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Field Dispatch: Election Grievances Reverberate in the Countdown to the South’s Referendum

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Field Dispatch: Election Grievances Reverberate in the Countdown to the South’s Referendum

Posted by Maggie Fick on July 14, 2010

Field Dispatch: Election Grievances Reverberate in the Countdown to the South's Referendum

In the immediate aftermath of Sudan’s elections back in April, several potential flashpoints emerged. While the polls had passed generally peacefully in the South (at least at face value), the post-elections period has been marked by an escalation in tensions. The perception in some areas of the South that polls were rigged, combined with continued abuses by security forces and growing concerns that proxy militias are becoming more active, are making for a volatile stew in the countdown to the southern independence referendum.


Continuing insurrections
The clearest indication of the escalating tensions in the post-elections period are the three separate uprisings launched following contested local races in Jonglei and Unity states by dissident former members of the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army, or SPLA, and the ruling SPLM party. The leaders of these rebellions—Lieutenant General George Athor, the defeated opposition party candidate David Yauyau in Jonglei, and Galwak Gai in Unity—have expressed their discontent with the Juba-based government and with the political leadership in their own states in particular through militancy. Aside from the threat of violence these rebellions pose, what is perhaps most alarming is that the southern government, led by the ruling SPLM party, and the SPLA itself, have proved incapable of resolving them, either politically or militarily:
  • With support from the United Nations Mission in Sudan, the GoSS initially tried but failed to reconcile with Lieutenant General George Athor through negotiations. Athor, the defeated gubernatorial candidate in Jonglei and former commander of SPLA troops in the state, refused to accept anything short of removal of the incumbent (and victorious) Governor Kuol Manyang from his post, along with immunity for the renegade general and his troops. Athor’s forces clashed numerous times in May with the SPLA troops sent to contain the general, and U.N. sources quietly expressed concern for the civilians trapped inside Athor’s area of operation. There are allegations that Athor has given weapons (reportedly collected during the pre-elections civilian disarmament campaign in Jonglei, which occurred when he was still commanding the SPLA in the state) to some of his supporters.
  • Following the hotly-contested gubernatorial race between incumbent strongman Governor Taban Deng (who was re-elected and is known to have strong support from the southern president Salva Kiir) and his rival Angelina Teny (the wife of the southern vice president Riek Machar Teny), Unity state has seen a number of military attacks led by former SPLA member Galwak Gai in the northwestern area of the state. The state government has been quick to link the attacks to the Khartoum government, and they accuse Khartoum of supplying Gai with weapons and supporters recruited from the pastoral Misseriya group who graze cattle in areas along the tense North-South border. Sharp discontent within communities in restive Mayom County (home of the Deputy SPLA Commander and powerful former war-time militia leader Paulino Matip) over the Governor’s choice for county commissioner could signal further problems ahead.
The southern government and the army claim that they have these rebellions under control; in fact, the SPLA has announced the defeat of both Athor and Galwak on several occasions. However, Athor and Galwak have not given up their struggles, and the SPLA continues to deploy more troops and resources to address the insurgencies with little success. The majority of citizens in both Jonglei and Unity states do not seem to broadly support Athor’s and Galwak’s insurgencies, given that the overriding priority of southerners is the referendum and subsequent secession of the South. But, there is little doubt that broad discontent with the southern government and localized dissatisfaction with particular state-level leadership will not end with the referendum, no matter what its result. The ability of the Khartoum government to stoke tensions both in the run-up and aftermath to the referendum also remains a very real fear, and was a long-exploited strategy during the previous civil war.
Repressive tendencies
The post-elections environment has also been marked by further restrictions on political freedom not only in North Sudan, but also the South. A recent Enough research trip to Bentiu, the capital of Unity state, found that state government officials view political opposition, both during the elections and currently, as a crime against the state—an attitude that motivates the heavy-handed approach the SPLM/A has adopted against dissidents.
Unsurprisingly, this behavior is generating hostility among local populations that will increase the likelihood of further unrest over time.
Upper Nile state also presents a telling example of the severity of the SPLM response to post-elections political opposition. Security forces associated with the SPLM have violently quashed dissent, often with grievous consequences for civilians who may or may not be directly allied to any opposition.
It is difficult to assess whether the ongoing abuses by southern security forces, notably the army, in Upper Nile are centrally directed by the Juba government. Regardless, in recent weeks, the southern army has been directly implicated in abuses against civilians. According to UN sources, several villages in Fashoda County were reportedly burned by SPLA troops on the eastern side of the Nile River, and some estimates indicate that the populations of more than 10 villages have fled into hiding in the bush, with reports that valuables were looted following the displacement.
Again, although the current violence in Upper Nile may not be orchestrated by the army’s leadership in Juba, it is propelled by the perceived challenge against SPLM leadership. The four members of parliament elected to the South Sudan Legislative Assembly from opposition party SPLM-Democratic Change were arrested in early June. These MPs hailed from constituencies in Upper Nile state, where the founder of SPLM-DC, Dr. Lam Akol, is known to have his support base, primarily among the Shilluk minority group. Thus, recent reports of SPLA abuses recent weeks in Upper Nile have a distinctly political and ethnic dimension, which is reminiscent of the sentiment expressed by SPLM politicians in other states such as Unity. Reports that Shilluk civilians, including women, children and traditional chiefs, were assaulted during a SPLA-led disarmament campaign in May in Upper Nile—because of their believed association with the SPLM-DC—underscore the severity of this issue.
The Task at Hand
As the governors of the ten southern states form governments that balance complex ethnic, political, and military dynamics, it is crucial that the Juba leadership take steps to reign in southern security forces. The balance is a tricky one: the South must be in a position to respond effectively to militia provocations from the North, but it must also be wise enough to recognize and tolerate legitimate southern political dissent.