By Daniel Akech Thiong
Dr. Majak D’ Agoôt joined the SPLA as a secondary school student like many others who heard the call to arms in 1983 to fight for the liberation of South Sudan. He contributed to several fronts during the struggle including the reversal of the SPLA misfortunes in the 1990s in Equatoria, especially at Bunio, and in the Blue Nile in Yabus, Kurmuk, Geizan, Ora, Shali el Fil, Wadega, and Ulu. He was also known for his innovative skills in laying mines and his other major contribution was the training of the new forces at Bonga. He never stopped learning whenever he had an opportunity. He is mostly self-taught. When opportunities for distance learning began to open in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Dr. Majak enrolled and obtained his bachelor’s degree. During the negotiation of the peace agreement from 2002-2005, he attended classes in person in London.
Dr. Majak D’ Agoôt is currently a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the African Leadership Center, King’s College London. He is the former Deputy Chief of the Sudanese Intelligence and South Sudan’s Deputy Defense Minister. He formerly held the role of Senior analyst at the Changing Horizon Institute for Strategic Policy Analysis (CHI-SPA). He has published articles in peer-reviewed journals and think tank pieces in media outlets in Africa, the Middle East, and the West, covering various policy spheres. He holds an MSc in Quantitative Finance and a Ph.D. in Financial Economics from SOAS, University of London. He also has an MSc in Security Sector Management from Cranfield University and an MA in War Studies from King’s College London.
Dr. Majak underwent military training in Ethiopia, Israel, and Cuba. These courses turned him into a military intellectual at an early age. Dr. Majak trained some of the best SPLA units and three officers’ cadet shields (5, 6, and 7). His hard work and discipline transformed him from a guerrilla commander into a productive and prolific scholar. His vast experience as a trainer and operational field commander has forged an avid tactical and strategic thinker.
A humane politics
His politics is mostly clean as he does not like to deal under the table. Years ago, a man who had been alleged to have worked against Dr. Majak found himself under the custody of a hostile foreign agency. The man was on a duty in a foreign country doing counterinsurgency duties. The foreign agency caught him and innocently accused him of spying on their country. They took him to a dark place where people rarely survive. Dr. Majak received the news, and he called a colleague of his in a high position (a defense minister) to immediately transfer this person to a military detention center. This was done and thereby saving the life of that person. After this transfer, the two governments were able to negotiate the release (this stage would not have been reached had it not been for the intervention of Dr. Majak). When I heard this story, I asked Dr. Majak why he saved the life of someone whom he knew as working against him. His response was impressive: I won’t know what to tell his children when I meet them in the future knowing that my intervention could have saved their dad’s life.
He also advocates for others. Years ago, Hon. Philip Thon Leek Deng was relieved as the Governor of Jonglei. The office of the President prepared a decree that appointed Engineer Bior Ajang Duot as a national minister in Khartoum. Dr. Majak saw the decree and went to the President and told him a story: Hon. Philip Thon Leek was the only person from Duk and he has been relieved if you give this position to another person from Twic East, our people of Duk will have nobody at the state level and at the national level. This would not be fair. Kiir reversed the order and appointed Hon. Philip Thon to go to Khartoum as a national minister. Dr. Majak, of course, had to plead with his own Twic East Constituency to convince people that his action was in the best interest of Twic East and that he had nothing against Eng. Bior, who would have a technical job at the Ministry of Petroleum.
A bumpy political ride
When I met Dr. Majak D’ Agoot Atem in 2012 in Dallas, Texas, I asked him, over lunch, about the political situation in Juba. There were rumors about his falling out with the President. He told me that the worse that he could do against the President was nothing more than resign from his government. Despite the toxic politics prevalent throughout South Sudan, he cared about the deeply personal relationship between the two of them built over decades of genuine comradeship. During the entire interim period, rumors of coups were commonly circulated, and the name of Dr. Majak had been mentioned a few times. For example, in 2009, Generals Malong and Gregory accused Dr. Majak D’Agoot (also a general) of planning a coup. This turned out to be one of the four false accusations that occurred between 2009 and 2013.
It has been an open secret that General Malong Awan Anei Tong, who had been a close friend of President Salva Kiir, had a beep with Dr. Majak. A part of this beeping had to do with the formation of the SPLA from 1983-1987. The actual formation of the SPLA became completed around 1987. Many familiar names [Pagan Amum, Oyay Deng, Deng Alor, Paul Malong, Bol Madut, etc] you know from the SPLA did not join the SPLA, in the same manner, those of Koriom and Muor-Muor joined: they had their own armed movements and with their own ranks, which all gradually built the coalition that we came to know as the SPLA. When ranks were converted to the SPLA ranking system in 1987, Gen. Malong had already been promoted to a Major, which made him an Alternate Commander. Dr. Majak was still a Captain. The first grievance started in 1991 when Dr. Majak and his entire batch were made commanders. Gen. Paul Malong was still in jail (detained by Commander William Nyuon Bany). This arrest caused Gen. Malong to forfeit his seniority, but he was later promoted to commander with those of Biar Atem Ajang, George Athor Deng Dut, and Pieng Deng Kuol Arop Biong. Gen. Malong had never accepted this guerilla injustice. But he would not have had any issue with Dr. Majak had it not been for other events.
The SPLA was managed at various camps called headquarters (that distrusted each other so badly that you might need to ask for permission to leave your camp to visit another camp). The most important headquarters toward the end of the war were that of the Commander-in-Chief Dr. John Garang and that of his deputy Commander Salva Kiir. Dr. Majak was a rising star and a trusted commander in Kiir’s headquarters alongside those of the late Gen. Dominic Dim. Those of Nhial Deng, Pagan Amum, Deng Alor, Oyay Deng, Gen. Bior Ajang, Gen. James Oth, Gen. Kuol Manyang, and others were prominent in Dr. Garang’s camp.
On the administration of the three regions of Equatoria, Upper Nile, and Bahr Al Ghazal, the two power centers pushed their own guys into positions of influence. Commander Salva Kiir managed to push Dr. Majak up on the administrative leadership of Bahr Al Ghazal. Gen. Paul Malong who was fully back in the operations in the region might have viewed this negatively.
Then while Dr. Majak was in the administrative leadership of Bahr Al Ghazal, he opposed the slave redemption scheme, a project that Dr. Majak saw as a fraud while Gen. Malong saw it as a beneficial venture [this information is in the SPLA archive]. Dr. Majak’s position was not popular among the ranks, and he lost, but he took advantage of this to pursue his studies in the UK. When the SPLA was reorganized in 2005 into a slim force led by one active Lt. General (Oyay) and 15 active Major Generals, Dr. Majak’s name was not on the active list. After President Salva Kiir took over the leadership of the SPLA and the autonomous Southern regional government, he recalled Dr. Majak and gave him the security docket. Dr. Majak once again became the boss of Gen. Paul Malong. Gen. Malong managed to secure the governorship of Northern Bahr Al Ghazal, which relieved him from this uncomfortable position.
When the war happened in December 2013, Gen. Malong had tremendous power. Dr. Majak was among those accused of the coup. He was locked up along with many others. The situation divided people in Juba. There were those who wanted to harm those who were detained and there were those who worked hard to protect those who are detained. This was the precise point where those from Dr. Majak’s camp began to allegedly claim that some politicians from Greater Bor allied themselves with Gen. Paul Malong and sought to harm Dr. Majak.
There are indications that President Salva Kiir realized that there were different games at play. One was a competition within the Greater Bor Community among competing politicians, which quickly degenerated into a Bor County versus Twic East County online war, which was picked up by live video makers. The other was the SPLA commanders trying to settle scores from the era of the civil war under the darkness of the unfolding chaos. President Kiir chose to take a pause and he secretly began to protect Dr. Majak both in Juba and in Nairobi.
Gen. Paul Malong lost his influence. His space, which was more than just being the Chief of Staff, attracted competitors. One individual who initially emerged as the winner was Hon. Nhial Deng Nhial. Both Hon. Nhial and Dr. Majak had been in the administrative leadership of Bahr Al Ghazal during the civil war. They also came from two main power centers with Hon. Nhial owes his rise to Dr. John Garang while Dr. Majak owes his rise to President Salva Kiir. It is natural that they could see each other as competitors. It was an open secret that Hon. Kuol Manyang and Hon. Daniel Awet, two prominent members of the SPLM, favor Hon. Nhial. Given his prominent role in Greater Bor Community, this position of Hon. Kuol antagonized Dr. Majak’s camp. When Hon. Kuol came out in 2021 voicing his concerns about the direction of the country, Dr. Majak’s camp distanced itself from his message as a form of retaliation (the message was good, but the medium was viewed with suspicion).
Recent events leading to the dissolution of the Greater Bor Community Association
Considering the preceding anecdotes, Dr. Majak’s camp finally began to view the politicians who wielded control within the Greater Bor Community Association as people for whom reconciliation is impossible. They began to see the Greater Bor Community Association as a hot spot of hostility toward the person of Dr. Majak, with the help of social media, the Twic East Community began to view antagonism toward Dr. Majak (and equally toward Hon. Rebecca de Mabior) from the community lenses. Dr. Majak had to make a political choice: continue to support an association that has allegedly been working to bury him politically alive or join those who have been voicing complaints about this association and called to abandon it.
Dr. Majak had resisted giving up on the idea of the Greater Bor Community Association for many years despite the pressure from his core support base of Twic East County. But if he were to remain a politician, he had to do what politicians do: realize that some constituencies can never vote for you due to a genuine communal grievance or a manufactured communal grievance, and it is okay to invest your energy elsewhere. There are 78 counties in South Sudan. If Dr. Majak ever decides to run for the Presidency of South Sudan or the Governorship of Jonglei State (which he has never ever mentioned), he can invest in counties where the negative campaign against his brand is less severe while leaving those constituencies that do not like him to his rivals. Even if one were to get 100% votes from the three counties of the former Bor District those will not be enough to guarantee one’s future in national politics. Politics is about ideas and not about clans or which community association you belong to. If your ideas are not needed in one place (including in your own village), you are free to market them in different places including outside of your country. If Dr. Majak chooses to just retire from politics today, his achievements would remain lofty.