sudan’s ruling elite. Moreover, in many ways, Kiir owes his political ascent to Malong, as it was Malong’s political and financial support of Kiir in 2004 that allowed him to survive a falling out with the leadership of the then-unified SPLA and to assume the position of First Vice President of Sudan following the death of John Garang in 2005.

Although surprising in the moment, Malong’s removal is less so when understood in a broader context. Domestically, several key military officials resigned in February, accusing Kiir and Malong of ethnic bias and corruption. Most notably, Gen. Thomas Cirillo, deputy chief of staff, resigned before issuing a manifesto and taking up arms against the government, accusing the SPLA of ethnic cleansing. Cirillo blamed Kiir of “destroying the nation,” stating that Kiir’s administration seized power and property at the expense of other ethnic groups within South Sudan. Reports also suggest that Malong alienated key members of Kiir’s national security team by reprimanding high-ranking officials in a volatile meeting before his May 9 termination.

At the international level, influential countries, including the U.S. and U.K., have long considered Malong an obstacle to peace. It seems that this combination of domestic and international pressure, and perhaps an eye towards the 2018 elections, finally pushed Kiir to act. Indeed, almost a year ago, South Sudan historian Clémence Pinaud wrote, “one cannot rule out the possibility that Kiir permits Malong’s control of the SPLA but then sacrifices him if he has to yield to international pressure.”

Perhaps the best explanation for the timing of Malong’s removal is his persistent and well-known objections to the deployment of the Regional Protection Force (RPF). Delayed nearly eight months, when fully deployed the RPF will add 4,000 troops to assist the U.N. Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS), the peacekeeping mission already present in South Sudan. This peacekeeping mission received widespread condemnation for failing to prevent atrocities against civilians in 2016. U.N. leadership and key member states have since made the deployment of the RPF a priority.

Malong’s replacement is Gen. James Ajongo Mawut. Portrayed as a moderate, veteran officer, Ajongo has maintained that the situation in South Sudan remains “normal.” Unlike Malong, General Ajongo has publicly pledged to cooperate with the RPF and it is likely more than a coincidence that Malong’s firing coincided with the first arrivals of RPF troops. Further, East African scholar Gerald Prunier noted that the deployment of 400 British Army members tasked with building a helicopter landing site and jetty in Juba may have provided President Kiir the political cover necessary to fire Malong, as even Malong would be leery to send his supporters into the streets with a large foreign military presence in the capitol.

It is unlikely that Gen. Ajongo will command the SPLA substantially differently than Malong did. Nonetheless, even small changes, such as limiting the obstruction of humanitarian assistance and maintaining a baseline respect for the rights of civilians, could improve conditions significantly. Perhaps above all, the appointment of a new army chief of staff can serve as a strong signal to SPLA soldiers that human rights abuses will no longer go unpunished. And, from a security perspective, the deployment of additional troops to support UNMISS should help stabilize the country. At the very least, these troops should help ensure that civilians living in protected sites do not experience violence similar to that of last summer.

While lasting peace, and not just a momentary absence of conflict, will take time to gain hold, any decrease in fighting and improvement in humanitarian assistance is important given the incredible suffering that this conflict has created. Moreover, if Malong stays sidelined, moderate political actors may find the space to begin the hard work of ending the conflict and either implementing the 2015 peace agreement in a meaningful sense or working with the opposition, the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development, the African Union, and the UN to amend the agreement or draft a suitable replacement.

For the U.S., stabilizing South Sudan and pressuring its political leaders to end this conflict is important, not just for the oversized role the U.S. played in South Sudan’s independence, but also for demonstrating its commitment to ending impunity for perpetrators of mass atrocities and holding individuals that commit serious human rights abuses to account.

Image: Getty/Kena Betancur