Surge in Sudan violence raises worry independence won't bring peace

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 22, 2011 

KHARTOUM, Sudan — This is not what most southern Sudanese thought freedom would look like.

In the two months since voters overwhelmingly endorsed forming a new country after decades of civil war, Southern Sudan has slipped dangerously backward into violence. Once-dormant warlords have roared back to life, and new insurgencies against the southern government are gaining steam.

Hundreds, perhaps more, have died in weeks of clashes between rebellious militias and the southern military across Southern Sudan's oil-rich marshlands. International aid groups have evacuated the most affected areas. A United Nations peacekeeping mission, mandated to protect civilians, has proven indisposed to intervention, even though the peacekeepers' base is at times just a few hundred yards from the clashes.

The motives for the uprisings differ. Some are led by relatively new dissidents, such as George Athor, a former deputy chief of staff of the southern army who rebelled last year after losing a gubernatorial election. Others are made up of northern-aligned commanders who are resisting having their militias incorporated into the southern army. Still others appear to be driven by local grievances, often land disputes between neighboring tribes.

The impact of the combined uprisings, however, is to shake faith that Southern Sudan's independence in July will actually end the bloodshed of the previous war, which saw some 2 million people die over decades of fighting until an internationally backed peace process halted the conflict. There are even disturbing signs that the various insurrections are moving toward a united front — posing an internal armed challenge to the nascent southern state.

"The SPLA dissidents were willing to follow the agenda for the referendum and the independence of Southern Sudan, and now that the referendum has been held, they are asserting themselves," said Carol Berger, an anthropologist who studies militarization and the Sudan People's Liberation Army, the southern military.

So far, the most obvious reaction by the southern government in Juba to the spiraling violence — besides militarily messy counterinsurgencies by the poorly disciplined southern army — has been to blame the northern government here in Khartoum for the deteriorating situation.

Analysts and diplomats say it is difficult to say for sure whether the northern government is still directly supporting southern dissidents, as it has in the past.

But the southern government's credibility suffered when it broke off negotiations with the north earlier this month, saying documents it had obtained proved that as recently as late last year the north was providing weapons to Athor and other dissidents. It shared those documents with reporters, including one from McClatchy.

The north immediately denounced the documents as forgeries filled with mistakes, including incorrect titles for officials, wrong names for northern institutions, fake letterheads, and the use of names of officials who'd retired or died.

Independent experts with access to the documents concur. One Western official in Sudan, who could not be named because of the sensitivity of the matter, described them as "100 percent forgeries."

If allegations of forgery are true, the release of the documents would be a particularly puzzling case of poor judgment for an embattled leadership that can ill afford to lose its credibility with the United States and the West, key allies whose backing derives largely from moral outrage at atrocities committed by the north during the war.

The Bush administration brokered the 2005 ceasefire agreement that led to the south's vote for independence, and it was international diplomacy that pressured the northern government under President Omar al-Bashir into accepting the south's secession vote in January, even though it would mean the loss of 80 percent of Sudan's oil.

The two sides still must negotiate a settlement on border disputes and how to divide Sudan's oil industry and national debt. At the urging of the U.S., the African Union and others, southern president Salva Kiir met with Bashir last week and agreed to resume all talks immediately while a committee looks into the contentious documents.

"The relationship between the West and the SPLM in the past was based in part on the perception that southerners were victims," said Jon Temin, Sudan program director at the U.S. Institute of Peace, speaking of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, the SPLA's political wing. "And now I think that relationship is going to have to be based on something else."

In the meantime, the violence in southern Sudan's Jonglei, Upper Nile and Unity states, where the White Nile River splits Sudan's southern region in two, is taking a heavy toll.

A day of clashes often leaves scores dead — and civilians often fall in the crossfire.

In one incident, more than 200 people, mostly unarmed villagers, died when Athor attacked the barely guarded village of Fangak in February. When the southern army counterattacked weeks later and drove Athor from his base, the civilian toll was also reportedly high.

Since last week, forces loyal to Bapiny Minutuel Wijang, a former warlord who is now a general in the northern army, have clashed heavily with the southern army in Unity state, killing at least 70, and likely many more, according to reports.

A series of clashes on the Upper Nile capital of Malakal by a militia commander known simply as Oliny have left more than 100 dead. It was the latest between armed elements of the Shilluk tribe and the government's dominant Dinka ethnic group. Last year, the southern military undertook a brutal disarmament crackdown in Shilluk land, an opposition stronghold. The campaign widely abused civilians, according to Human Rights Watch.

Local grievances enable the easy recruitment of manpower, but observers also fear that a wartime culture where military might equals political bargaining power is encouraging the insurgencies.

"In politically volatile times, different actors need to position themselves," says Johan Brosche, a Sudan researcher at Uppsala University in Sweden. "Some elites are willing to take up arms to gain positions within the government or other concessions from it."

The situation could become worse if a broader umbrella movement forms under the leadership of Athor, whose forces remain at large despite being driven from their base in northwestern Jonglei state. Last week, the southern army intercepted another militia commander, David Yauyau, from the Murle tribe, after an alleged liaison mission to Athor's camp. Heavy clashes followed.

(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His reporting is supported in part with a grant from Humanity United, a California-based foundation supporting human rights.)

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