Post-elections clashes in Pibor

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The southern Sudanese town of Pibor remains on high alert after two soldiers from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) were killed during post-election clashes there on Saturday, according SPLA officials.

The fighting raises concerns that post-election violence may spread through southern Sudan’s vast, oil-producing Jonglei state where failed gubernatorial candidate, Gen. George Athor, has been engaged in sporadic but heavy fighting with government forces since April 30th.

According to SPLA spokesman General Kuol Diem Kuol, fighting took place in Pibor on May 22 between SPLA soldiers and supporters of David Yauyau, an unsuccessful opposition candidate during Sudan’s historic elections in April. Yauyau stood for parliamentary election on behalf of the United Democratic Front (UDF), a registered and sanctioned party outside of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement.

“After losing the election, he [Yauyau] started to mobilize some of the youth against the SPLM/SPLA,” General Kuol Diem Kuol said. “On 22 May, two SPLA soldiers went to collect firewood outside Pibor town and were killed in cold blood,” he added. Large numbers of SPLA troops were reportedly deployed throughout the town and the United Nations has ordered a cessation of operations in Pibor until further notice. 10 United Nations staff working for the World Food Program were evacuated as a result of the fighting.

Yauyau says that a combination of things led him to revolt.

“My reason for fighting was the rigging of the election and that we were not given the right to vote,” he said via satellite phone. “Also, my community has been mistreated by the SPLA. They were tortured terribly and nine of them were killed during the disarmament. This is what made us angry and caused us to go out,” he added.

He refers to the ongoing military effort throughout southern Sudan to remove illegal weapons from a heavily armed civilian population. Disarmament efforts were particularly intense in the Pibor area during March and April during which military sources claim to have netted “thousands” of illegal weapons.

“The disarmament in Pibor was voluntary and no force was used,” Gen. Kuol Diem said. “If he is using disarmament as the reason he is a big liar. He is only trying to justify his crimes,” he added.

Yauyau reports that three of his supporters were wounded during separate clashes with the SPLA on 20 May. The number of his supporters is currently unknown. “We believe that there are less than 50 with him and that many of them are former Sudan Armed Forces militia,” Gen. Kuol Diem said.

During Sudan’s twenty-two year civil war, portions of the Murle tribe, which inhabits Pibor County and of which Yauyau is a member, formed militias that fought against southern rebels with arms and support from the northern Sudanese government. When the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) ended the war in 2005, many northern-aligned militia leaders and their forces were incorporated into southern political and military institutions. While the integration has thus far prevented large outbreaks of internal violence, distrust between formerly hostile factions pervades the interim southern government.

During an interview in March, Yauyau complained of restricted political freedom and harassment in Pibor during the campaign season. “We are facing a lot of restrictions here,” he said. “The SPLM will have their rallies in town while we are forced to have ours in very remote places.”

Both domestic and international election observation organizations documented cases of intimidation, arrest of opposition candidates and other irregularities throughout southern Sudan.

“We do not fear these tactics,” Yauyau said in the lead-up to the election. “Yes, some are being threatened, put in prison and some may even be killed, but this is our place and we need change.”

Southern Sudan is only eight months out from an independence referendum that will determine whether or not to secede from the north. Like the April elections, the CPA mandates the January referendum and its timely execution is a critical sticking point for southerners.

New Parliament Sworn In

Lt. Gen. James Wani Igga being sworn in for his second term as Speaker of the South Sudan Legislative Assembly (AP Photo/Pete Muller)
Lt. Gen. James Wani Igga being sworn in for his second term as Speaker of the South Sudan Legislative Assembly (AP Photo/Pete Muller)

The room feels far more like an SPLM rally than a parliamentary convention. With few exceptions, each incoming MP rises and bellows out the famous phrase, “SPLM Oyii,” which translates loosely as “SPLM on top.” The packed room echoes the phrase back to the caller. Miniature SPLM flags, known more commonly as the official flag of South Sudan, wave in the air. Verses of SPLM songs sporadically break out.

Eventually, the speaker announces the victory of a female SPLM-DC candidate. She rises defiantly and chants, “SPLM…DC!!!!” She repeats the letters four times despite pin-drop silence in the room. The leader of her party, Dr. Lam Akol, is despised by many southerners for his on-again-off-again alliance with the northern government. He challenged Salva Kiir for the Presidency of south Sudan but scored only seven percent of the vote. His ally makes a bold stand in this unfriendly room, but eventually sits down looking sheepish. The room burst into laughter.

It is clear that the SPLM plans on running the show in South Sudan for the foreseeable future. I would hate to be an opposition party in the room today. As the celebration went on, I could not help but think about General George Athor and his ongoing rebellion against the SPLA in Jonglei state. While his behavior is thus far isolated, it should certainly not be dismissed or underestimated. As I’ve written here before, I believe that the irregularities and shortcomings of April elections will have unfolding ramification for the future of South Sudan. One party rule will not suffice in this embattled land.

Politics in the Green Belt

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“When the SPLA were fighting, the Dinka were told that they could take whatever land they liberated,” William explains with palpable frustration. “Now they remain here, forcing themselves on us.” He angles his battered pick-up abruptly, hoping to avoid potholes carved by recent rains. Despite his efforts, the bumps send my head crashing into the doorframe. Traveling thirty miles takes two grueling hours.

Our truck meanders through fertile plains outside of Yei, the main hub of Sudan’s deep south. Unlike many parts of the region, muscular, nourished farmers till soil along the side of the road. Steep mountains and lush hills form an unexpectedly serene backdrop, a stark departure from the arid, windswept plains farther north. The region is damp from rains that continue to elude the rest of southern Sudan. As states throughout the south remain on the brink of drought, this area enjoys not one, but two rain seasons.
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“This is the best land in south Sudan,” William says, pointing out a well-developed plot of cassava plants. Several women and children swing hoes around the base of the plants, clearing weeds. “Most of the tribes outside the Equitorias are facing hunger, but not us.” He’s referring to Central, Eastern and Western Equitoria, three of southern Sudan’s ten states. Together, the Equitorias form the borders with Congo, Uganda and Kenya and constitute a significant portion of the so-called “green belt,” or agricultural heartland.

“When the SPLA arrived here in the late 90s, many of the Dinka commanders and soldiers decided that they wanted to stay,” William explains. The Dinka tribe is the largest in south Sudan and made up the majority of the SPLA fighting force. “Many of them were from Jonglei and Bahr al-Ghazel states and those places are not nice like Yei.” The states to which he refers are the stereotypes of Sudan’s notoriously harsh environment. They are occupied by largely by pastoralist communities that prefer cattle herding to agriculture. In many areas of these states, communities suffer from severe food shortages and a lack of access to schools, health facilities and other basic services.

“Those Dinka want to keep all the power for themselves and keep the native tribes of this area down,” William adds. His eyes dart frequently in my direction as his tome becomes more political. He’s checking to make sure I’m grasping the seriousness of it all. “They are stupid people mostly, many of them have never finished secondary school.” He contrasts Dinka with the Kakwa and other tribes native to this area. “Those of Central Equitoria are the most learned people in this country,” he insists. “It is not possible for us to live under the foot of these ignorant and aggressive people.”

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Many share his sentiments here. I’ve yet to make a trip to this region that did not include at least one vitriolic tome against the Dinka. While the region shows no signs of imminent communal violence against the unwelcomed Dinka population, I fear that Equitorians retain dangerous illusions about the future status of their respective states.

“We are educated, we have resources and we are not being treated well by the Dinka who dominate the government [of South Sudan],” William says. “If things do not change, we will be forced to break away from South Sudan.” A smile spreads across his face at the idea of secession. Again, he looks readily in my direction for support, which I cannot provide.

While not all admit it, many Equitorians maintain that succession from an independent South Sudan is an option for the future. To be fair, groups in other parts of south Sudan also hold similar ideas, each citing its own reasons. I am deeply troubled by this notion because it illustrates a lack of understanding about international paradigms. With few exceptions, the international community no longer encourages nor recognizes the formation of new states. As recent history attests, it is only those secessionist movements that hold crucial geopolitical significance that are able to achieve their objectives. Those without it remain angrily tied to their central governments (see Chechnya, Somaliland, Kurdish movements in Iraq and southeastern Turkey, Islamic guerillas in southern Thailand and numerous others.)

Together, the southern Sudanese independence movement garnered international support largely due to the unpopularity of its opponent, Omar al-Bashir. With few exceptions, I do not believe that international bodies and government leadership believed in the nobility or righteousness of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. They merely saw an enemy-of-an-enemy and made it a friend. Partnership and support to the SPLA was a step towards denying resources and, consequently, revenue to a recalcitrant Bashir. International willingness to recognize southern independence is aimed at Bashir and, by extension, China and India, the primary consumers of Sudanese oil.

I fear that some in the south fail to see the political nature of international recognition and believe that further dismemberment of the country is a plausible solution to internal differences. The international community will not recognize the dissolution of southern Sudan. Once independence from the north is secured, differences between southern communities will have to be resolved within the boundaries of the “new” southern Sudan. With Bashir’s sphere curtailed, the west’s interest in southern Sudanese politics will not extend much further than securing the consistent flow of oil into friendly hands.

The fact that the broader southern independence movement is being internationally recognized sets enough of a dangerous precedent for states struggling with secessionist movements. It is a calculated and politically motivated move by the international community and should not be interpreted by southerners as a carte blanche to carve up the state every time a conflict arises. Maintaining this line of thinking only makes essential political discourse more elusive.

Mundari in Terekeka

A Mundari cattle herder in Terekeka County
A Mundari cattle herder in Terekeka County

“There has been a lot of violent raiding here,” Modi John says as we enter a Mundari cattle camp in conflicted Terekeka county. “It is because this is the last Mundari community before it becomes Dinka land.” The last raid took place in March and cost the lives of four. It was the most recent in a string of tit-for-tat raids with the neighboring Dinka and Bari tribes. Since then, many residents of this windswept and vulnerable village have taken refuge elsewhere. Several grass-thatch huts are vacant.

A Mundari woman in Terekeka country recalls a recent cattle raid during which several people were killed. Since then, the men of this village have fled.
A Mundari woman in Terekeka county recalls a recent cattle raid during which several people were killed. Since then, the men of this village have fled.

Women move slowly under a midday sun. They peel hard, dry fruits in the shade of a tree. With severely delayed rains and a largely pastoralist culture, these tough fruits are the only available food.

The men have moved to Muni, a neighboring village away from the tribal border. In late 2009, the southern Sudanese government conducted harsh disarmament campaigns in Terekeka, leaving this population largely without weapons. While disarmament is necessary, the southern government has been unwilling or unable to disarm communities concurrently. In Terekeka, the Mundari were disarmed but their Dinka neighbors were not. In the cycle of raids and revenge killings, the Mundari now feel extremely vulnerable.

Some charge that Dinka communities are rarely disarmed due to Dinka domination of the southern government and military. Tribal allegiances run deep and with so much intertribal conflict, many suspect the southern government of creating strategic advantage for their Dinka kinsmen. The issue of tribal tension and access to weapons is significant as southern Sudan moves towards its independence referendum. If non-majority tribes feel marginalized and vulnerable, the prospect of violent conflict becomes more likely.

The Mundari, like most cattle-keeping communities in the south, are disproportionately illiterate. Their native county of Terekeka has been largely without international assistance for decades. Access to education, clean water and health facilities is extremely limited.

A Mundari herder burns dung to keep flies away from young calves.
A Mundari herder burns dung to keep flies away from young calves.

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Higher Learning in South Sudan

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For the last few weeks, I’ve been working on a education feature for a Norwegian magazine called Global Knowledge. It was a fascinating opportunity to examine the unique history and current standing of Juba University. This post includes some print and photographic excerpts. I look forward to sharing the full story when it’s published later this month.

In 1989, as civil war intensified throughout southern Sudan, the governing body of Juba University arrived at a controversial decision. In a few short weeks, a small staff and modest student body abandoned their campus in the southern town of Juba and traveled 1,600 kilometers north to Khartoum, the national capital of an increasingly divided country. “We arrived to find some tents and basic shelters that had been built for us,” recalls Samuel Lewa, a staff member who took part in the move. “Like so many southerners, we at the university were also displaced.”

Two years after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement ended major hostilities between the north and south in 2005, Juba University began the formal process of returning to its original grounds. In 2007, after nearly twenty years in exile, the institution returned to a region, town and campus that were vastly different than what they left behind.

The University’s return comes during a critical period in southern Sudan’s history. In 2011, southerners are scheduled to vote in a referendum that will determine whether the south remains united with the north or becomes an independent country. Vice Chancellor Aggrey Abate believes that as the south considers independence, the issue of education is vital. “We face many development challenges in the south,” he says. “Let me tell you that education is linked to every one of them.”

The return of the University presents both tremendous opportunities and daunting challenges. Enrollment rates continue to increase annually with some 21,000 students currently enrolled in a combination on-campus and distance learning programs. Through perseverance and development, the University has vastly increased and diversified its available courses of study, which now include twelve colleges and five specialized learning centers. Its renewed presence in the south encourages a wider cross section of local society to pursue higher education.

The return is not without challenges. The campus, which remains largely as it was when it opened in 1977, is insufficient for the vast enrollment increase. “When we left in 1989, the student population was about 800,” says Vice Chancellor Abate. “With such a large increase in students, space has become an urgent issue.” Furthermore, many of the facilities remain in disrepair following nearly twenty years of insufficient maintenance. “This lab was built in 1976,” a teaching assistant in the chemistry department says. “Many things are no longer functional.”

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Murle Women

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This is a diptych of two Murle tribeswomen in southern Sudan’s Jonglei state. The girl on the right bears a traditional form of Murle scarification that is rare among women of her age.

The physical characteristics of the various tribes in southern Sudan are fascinating. In this lull between the elections and the referendum I hope to snap more portraits like these.

Elections Fallout: Looking Forward

While many saw the April elections as a mere “dress rehearsal” for the 2011 referendum, I believe that electoral shortcomings will cast a long and ominous shadow. Widespread accusations that SPLM supporters, including some within SPLM-dominated institutions, engaged in undemocratic behavior, is sure to leave indelible marks on the minds of opposition figures.

At present, southerners stare head-on at the prospect of independence in less than one year. If an independent South Sudan is to be peaceful, it is essential that its government encourage political pluralism. If dissenting voices are met with repression, the prospect of internal conflict and armed violence will be heightened significantly. There are too many weapons, grievances and idle young men for stability to prevail.

A great number of so-called independent and small party candidates across the south remain angry about the elections process. Some charge that the ruling SPLM employed undemocratic and, in some cases, inhumane tactics to ensure its electoral dominance. As a result, intra-southern tensions remain high with recent reports of violent clashes between supporters of losing independent gubernatorial candidate Gen. George Athor and SPLA troops in northern Jonglei state.

While reports are sketchy, the clashes, which left at least eight SPLA soldiers dead, are the most severe case of elections-related violence thus far. Given the extreme isolation of the area and the variance in information, it is difficult to discern whether the incident was isolated or just one phase of an emerging conflict. “He [Athor] contested as governor in Jonglei but lost,” acting SPLA spokesman Malaak Ayuen told the news agency, Reuters. “…[We think] he became angry and is trying to create insecurity,” Ayuen added.

General Athor tells a different story. “They wanted to send a force to capture me but they refused to do this and now they were trying to arrest those officers who refused to go and attack me and so there was a mutiny,” he told Reuters over a satellite phone. Athor claims to not have forces in the Dolieb Hill area, where the clashes took place.

An interesting issue to follow will be the post-election relationships between the SPLM and the independent candidates. In January, more than 300 SPLM members, many of them quite senior, broke ranks with the party after disagreements over the internal SPLM candidate nomination process. Feeling slighted, these disaffected members bucked the system and challenged official SPLM candidates independently. Some within the SPLM indicated that such “betrayal” would not be tolerated and no independents would be welcomed back into the party.

As campaigning and elections progressed, many supporters of independent candidates claim to have faced considerable harassment and intimidation. As results indicated that independents secured only one of southern Sudan’s ten gubernatorial posts, several accused the SPLM of rigging. It appears that in most cases, recount requests will be denied and political reconciliation will be required. Given the large number of independent candidates, their collective rank within the SPLM and their largely negative experiences during the election, it will be interesting what, if any, reconciliation will emerge.

The political issue is not without tentacles in the security sector. Several independent candidates hold senior rank within the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. As is the case in many nascent national armies, the SPLA is factionalized behind various members of the political leadership, many of whom formerly donned military uniforms. If post-election political reconciliation fails and schisms crystallize, the ripple effects would be felt within the SPLA.

As it stands, politicized internal divisions haunt the minds of many southerners. In such a factionalized and tense landscape, it is essential to foster civil discourse and democratic exchange between potential adversaries. I fear that the shortcomings of the April elections demonstrate the opposite.