How two unrelated deaths affect the two Sudans

By IndepthAfrica
In Article
Aug 24th, 2012

By Steve Paterno

On August 21st, news of the death of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi hit the airwaves. It occurred after a prolong speculation about his health. This tragic news then followed by messages of condolences, flatteries and eulogies from both officials of the Republic of South Sudan and those of Republic of Sudan. In spirit of competition, South Sudan tried to outdo its rival, the Sudan, with more than just the praises for the departed Ethiopian Prime Minister. The newly emerged country declared its flag be flown at half-mast and three days of mourning be observed. This was to ensue by yet another high profile death. This time around, the decease is a South Sudanese Deputy Commander in Chief, General Paulino Matip. General Paulino Matip has been battling chronic diabetes and high blood pressure, which he eventually succumbed to.

From the surface, the implications of the death of these two unrelated high profile leaders seem unconnected between the two countries of South Sudan and Sudan. However, digging underneath, startling story can emerge and here it is:

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is a staunch supporter of South Sudanese cause. During South Sudan war of liberation struggle, Zenawi not only aided the then South Sudanese rebels, the Sudan People Liberation Army (SPLA), but deployed his own troops and military hardware alongside them to battle Sudanese armed forces. When the regime in Khartoum started its belligerence against its neighbors, it met its match—Ethiopia—which stopped the bully on the block right on its track. As a result, Ethiopia posed itself as the stabilizing regional force to deal away with aggressive regimes such as the one in Khartoum. Ethiopia, under Zenawi also took the American war on terrorism as its own crusade. The country even invaded and occupied the neighboring Somalia on the pretext of war on terrorism. All the Western World stood with Ethiopia. The regime of Sudan, which is a next neighbor and the sponsor of terrorism, automatically becomes the target of Zenawi’s war against terrorism. Khartoum is then put on notice.

In essence, Zenawi is not actually a friend that Khartoum will want to see around. When those in Khartoum eulogize about him in death, it is a mockery and a political gimmickry. Zenawi was rather viewed as an enemy of Khartoum by the regime. In fact, Khartoum has more to benefit in the absence of Zenawi. Before he died, Zenawi was exerting his influence to ensure peace between South Sudan and Sudan, which Khartoum is not interested in. Zenawi’s last failed attempt for peace in the Sudans brought the presidents of the two countries together for a face to face meeting. There are already fears that the peace between South Sudan and Sudan is in great jeopardy and at the risk of failing, because of the death of Zenawi. Such fears are echoed by observers from all over, including the American officials who are keen to see peace in the Sudans. For example, Khartoum now has a leverage to undermine the Ethiopian peace keepers deployed in the disputed region of Abyei. The regime will not also be serious in the current negotiations taking place in Ethiopia. Khartoum may even go as far as increasing its subservient activities in meddling in Ethiopian internal affairs and destabilizing the country, since that has always been the regime’s intention all along.

The death of General Paulino Matip on the other hand has quite the opposite effects than that of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, because those in government of South Sudan are the ones who ought to gain. During the war of South Sudan liberation struggle, General Matip allied with Khartoum and fiercely fought the SPLA. However, after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), General Matip made a courageous effort to join the SPLA by signing an agreement of his own, the Juba Declaration of 2006. General Matip’s agreement with the SPLA, nonetheless, hit a snag immediately.

First, the integration of his armed forces proved to be a logistical nightmare. The General presented for integration a large number of his troops, numbering about 50,000, which did not correspond with the actual tally of the forces he could account for. Even then, those personnels who were accounted for, were of a ridiculously high ranks that could not easily reconcile to SPLA ranking system. As such, the relationship between General Matip’s troops and the SPLA forces were characterized by high tensions. At times, these tensions flared up into serious firefights. Such was the incident of October of 2009, where General Matip’s troops clashed with SPLA forces in Bentiu, Unity State. Several people reported to have died in the clash. At the time, General Matip went public and accused the President of South Sudan, Salve Kiir, the SPLA Chief of Staff, James Hoth Mai, and the Governor of Unity State, Taban Deng Gai, for plotting against him. In words of one minister of South Sudan, General Paulino Matip was “a nip in the bud” who was holding South Sudan for a ransom. To his critics, it is not a matter of whether he will cause problem, but when he will do so. He was seen as a troubled ticking bomb. Accusations and counter accusations between the General and his antagonists were riped, especially due to the facts that some of his former lieutenants turned into rebels supported by Khartoum and fighting against South Sudan government.

Therefore, General Matip’s death provides opportunities to his adversaries in the government and the military to purge his troops once and for all. The process of stripping him off his influence, which in large part depended on his forces, started the very day he joined the SPLA. Now, the process will come into full completion, due to his absence.

Since, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi will be remembered as a leader who played instrumental role in advancing the cause of South Sudan and keeping the regime in Khartoum in check, so will General Paulino Matip be remembered as a towering leader who gain the respect of his followers and feared by his foes. The General had a chance to live large and demonstrate his fullest potentials. While in Juba, he could just wink and made his presence felt. The awkward position of Deputy Commander in Chief, which was specifically designed and bestowed on him, because of the power he wielded, would perhaps died along him, for there is no one like him to take up the position.

When the health of General Paulino Matip was finally declining, he shuttled between Juba and foreign countries, seeking treatments. His constant travels helped to fuel the already built assumptions of his enemies. In everyone of his trips, it provided opportunity for the critics to suspect him of defection to Khartoum. Nonetheless, he persisted to prove the critics wrong every second he was breathing. His foes may have finally won, but General Paulino Matip never given an opportunity to prove them right, since he managed to stay in South Sudan and among South Sudanese till his death.

Steve Paterno is the author of The Rev. Fr. Saturnino Lohure, A Romain Catholic Priest Turned Rebel. He can be reached at

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