Four months into nationhood, South Sudan struggles

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 20, 2011 

NAIROBI, Kenya — A South Sudanese rebel leader with suspected ties to Sudan declared more people "must die" for the cause of peace and democracy in the world's youngest nation after talks here between him and the South Sudanese government broke down after less than a week of negotiations.

Even though it is barely four months old, South Sudan is already struggling to withstand the full burden of statehood, weighted down in no small part by the icy hostility it shares with the government in Sudan, its northern neighbor and historical enemy.

For decades, the black African South Sudanese waged a brutal bush war against the Arab government in Khartoum. Western interlocutors hoped Sudan's split into a northern and southern country in July would seal the end of that war, but instead it appears to have spawned a murkier proxy war that could escalate further.

Each side accuses the other of supporting rebels across their new border, and both sides equally deny the other's charge.

One of South Sudan's most notorious rebel heads, George Athor, whose men are accused of massacring more than 200 in a February assault in a remote village that pushed hundreds of civilians into a river trying to flee, said he arrived in Nairobi on Monday for talks with South Sudan's leader, President Salva Kiir, who then appointed a team to negotiate a peace deal. Kiir's delegation has returned to Juba, South Sudan's capital, after talks reached an impasse, said Athor on Sunday at a hotel poolside in Nairobi.

"The talks have broken down," said the South Sudanese longtime general who rebelled against his party after losing a gubernatorial race over a year ago.

"President Kiir was positive, but it was not the same with his delegation," said the aging and short-statured Athor, flanked on both sides by his close advisors. "We agree on some points, but other points we have not reached an agreement."

Athor's demands include cabinet-level posts in the government, "reparations" for the populace of the territories he claims to control, new nationwide elections, and the dissolution of the Jonglei state government, where he ran unsuccessfully as an independent candidate for governor in April 2010.

At the time, Athor was the deputy chief of staff of South Sudan's army, but he rebelled soon after, claiming the polls were rigged by South Sudan's ruling party, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement. He then formed the South Sudan Democratic Movement, and claims to be coordinating with South Sudan's other main rebels.

A more likely outcome, judging from previous arrangements struck to reign in South Sudan's steady stream of breakaway splinter groups and self-styled warlords, is that any deal with Athor will include a hefty private payment to Athor, fancy government titles for Athor and his top aides, and an incomplete integration of Athor's men into South Sudan's already bloated and undisciplined army.

When asked how to explain his rebellion to South Sudan's war-battered population, Athor answered first metaphorically: "You can not make an omelet without breaking eggs." Then more directly: "People must die so that we have peace, we have democracy, and sacrifices have to be made."

Athor also repeatedly denied receiving any material backing from the regime of President Omar al Bashir in Khartoum, although one of his delegation members admitted to being based in the Sudanese capital.

Bashir has a long history of arming proxy militias during Sudan's civil war, which ran from 1983 to 2005, to keep control of oil fields and divide South Sudanese.

While there is no imminent sign that the Sudan and South Sudan will slip back into that full-out war, diplomats and longtime observers fear the budding proxy wars on their shared but disputed oil-packed border could negate whatever benefits world and regional powers hoped would result from this year's contentious division of the old Sudan, which had been Africa's largest nation.

The SPLM says that Bashir's bloody meddling in their territory never ceased after Sudan's landmark 2005 peace deal, the product of years of U.S. and regional mediation efforts. Meanwhile, the Khartoum government has regularly accused South Sudan's leaders of forging ties with rebels in Sudan's western region of Darfur.

That mutual bitterness spiked in June, when Sudan's South Kordofan state erupted into conflict between the government and rebels based in the Nuba Mountains, one of the black African communities that sided with the south during the civil war but officially falls in Sudanese territory.

African Union-mediated talks to broker final deals between the neighbors on oil-sharing and disputed border territories have sputtered to the brink of falling apart, leaving little immediate prospect of a political solution to the crisis.

The conflicts in Sudan and South Sudan could suck in the other regional players, further complicating a part of the globe contending with an imploding Somalia. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has been a fierce critic of Bashir and SPLM's strongest historical backer. Meanwhile, formerly poor relations between Eritrea and Sudan have improved in recent years.

The South Sudanese army suspects that Athor is also receiving assistance from the ostracized Eritrean government, is under international sanctions for its alleged support of Somalia Islamist militant group al Shabab. Eritrea denies arming the Somali group.

A United Nations investigation found that rocket-propelled grenades captured from Athor's forces bore identical serial numbers to models Eritrea reportedly supplied to an Ethiopian rebel group.

When asked by a McClatchy reporter on Sunday if he had ties to the Eritrean government, Athor paused, before asking, "If I ask you about your girlfriend will you be happy to tell me (her) name?"

When pressed, he then denied any connections with the Asmara regime.

McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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