As South Sudan rapidly approaches the referendum which will decide whether it remains with the North or becomes its own state, issues of insecurity and outbreaks of violence continue to plague the regions bordering the proposed North-South divide. This is the first of two field dispatches examining ongoing developments that threaten to destabilize Unity state, arguably one of the most strategic areas of South Sudan.
Dealing with the Misseriya Militias – South Sudan’s perennial menace
On December 10, armed men from the nomadic Misseriya tribe in Kharasana, South Kordofan, detained several buses carrying south-bound returnees from Khartoum. According to some hostages who were later released, the traveling group was stopped early in the morning and kept captive in Kharasana for six days. Mobile phones were taken away from prisoners and a dug-out pit served as the only source for bathing and drinking water. Women who strayed away from the group were reportedly raped.
The incident immediately stalled ongoing negotiations between the governors of Unity state and South Kordofan over cattle compensation for the Misseriya, and threw border security controls into high alert. Though now controlled, the hostage crisis could escalate and destabilize an already sensitive border area, according to southern officials.
Road blocks, cattle rustling, and organized killings of civilians are not new tactics employed by armed groups in the region. At the beginning of the dry season every year, locals expect an increase in cattle raids, intertribal conflict, and scuffles over access to grazing and water sources. Ordinarily, before the Misseriya migrate south, they sit with local authorities to negotiate grazing rights, and then bring their cattle down for a few months before returning north around mid-year. Given the referendum, however, incidents of violence this year have taken on a new significance and are reinforcing mistrust between the North and the South.
Furthermore, acts of violence like hostage-taking and road closures over the last 18 months have meant that customary means of negotiation and conflict resolution involving herders and their host communities have continued to break down. The Misseriya have not moved south to graze their herds this year, and Unity state’s communities do not anticipate peace talks. “This year the Misseriya won’t come,” said Luka Arop, acting director of Alin payam, Pariang County’s westernmost payam. “If they come with their cattle, it won’t be official. They are the biggest threat because they steal cattle and kill, which is criminal. There is no solution for negotiating because Misseriya dishonor agreements. We don’t kill anyone, but they kill.”
Although community concerns are well-founded given the belligerence of some of the Misseriya armed groups, little is being done by state authorities to allay their fears. Community members in Pariang and Mayom counties feel that they have been left mostly to their own devices, and must make their own security arrangements given the state’s inability to reach out to rural areas. There are several areas of concern, which need to be addressed quickly.
First, a lack of proper communication channels between state authorities of the North and South, between the state and central governments, and between the state government and civil society has helped perpetuate the spread of highly exaggerated facts about incidents along the border which in turn has significantly increased the possibility of clashes in those areas. The hostage situation in particular, illustrated the prevalence of rumors over facts . There is very little agreement among leaders on the facts surrounding the Misseriya road blocks, and each has released information that appears to suit his own agenda while straining relations among communities, and between communities and state authorities. Diplomacy has been reduced to debates of claims and counterclaims, and little, if any, headway has been made on the core divisive issues.
As a result of the continuing confusion, SPLM youth representative John Matip handed over a petition to Deputy Governor William Daoud on December 13 issuing a 24-hour deadline to resolve the situation and have the returnees released or suffer severe consequences. In a rally that was attended by several hundred people, Matip said, “We cannot keep the CPA peace, if [the North and the Misseriya] do not respect it. If our people are not released within 24 hours, we will do something wrong. Everything shall become dust.” Although the 24-hour deadline could not be met, the SPLM Youth League backed away from violence as a result of intervention of a Norwegian delegation in Unity state.
Second, the lack of an agreed-upon, demarcated border, which remains disputed due to the presence of oil installations and claims by border communities, has meant that control of such incidents has become problematic. “Border demarcation is very important because it gives you legal rights to maintain security,” said Pariang County Commissioner John Mabek. “If the border is not demarcated, how will you intervene to solve problems?”
On the border regions the SPLA has built up troops around Lake Jao and Tishwin. Two battalion companies (one each from SAF and the SPLA) face each other on the state border on the main road from Bentiu to Kadugli, South Kordofan, with about 200 meters of no man’s land in between. Roads leading to Mayom County in the west, Koch County in the South, and Heglig in the North, also remain heavily patrolled.
Both Unity and South Kordofan state governors Taban Deng and Ahmed Haroun have demonstrated interest in a political solution to the cross-border challenges between the two states. Whether this is genuine interest or feigned is a matter for debate. On November 15, governors Haroun and Taban met with three Misseriya chiefs in Unity state to discuss compensation for stolen cattle and casualties over the last year and a half. It was agreed that the Misseriya would be compensated with 31 cows for each person killed, and a follow-up meeting was scheduled for December 6. On December 1, there was a Misseriya ambush in Mayom County, which from Unity state’s perspective was a “breach of contract.” Governor Haroun was blamed in the South for this incident, and the December 6 meeting was canceled, bringing reconciliation efforts between the two states to a halt. Governors Haroun and Taban then reportedly played an instrumental role in negotiating the release of detained returnees during the December 10 ambush in Kharasana, thus improving relations. It is not clear whether these talks were at the governors’ own initiatives, or whether they were carried out as directives from Juba and Khartoum.
Lastly, the Misseriya’s motivations for setting up roadblocks remain misunderstood, partly because of the failure of decision-makers to acknowledge, accept, and address their grievances. The South has refused to allow armed Misseriya to come south, allowing them entry only on the condition that they demilitarize. Years of mistrust and insecurity however, has led the Misseriya to refuse to disarm. “The Misseriya only understand cows, Arabization, and Islamization. Nothing else,” said Mabek. He, along with several other state officials, agree that the Misseriya have been used as pawns of the northern government. Until a more open dialogue at the grassroots level can be achieved, the cycle of misinformation and distrust will likely continue.
Unfortunately, these stopgap arrangements have tended to exacerbate Unity state’s security challenges. Given Unity’s strategic importance, the challenges posed by the Misseriya issue here threaten to quickly grow from local disagreements into national level predicaments unless more sustainable solutions can be found.
1 Figures for the number of buses detained by the Misseriya have ranged widely between 30 and 150. Enough recorded 15-20 buses arriving at Bentiu and Rubkona bus stations over a period of three days, with each bus carrying about 40 passengers on board. In addition, no agreement has been reached on how much compensation was paid for the release of the detainees. Al Sahafa, an Arabic newspaper, claimed that 2.5 million Sudanese pounds were paid and 307 cows were given.