Precarious South Essential to Sudan

Inter-tribal cattle raids between the tribes in South Sudan have escalated recently, leaving hundreds dead and thousands of displaced people behind.
SOURCE: | The Washington Post - April 25, 2009
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 25, 2009

BOR, Sudan -- The nascent government of southern Sudan, a key U.S. ally in the volatile nation, is threatened by severe problems including severe cash shortages and growing ethnic tensions spawned by a national ruling party determined to see the south fail, southern officials say.

The future of Sudan as a whole is closely tied to what happens in this oil-rich region, where the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement, or SPLM, fought a brutal, 21-year civil war against the government rooted in claims of discrimination by a northern, Arab elite. More than 2 million southerners died in the conflict, and millions more were displaced.

A U.S.-backed deal ending the war in 2005 transformed the rebels into a semiautonomous government, and promised power-sharing with the central government and a referendum on southern independence in 2011. In the process, the SPLM emerged as a symbol of hope for millions of Sudanese and became one of the few viable political challengers to the ruling party led by Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, whom the International Criminal Court has charged with war crimes in a separate crisis in the country's western Darfur region.

But as attention has focused on Darfur, the south's troubles have multiplied. The four-year-old government is facing a $100 million-a-month cash-flow shortage caused by declining oil revenue, according to a recent report by the group Refugees International. And across the south, massive cattle raids are overwhelming local authorities and increasing tribal tensions kept at bay during the war.

In the scrubby landscape surrounding this town where the civil war began, the spear-and-machete raids of the past have become more like military operations. Machine-gun toting, camouflage-wearing tribal militias use satellite phones and launch rocket-propelled grenades to move thousands of stolen cattle. In February, young militiamen from the Lou Nuer tribe captured an entire town, displacing at least 5,000 people as southern soldiers stood by and watched, according to local officials and aid workers, who say that more than 700 people were killed in the incident. A retaliatory attack by the Murle tribe against the Lou Nuer this month killed more than 250 people, according to local officials.

"With this insecurity, we can't collect taxes, we can't open schools, we can't drill for water," said Abraham Jok Aring, the Bor county commissioner. "Sometimes people tell me it was better during the war, because at least then we were getting support from the international community."

Southern officials accuse Bashir's inner circle of continuing to arm tribal militias that were used as proxies during the civil war and of other dirty tricks aimed at destabilizing the region ahead of the 2011 referendum on its independence. They say the north has gerrymandered boundaries to ensure that oil areas are in the north, undercounted southerners in a recent census, and dispatched militia leaders to contested oil areas to intimidate war-weary southerners.

The incidents are "indicative of the ruling party's intention to sabotage the referendum," said John Prendergast, co-chairman of the Enough Project, an advocacy group working to prevent genocide. "This regime will set the south on fire using these proxy militias rather than allow a referendum to occur."

Corruption and Tribalism

Increasingly, though, southerners are blaming the southern liberation movement itself.

In recent years, southern officials have been caught up in corruption scandals in which they have been accused of wasting millions of dollars. Tribalism is emerging in southern politics, with politicians accusing one another of manipulating ethnic divisions for their own gain. Some complain that power is concentrated in the hands of the Dinka, the tribe of the movement's revered late leader John Garang. Government campaigns to disarm civilians have been spotty at best, with weapons left over from the war fueling the cattle-raiding epidemic devastating southern communities that depend on cows for everything from marriage dowries to school fees.

"The SPLM has not endeared itself to many parts of south Sudan," said Taban Lo Liyong, a literature professor at the University of Juba, in the regional capital, and a frequent critic of the movement. "You can't keep repeating, 'It's the Arabs, it's the Arabs, it's the Arabs.' "

The government of southern Sudan started from scratch four years ago. Newly appointed officials fresh from the bush had to learn to call one another "honorable" instead of "comrade," as well as how to run a government. Juba, the swampy capital, was essentially a collection of straw huts along the Nile River. Outlying towns, including Bor, were mostly bombed-out bush clearings.

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