Leaders of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO) fired three generals in the command of Upper Nile state this week, shortly after the generals declared First Vice President Riek Machar had been ousted as head of the SPLM-IO and as commander in chief of the Sudan People's Liberation Army-in Opposition (SPLA-IO).
Machar’s spokesperson said the decision to fire the generals was made Wednesday during an SPLM/A-IO leadership meeting in Juba.
Those fired were former chief of staff General Simon Gatwech, General Johnson Olony of Sector One Command and General Thomas Mabor Dhoal of Sector Three Command.
The meeting of the party’s political bureau and military leaders was called after the declaration Tuesday by Gatwech and some party commanders in Upper Nile state to oust Machar, according to Machar spokesperson Puok Both Baluang.
“We believe the military command does not make any decision of the movement, but the political bureau or the national liberation council in the absence of the national convention,” Baluang told South Sudan in Focus.
Baluang said the declaration, which he called illegal, was intended to obstruct activities leading to the formation of unified forces.
"We are demolishing the moves of these three generals. Therefore, I would like to assure that the situation is in control," Baluang told VOA. "The other two generals, Thomas Mabor and Johnson Olony, are to leave their positions and be replaced by other commanders" in Sector One and Sector Three.
Machar is still in control of SPLA-IO forces in Upper Nile that were being led by the three generals, said Baluang.
A letter seen by South Sudan In Focus and dated Tuesday indicates Gatwech met with several Upper Nile state party commanders in Maganis, where he declared Machar’s ouster. He also declared himself the party’s new leader and commander in chief.
Cheers for Gatwech
Unconfirmed videos and photos circulating on social media show Gatwech being cheered by senior military officers of the SPLM/A-IO during the declaration. Hundreds of officers and some top military officers can be seen in the photos and videos attending the meeting.
South Sudan policy analyst James Okuk said he was not surprised to hear about the party split, calling it confirmation of a long overdue move and defiance by the Gatwech group. He also said the SPLM-IO split highlighted the growing frustration over the slow implementation of the peace agreement among the signatories to the peace deal.
“The generals who are claiming to replace the chairman of the SPLM-IO, Dr. Riek Machar, have not been on good terms with him for almost two years and they have not reported to Juba since the signing of the revitalized peace agreement,” Okuk told South Sudan in Focus. “They have been appointed to the government and they have declined the appointment. For example, Gatwech Dual was recently appointed as presidential adviser, but he declined that position. Before, Johnson Olony was a nominee of the SPLM-IO for the governor of Upper Nile, but he also declined to come to Juba.”
The split within SPLM/A-IO would only weaken further implementation of the peace deal, said Okuk.
“The SPLM-IO is a strong partner in the implementation of the peace agreement, so if it becomes weak by [a] split within itself, it means they become a weak partner and [a] weak partner is not good in the implementation of the peace agreement. So already, both the generals are weakening themselves and they are weakening the political wing, and this will give the ITGoNU [Incumbent Transitional Government of National Unity], which is led by the SPLM, an upper hand now,” Okuk told VOA.
This marked the second time that some SPLM/A-IO members have attempted to oust Machar as leader of the party. In 2016, then-Vice President Taban Deng Gai failed to remove Machar as party leader, following renewed conflict in Juba.