Wave of Violence Raises Worries About Southern Sudan

Juba, Sudan – An alarming wave of violence has racked Southern Sudan in the two weeks since its upcoming independence was announced, raising worries about the long-term prospects for the world’s soon-to-be newest country.

The most recent fighting, which left a dozen people dead, took place Saturday. It came after a series of seemingly unrelated clashes that together have killed at least 175 people since Feb 3.

The unrelated nature of the disputes heightens concern in a country where a culture of violence has become deeply embedded during decades of civil war and where centralized rule traditionally has been weak or nonexistent.

“I think what we are probably seeing now are pent-up issues that have been there all along,” said Andrew Natsios, a Georgetown University professor who was a special envoy to Sudan during the George W. Bush administration.

Whether the new government will be able to overcome those divisions could be its most important test when independence becomes official in July.

Southern Sudanese voted on the issue of independence in a referendum Jan. 9-15 that was the centerpiece of a U.S.-backed 2005 peace deal that sought to end decades of conflict between Sudan’s Arab-led north and its largely black African south. When the referendum’s results were announced Jan. 30, 99 percent of southern Sudanese had voted for independence.

But that unanimity started to crumble even before the results were officially certified and accepted by Sudanese President Omar al Bashir a week later.

The first fighting took place Feb. 3, when Sudan’s northern army began to withdraw from the south in preparation for the nation’s partition. Former southern militiamen who were aligned with the Sudanese government in Khartoum during the war and had joined the northern army after the 2005 peace deal — and are now to be disarmed and discharged — mutinied after orders came to pull up northward along with all their equipment.

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The fighting broke out first in Malakal, the capital of the oil-rich Upper Nile state, and spread across Upper Nile to at least three other army garrison towns, leaving at least 60 people dead, according to the state government.

On Feb. 9, rebel forces loyal to a renegade general, George Athor, attacked two villages in the south’s Jonglei state, breaking a month-old cease-fire. One of the villages was overrun before the Southern Sudanese military recaptured it. At least 105 died.

Saturday’s fighting pitted the Jur Bel tribe of farmers against the Dinka tribe of nomadic cattle ranchers. The alleged killing Friday of a Jur Bel trader by Dinka tribesmen triggered the fighting. It was fueled by long-standing tensions between the Jur Bel and the Dinka, who often send their cattle across Jur Bel land in search of greener pastures in the dry season.

The violence also has its roots in the civil war, which left more than 2 million Sudanese dead. During the war, the Sudanese government in Khartoum armed breakaway southern militias to fight the main southern rebel group, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. As a result, southerners spent much of the war fighting one another instead of the northern forces.

In 2009, more than 2,500 were killed in internal clashes and nearly 400,000 displaced, according to the United Nations. That number fell last year, partly due to better harvests, an improvement in prices for Sudan’s oil exports and — perhaps most importantly — political resolve across the southern spectrum to keep a lid on internal strains in the run-up to the referendum.

But disputes come from many directions. Athor, for example, took up arms after he didn’t win a governor’s race in April 2010 elections that he described as rigged.

The southern political equation could face additional conflicts as oil money flows into the new nation’s coffers; most of Sudan’s oil is in the south.

Natsios, however, hopes that rather than spurring greedy conflicts over access to the national pie, the prospect of improved services could draw people to the new government in Juba. He said he expected the violence to calm.

“The south has resources, money. If people want to be supported, they will have to behave,” he said.

(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His reporting from Sudan is supported in part by Humanity United, a California-based foundation that focuses on human rights issues.)