South Sudan: A Million Mutinies Now?

JUBA, Sudan—Salva Kiir Mayardit, the future president of the future Republic of South Sudan, wanted to make one thing perfectly clear.

Opening the 2011 session of south Sudan’s regional parliament amid an air of celebration on Jan. 24, the Stetson-wearing bush fighter took pains to note that he wasn’t going anywhere.

“There is no vacuum in leadership, as many of you are already thinking,” he told the gathering of legislators, Cabinet ministers, and army generals. “Those who think that I will step down after the referendum are wrong. I was given the mandate by the people, and I have to fulfill my obligations.”

Juba had for weeks played host to rumors that Kiir, having led southern Sudan to the gates of independence, was now tired of the place—disgusted, even—and wanted only to step down.

Since assuming power after the 2005 death of his predecessor, charismatic rebel leader John Garang, Kiir had worked with a singular drive to unite south Sudan’s dozens of tribal, regional, and militia factions. In the face of sabotage and provocation from the central government in Khartoum, nothing less than a unified front would ensure a successful referendum—and the south’s long-awaited statehood.

Now, the whispers said, he’d had enough of the corruption, of the cronyism, of the Hummers plying the newly paved streets of Juba. Rivals smacked their lips at the prospect of his departure. So the president slapped them down.

“There are people whose appetites for power are sharp,” a member of parliament told me. “He was warning them that they should be patient, that there is no vacancy.”

But if the presidency of South Sudan is Kiir’s, then so, too, are the responsibilities of leading a country that will sit near the absolute bottom of the world’s poverty indices, where the government has yet to wrap its mind around the idea of a loyal opposition, and where Kalashnikovs are plentiful and cheap.

The future Republic of South Sudan will not be the kind of place where people set themselves on fire to protest injustice.

There are currently two armed insurrections taking place on southern soil. In Jonglei state, a rebellion led by Lt. Gen. George Athor, a one-time deputy chief of staff in the southern army, supposedly ended with a Jan. 5 peace treaty, but in February his forces were involved in clashes with the southern military that killed at least 200 people, including dozens of civilians. (Update, March 3, 2011: The number of dead is now estimated to be at least 300.)

Athor was a well-liked figure in the south’s formerly rebel army, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, but he took to the bush after failing to unseat the incumbent Jonglei governor in Sudan’s 2010 general election. “I won the election,” Athor told me in an interview from his base near the White Nile river. “They rigged my vote.”

Those April elections, already forgotten by most of the world, didn’t go as smoothly as January’s referendum, in which 99 percent of southerners voted to secede from Sudan. There was widespread cheating in the north, where the ruling National Congress Party all but shut out the opposition. Things were rough in the south, as well, but at the time it appeared some real competition had taken place—an independent candidate won the governorship of one state, and a few ruling-party stalwarts lost their seats in parliament.

Since then, however, several southern politicians and analysts have told me that the south’s ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, was only able to hold many of the region’s governorships through fraud.

“The governorships are too strategic to be democratized yet,” one longtime observer of Sudanese politics told me. Athor, claiming he’d been robbed, went rogue.

“The future of South Sudan is very gloomy,” Athor said. “There’s going to be a civil war.” As we spoke on Jan. 25, Athor claimed that southern troops were massing at a spot 50 miles from his camp, in violation of the Jan. 5 cease-fire agreement. On Feb. 9, his forces took over the town of Fangak amid heavy fighting with the SPLA and were then repulsed.

Athor isn’t the only renegade. In Unity, an oil-rich border state, Col. Gatluak Gai, reportedly aided by the Islamist regime in Khartoum, has been fighting since a local favorite lost that state’s governorship to the party’s chosen man. Dozens have died in Gai’s private war.

The fear is that southern Sudan will see an explosion of these small rebellions as more people with grievances, legitimate or otherwise, begin to assert themselves now that independence is assured. These conflicts come on top of the perennial security woes created by a centuries-old culture of violent cattle raiding.

On Feb. 4, southern militiamen in and around the Nile port city of Malakal, who fought on the side of Khartoum during the civil war, took up arms against their Arab officers after receiving orders to send their tanks and other heavy weaponry north of the border as part of an ongoing withdrawal of northern military assets from the south. Without the armor, those fighters would have scant leverage in negotiating their re-entry into the southern security forces. Sixty-six people were killed, including two children, as the mutineers fought their northern officers in a battle that included the use of mortars and heavy machine guns.

Kiir will be torn between deploying the army in an attempt to break these new rebellions and accommodating their leaders with budget-busting jobs in the military and government.

Already the south’s coffers have been drained by a bloated civil service, an overstuffed military with a payroll of 300,000 people, and massive corruption. In the cause of holding the south together, Kiir looked the other way while many millions of dollars were stolen from the public and sent to safe havens in the United States, Kenya, Europe, and Australia. Many of the worst culprits have been Kiir’s strongest supporters, elites of the Dinka tribe from Northern Bahr El-Ghazal state.

“It’s my own people who let me down,” he reportedly said at a party conclave last April.

Kiir’s current challenge is to find a way to keep the peace while at the same time paying less for it.

“He is surrounded by people who do not know what they are doing,” a senior member of parliament told me. “It is just to address a particular region or interest or tribe. I don’t know if he will learn.”

It’s not that the south doesn’t have capable administrators and thinkers who embody the higher ideals of the liberation war. It does—among others in people like Anne Itto, the agriculture minister and deputy chair of the ruling party, and Peter Adwok Nyaba, a geology Ph.D. and former rebel fighter who now represents the south as minister of higher education in Khartoum.

But these progressive figures have limited influence over the south’s government; they don’t command rafts of gunmen, and they’re not willing to hold the peace hostage to get what they want.

There is much to be done before July 9, when Sudan will officially break in two. The north-south border still hasn’t been demarcated; the status of more than a million southerners living in the north hasn’t been addressed; and there will surely be a battle over the disputed Abyei region, which the north claims as its own, despite two legally binding decisions that have ruled Abyei is part of the south.

On Feb. 8, the day the official results of the secession referendum were certified, Kiir announced a new anti-corruption drive.

“I concentrated on the implementation” of the historic vote for separation, Kiir said, “and that gave opportunities for the thieves to put their hands in the pockets of the government. Now that the referendum is over … the war against them will now begin.”

I don’t know if Salva Kiir plays chess, but it’s not unusual to find a chessboard among the few amusements available in the parched and scattered camps of the southern army. Keeping South Sudan from imploding over the next year will require the skills of a grand master.

Click here to read a slide show  on the Sudanese referendum.

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