SPLA Chief-of-Staff James Hoth Mai: "We are going to have a separate country"


SPLA Chief-of-Staff James Hoth Mai
(JUba) -
James Hoth Mai (Gen), 51, chief of staff of Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), has risen through the ranks since joining the movement, in 1983.  When the SPLA introduced conventional rankings, in 2005, he was assigned major general deputy chief of staff for logistics. At the end of 2007, he was promoted to deputy chief of staff for operations. In May 2009, he was appointed chief of general staff and promoted to lieutenant general, before being promoted to full general, in July 2010.

He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Fort Hare University in South Africa. While he had started work on his PhD, he stopped it due to the referendum, held last week, during which Southern Sudanese voted on whether to secede from Sudan or not, and his work load. However, the married father of eight plans to pursue his education after things have settled down following the voting. TESFALEM WALDYES, SPECIAL TO FORTUNE, sat down with Mai in his office at the SPLA headquarters, a.k.a. Bilpam, named after the place where the SPLA was founded, on Tuesday, January 11, 2011, to discuss the possible problems ahead for the region that is likely to become the world’s newest country in six months’ time.  

You replaced Oyanny Deng Ajak, minister of Investment, as the Sudan People's Liberation Army's (SPLA) chief of staff, in May 2009. Do you think you have since been successful in transforming the SPLA into a conventional army?

Before I replaced him I was part of his administration. We just continued from where he stopped. We have made a lot of changes in the army, and we have a good army now. We have done a remarkable job.

However, the transformation process is not easy. It cannot finish overnight and it will continue; it has no end. We will continue transforming ourselves through training and discipline.

Can the SPLA be called a conventional army?

Yes, it is a conventional army. We are no longer guerrillas.

You previously said that you are on the way to establishing an air force and other military divisions aside from the infantry. How is that progressing?

We have already established riverine units. We have also started establishing an air force. We bought a few transport helicopters, and will continue developing it. The speed will depend on the resources that will be made available by the government. We have the infantry, and have started training Special Forces. 

The founder of Southern Sudan, the late John Garang (PhD), supported a united Sudan. During the referendum, many Southern Sudanese said they are voting for separation. How do you think he would have felt about the vote's result, which is likely to be against his wishes and aspirations?

Well, he was liberal. He was not fully unionist or separatist but he said we have to liberate the country. He was very serious about it, which is why he put [the vote] in the 2005 peace agreement with the National Congress Party (NCP).

He really wanted the NCP to do something along the lines of development to convince the Southerners that the government was not responsible for injustice and underdevelopment in the South. However, the NCP in the North did not do anything.

During our trainings on different occasions, people asked if we cannot liberate the whole country and he said, "There is no problem. We are now fighting in the South. When you think you have reached your border, stop there. I will get other people to continue with them."

He was not actually trying to intimidate or convince the Southerners to not vote for separation. No, he gave them a choice. And that is why he said, "Me and those who joined me in the bush life have brought you the peace agreement on a silver plate. Now it is your turn to make a choice between being a second-class citizen in your own country or owning your country."

Dr John gave the Southerners the right to decide. It is not him who decide, but the people. If he gave the people that right, we cannot call him a unionist or a separatist. Even if he were a unionist and Southerners said they were not staying, he would have joined them.

He meant for us to liberate the whole country because you find, in the South up until now, we had people from Southern Kordofan (Nuba Mountains) and Blue Nile states who are a part of the SPLA, but are Northerners. He was right to say that we have to liberate the whole country, but that is not fully unionist.

The border between Ethiopia and Southern Sudan has not yet been clearly demarcated. As Southern Sudan will most likely become a state, does it plan to commence demarcation of its border with Ethiopia?

We do not really have a problem between Southern Sudan and Ethiopia, nor is there a problem on our border with Ethiopia because there is the river; it is very clear. We do not have any border problem with Ethiopia; nothing. If there is a problem at all, it is between the North [of Sudan] and Ethiopia.

We [Southerners and Ethiopians] are one and the same people. In the long run, we are even going to abolish that border that was really made by colonisers.

Political analysts said that a war is inevitable with the Khartoum government. How likely do you think that is to happen?

I do not think that we will have a war. If there is one, maybe it will be on Abyei [a disputed oil rich region]. People have feared this exercise we are doing now, the referendum, for years. They could not know that we would have a peaceful registration and peaceful voting. People feared that Khartoum would try to disrupt it, but that has not happened.

However, they have tried to, through militia. Our security organ is vigilant and we sealed off anybody who could attempt to disrupt the referendum. Recently, we prevented a group of militias from the North from entering Unity State. We captured all 47 of them. Now everything is OK and going smoothly.

I do not think that Khartoum will start the new country with war. There is the possibility of negotiating if there is a problem because we have some issues that have not been addressed.

The issue of Abyei is one. For the past three days, people have been fighting because the Misseriya tribe wants to occupy Abyei and they said that the Dinka has to join the South. People are fighting, but, at the end of the day, we will find a solution to it. There is a high-level delegation going to Abyei today from the South, the North, and Unity State to see whether they can find a political solution.

While the border issue with the North is still contentious, I think we will find a solution to it. We do not see war erupting, but we are ready if it happens.

Yet, President Omar Hassan al Bashir said in a recent interview with Al Jazeera TV that, "If Southerners seized Abyei for themselves, it could lead to war."

It is his opinion. If he thinks war is the only option to solve the problem of Abyei, we are ready. However, it was probably only a political statement.

Do you have enough weaponry to defend yourselves if a war breaks out?

Not only to defend ourselves, but to occupy areas. We are capable of doing that. We will defend ourselves and then we will advance.

Al Bashir also said that, "The South does not have the ability to provide its citizens with or create a state or authority." Southern Sudan has been called a "failed state in the making." Some of the things mentioned are the lack of manpower and experience in leading a state.

If we could provide services to our people with the meagre resources we have had for the past six years, what do you think we could do as a full state, when we have our oil revenues and other resources?

Southern Sudan is capable of governing itself. We have been doing it. Now we are more peaceful than the North.

We are conducting a very peaceful referendum, which is not coming out of the blue. It is not the North providing the security; it is the government of Southern Sudan. Having a safe and secure referendum means that this government has the capacity to secure the region and provide services to its people. We will prove people wrong.

We may have a shortage of manpower, but it is a matter of time to develop it. Now, we have to hire. We have Ethiopians, Kenyans, and Ugandans. Even from the North we can hire people.

I do not think that is a problem as we will have money and hire people. We will continue to train our people. There are so many Southerners in the Diaspora who are coming home with experience, with degrees.

It will take us one, two, or three years up to five years, but we also need help from outside. We have to benefit from other people's experiences. I do not think that is difficult.

I am sure that Ethiopians will not hesitate, if we tell them that we need people, to help us establish financial regulations. The Ethiopians we have hired are experts. The government of Southern Sudan also have advisors and consultants. It is known all over the world that we can manage ourselves.

We are going to have more resources. Even if we do not get 100pc, we will have 80pc to 90pc of our oil revenues. We will have more money.

Still, the issue of oil resources and revenues is yet to be resolved with the North.

The negotiations are still going on. One of the topics is oil revenues and how to share them.

What do they want from us? What do we want to give them?

I think the negotiations will finish before the six-month interim period after the referendum and by then things will be clear.

Do you think the majority of the resources and the revenues will be allocated to Southern Sudan?

Of course; they will not take 50pc or more because they have no moral justification to do that. Maybe we will use their port and pipelines for the time being, but we are going to have a bigger share; not 50:50 again.

You are from the Nuer tribe and you are chief of staff of the army. However, the senior positions in the army are dominated by members of the Dinka tribe. Some believe that such dominance in the army and government positions will dissatisfy other tribes and it will lead to civil war.

It is not true. The army is the army and we are not politicians. The SPLA is not dominated by the Dinka. The Nuer has even more members than the Dinka in the army. All the tribes of the whole Southern Sudan are in the army.

The Dinka is the largest tribe in the South, so you cannot equate them with other small tribes. Their number dictates the larger number in the army. The same is true of the Nuer, the second largest.

I am Nuer and we do not have any problem with other tribes. The first chief of staff was a Shuluk, a tribe smaller than the Dinka and Nuer, and the next one may be from any tribe.

It is a national army. We have a national character. Those who wish us problems will not get their wish.

They are not mentioning the composition, but the senior positions, in the government as well as in the army.

Maybe on the level of the headquarters there are more Dinkas, but on the level of command there are more Nuer and Warder. I do not think we have a problem in the army or even in the government.

The Dinka is a big tribe. We respect that they have more seats in the government. It is normal; you cannot say one seat for each tribe. That is not a government.

The people saying these things want to create a problem. They always ask how many are in the government. That is a very naive question because, in reality, we need somebody who can provide services to the people, not one tribe.

We can have Dinkas in the whole government. What we need from the government is to serve the people. We need anybody who will provide services to the people.

Salva Kiir is a Dinka but he does not serve only the tribe. He is the father of the nation. He may be the president and his brother the vice president but they provide services to all the people.

Sometimes, when politicians want to create a problem, they mobilise their own tribe to put pressure on the government. People may be thinking of that. However, our background, where we came from, tells you that we are very cautious not to allow a problem.

What will we have done, if we start with a problem and I say I want to be a president and start quarrelling with Salva Kiir?

The South is our country. If the result is separation and we have a country, we want to get services. We cannot have this problem, because now our only prize is peace and prosperity.

There are rebellious groups in Jonglei and Unity states. In one of your speeches you admitted that, "Ongoing ethnic and interethnic conflicts claimed hundreds of lives since the beginning of last year." You also said that "We must stop killing each other." So there are ethnic conflicts and dissatisfaction.

There is no political problem between the Dinka and Nuer, Shuluk and Nuer, Murele and Dinka. The conflicts are over resources. The Dinka would raid the Nuer for cattle and vice versa. They raid each other for cattle, not to become king. The Shuluk have a king and other tribes do not go there to change their system, but to obtain resources.

Whatever happens in the South today is not over the political system, but resources like cattle or grazing land or fishing grounds or water. It is not a political war. Since we have disarmed the population, the security of Southern Sudan has been very stable.

What about the rebellious groups?

In Unity State you get that people go from Arab [capital of Arab State] to Rumbek [capital of Lakes State] and from Rumbek to Arab because the Dinka are raiding themselves.

We signed a ceasefire agreement with George Athor's rebels, on January 5, 2011, which will become effective very soon. We will talk to them and integrate them into our system. The case with Gatluak [Gai, a rebel leader] is the same.

We have also started negotiating with Khartoum militias. At the end of the day, they will come to the South and the situation will be different because we are going to have a separate country.

Ethiopians fought along with the Southern Sudanese during their armed struggle. What is the current military cooperation between them?

With Ethiopia, it is more than cooperation. They are the people who have stood by us for a long time. Leave alone the current government, Ethiopians as a people have been helping Southern Sudan since the first rebellion.

They help us with anything, including training. Anything we need from them, they do not hesitate to help us. They have played a very big role in the transformation of the SPLA.

 *The interview first appeared in Allafrica.com


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