In South Sudan the scenes of jubilation that followed a 99% referendum vote to secede from the North, have faded into fear and terror. The turbulent birth that I examined in an article last month is already beginning to unfold and with one hundred and forty eight days to go before formal independence the young state is already facing chaos.
The first significant post-referendum violence to transpire was the murder of Jimmy Lemi Milla –a minister in the South’s current autonomous government. This was quickly followed by a horrific slaughter in Jonglei, where over two hundred men, woman and children were killed by militia loyal to rebel leader George Athor; with many forced at gunpoint into a fast flowing river. In addition to its abhorrent death toll the latter of these incidents may be the more ominous for South Sudan’s future as whilst Lemi Milla’s murder appears to be a somewhat personal or isolated incident, reports surrounding the Jonglei massacre suggest that the militia’s arms may have come from the Northern government.
This would suggest a concerted effort by genocidal dictator Omar Al-Bashir and his henchmen to destabilise and undermine the South before its independence day even arrives. Having allowed the referendum and restrained from the direct military attacks that many commentators feared, in return for lucrative trade deals and softer political stances from the likes of Cameron and Obama, Al-Bashir may have just called everyone’s bluff and (whilst reaping the benefits of his ‘cooperation’) launched a far more covert campaign of terror.
Why? The reasons are numerous. Aside from some kind of perverse revenge against the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement for winning the independence struggle (and ruling out the prospect of sharing oil revenue with the North), Al-Bashir can send out powerful political signals by inciting chaos in South Sudan. To the people of Darfur this will be a thinly-veiled threat that even if they ever secure autonomy or independence he can still punish them. To the international community this will be poignant warning that South faces turmoil and thus a lure to his side over still-disputed border demarcation issues, including oil-rich territory of Abyei; which was supposed to hold a referendum of whether to join the North or South in January, but is still the subject of on-going negotiations. In the choice between whether Abyei should join a state racked with civil conflict or one that is authoritarian but moderately stable, most outsiders- desperate for fuel security- will hedge their bets with the North and could well weigh in on the matter.
There are also regional power issues at play. Al-Bashir’s Sudan, currently the biggest state in Africa, is about the loose huge swathes of its territory, its population and its resources. His government will already feel neutered and will be loathe to see a prosperous, independent South Sudan making formal treaties with old enemies such as Uganda, spending its new-found oil wealth on development and exercising political sway with surrounding states and within the African Union. Violence and pandemonium between now and 9th July can only help to undermine that.
So the motive is there, but this on it’s own is not enough to suggest that the hand of Al-Bashir is at work. What strengthens the case is the fact that the indicted war criminal has previous form when it comes to supporting local militia with the aim of destabilising a region. Most infamously, Al-Bashir funded and armed the murderous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA); despatching Joseph Kony and his band of child soldiers to South Sudan at various points during the 1983-2005 civil war and more recently to murder and pillage in Darfur. Indeed, support from Kartoum is widely regarded as one of the key reasons why the LRA has been able to continue reaping terror across central Africa for so long. It would fit with his modus operandi, therefore to covertly support George Athor’s force.
Athor himself was once a prominent military player in the SPLM but has been launching attacks since loosing his bid to become a non-partisan governor in the 2010 autonomous elections. He has long been linked to the North by the Southern government and his recent acquisition of copious landmine and AK-47 supplies only back-up these suspicions. Undoubtedly the biggest current threat to the new state’s stability, he could well have replaced Kony as the Northern government’s newest deadly puppet. South Sudan may have one it’s independence, but it is far from free of Al-Bashir’s tyranny.