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Field Dispatch: Jonglei, Southern Sudan

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This guest post was written by Maggie Fick, Enough's field researcher based in southern Sudan, and originally appeared as a field report on enoughproject.org on December 16, 2009.

Duk Padiet, Jonglei state, Southern Sudan -- Nyamun Dit Luol Kuai saw her husband shot dead when her hometown of Duk Padiet was attacked on Sunday, September 20. Nyamun's husband was shot in the forehead when he raised his head out of the grass to look for the attackers who were advancing on his home. Duk Padiet--a town of roughly 35,000 people according to the 2008 census--is about 250 kilometers North of Bor, the capital of Jonglei state. Duk Padiet is the administrative center of Duk county, which is largely populated by the Dinka, one of the major ethnic groups in southern Sudan.

The United Nations estimates that at least 70 people from Duk Padiet were killed and nearly 40 wounded in the attack, including 11 Sudan Peoples' Liberation Army, or SPLA, soldiers, four southern Sudanese policemen and an estimated 60 people from the Lou Nuer militia. Tukuls, or mud huts, in the market and in residential areas of the town were burned to the ground. Administrative structures such as the police station were also razed and the hospital and a World Food Program warehouse were ransacked. An estimated 570 people were displaced from Duk Padiet following the attack, adding to the total of nearly 360,000 people who have been displaced by violence in southern Sudan this year.

Jonglei state: Epicenter of Insecurity

In recent months, Duk County and other neighboring, largely Dinka counties in western Jonglei state, have been afflicted by several violent attacks by armed, organized, and well-trained militia from the Lou clan of a significant rival ethnic group in the South, the Nuer. These attacks come in the context of an upsurge in violence throughout Jonglei state that has pitted all of the main ethnic groups of the state against each other in patterns that often mirror the historic dynamics of intra-South conflict during the North-South civil war: violence between the Nuer and Dinka, the Murle and Nuer, and between Nuer clans are some of the central trends of the conflict reemerging in Jonglei today.

Although Jonglei has been the deadly epicenter of inter-communal violence this year in southern Sudan, armed attacks are occurring in several other states. In Upper Nile state, near Jonglei state's northern border, Dinka raiders have attacked several Shilluk settlements near the junction of the White Nile and Sobat rivers in the past month, displacing Shilluk populations north towards the already tense town of Malakal.

Jonglei is geographically the largest of the ten states in southern Sudan. According to the recent census, it is also the most populous state, with 1.3 million people counted. The rampant insecurity in Jonglei is exacerbated by a profound lack of civilian protection throughout the state, which stems from the failure of the Government of Southern Sudan and its security forces to intervene when violent clashes occur and from a United Nations Mission in Sudan, or UNMIS, presence that has proven to be much less proactive and preventive than its current civilian protection mandate allows. These issues have been well documented this year by Human Rights Watch.

The presence of small arms among the majority of the local population, who seek to protect themselves in the absence of a reliable and responsible state authority at the local level, is another enduring problem in Jonglei state, where at least three unsuccessful and violent civilian disarmament campaigns have been attempted since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, or CPA, was signed in 2005. Last month, the Government of Southern Sudan directed the southern army, or SPLA, to initiate another disarmament campaign in Jonglei. Given that the government's approach to disarmament remains coercive and flawed, this new campaign is likely to be an impetus for further violence and instability in the run-up to the April 2010 elections. Figures from the National Electoral Commission as voter registration for the elections were ongoing indicate that Jonglei state had seen the lowest voter registration turnout, with below 20% of the population registering.

The persistent and destabilizing internal security dynamics in Jonglei state must not be ignored, as they will continue to shape the security situation in southern Sudan regardless of the outcome of the South's self-determination referendum in 2011. However, the marked increase in 2009 of well-organized militia attacks, such as the attack in Duk Padiet, begs broader questions related to the increasingly antagonistic relationship between the two Sudanese parties to the CPA-- the National Congress Party in Khartoum, and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, which heads the semi-autonomous southern government in Juba.

The North's Upper Hand

The most politically charged question related to this year's violence stems from the allegations by senior members of the SPLM-led southern government that the National Congress Party, or NCP, is supporting the violence in the South by supplying proxy militias with weapons. Although no source--including the southern government, UNMIS, or any external actor--has produced a "smoking gun" to prove the involvement of Khartoum is once again sponsoring violence throughout the South, this does not mean that the possibility of northern involvement should be discounted.

This conjecture is not lacking in historical basis. During the North-South war, NCP used a similar divide-and-destroy policy to great effect across southern Sudan, skillfully manipulating internal divisions within the South and supplying weapons to local groups, with the aim of weakening the SPLA movement led by the late John Garang. Given the history of northern involvement with numerous proxy militias, and the porous borders on all side of southern Sudan--including its contested and not yet demarcated border with the North--it is naïve to think that there are not broader political power dynamics at play in the violence that has sparked throughout the South this year.

Some groups accuse southern SPLM politicians of purposefully masking internal southern problems by blaming the North for insecurity and point to an unresponsive southern government that has so far failed to deliver "peace dividends" to its largely rural population. While this critique is justified, from the perspective of the CPA's international "guarantors"--nations such as the United States who committed to help the Sudanese parties implement the peace agreement--the possibility that the North is arming militias to destabilize the South is a cause for increasing concern as Sudan hurtles toward elections that could further ignite both North-South and South-South tensions. Likewise, additional external pressure is needed on the Government of Southern Sudan to improve its response to local violence, ramp up its measures to protect civilians, and increase the presence of the southern Sudan police and security forces in tense areas of Jonglei and other states.

Historic Tensions, Current Crisis

In the area of Jonglei state where the recent Nuer-Dinka attacks occurred, the history of hostile relations between the Dinka and Nuer run deep. This was "ground zero" of the most serious split within the southern army, or SPLA, during the civil war, which occurred in 1991 between the leader of the SPLA, John Garang, a Dinka from Bor county, in Jonglei, and several of his senior commanders, including, Riek Machar, a powerful Nuer military leader who is the current vice president of southern Sudan.

The recent violence in this area, the presence of well-armed Lou Nuer militias, and the all-too recent violent past have given some members of the SPLM ruling party in Juba reason to accuse the NCP of resorting to its old tactics of proxy militia armament. Suspicions abound in the South of the reactivation of "marriages of convenience" that formed during the North-South civil war between southern leaders from minority groups such as the Nuer, militias such as the "White Army," and former SPLA factions with former northern allies.

The tensions in Nuer-Dinka relations continue into today. The Nuer populations in the counties bordering Duk to the East harbor grievances against the Juba and Jonglei state governments, which they perceive as Dinka-dominated and unresponsive to the needs of the non-Dinka southern groups. For example, the Lou populations in the large towns of Ayod and Waat, to the East of Duk Padiet, are cut off from trading routes and access to health and other services because the road from Dinka population centers, in Duk and Twic East counties, is entirely impassable. Like the Dinka, the Nuer peoples' livelihoods revolve around cattle. Access to water sources for cattle during the dry season has been a recurrent flashpoint of conflict when broader political dynamics have soured relations between neighboring Dinka and Nuer populations. Armed youth living in cattle camps are understandably susceptible to manipulation by outside actors, especially when these youth do not trust the local or central government who they perceive as unresponsive to their needs. These politicized tensions are not new, and attempts to defuse tensions through prior coercive disarmament campaigns in Jonglei state have arguably worsened relations between local groups.

All Eyes on the South

The violence in Duk Padiet and the story of Nuer-Dinka tensions in the surrounding region is only a microcosm of some of the daunting challenges facing southern Sudan today. This reality should not lend credence to the recent claims of some diplomats and members of the international community that southern Sudan is "ungovernable" or that a unified Sudan will be more stable than an independent South. The role of the CPA's guarantors is to promote and protect the fundamental tenets of the peace agreement, one of which is the right of southerners to vote in a self-determination referendum. Given that all anecdotal evident and every public opinion survey indicate that southern Sudan will vote for independence in January 2011, now is the time to harness international efforts in support of a more stable and peaceful southern Sudan in the final remaining year of the CPA's interim period.

The international community must work with the Government of Southern Sudan to improve security in particularly threatening areas of southern Sudan, such as Jonglei and Upper Nile states, to closely monitor further attacks in the South to better understand the dynamics behind the violence, and to apply pressure on the United Nations Mission in Sudan--a $1 billion per year international mission-- to take more proactive and targeted measures to protect civilians in areas where there is a strong likelihood of violence breaking out in the coming months. The North's historic role in fueling this instability should also inform the international community's approach. Absent sustained support and focused attention from the international community to the root causes of conflict in the South, the growing tensions within the South are unlikely to subside in the current volatile political climate in Sudan.

Maggie Fick is Enough's field researcher based in southern Sudan. Before joining Enough, she was a U.S. Fulbright Scholar in Niger, where she researched the role of women in urban and rural Tuareg society. While in Niger, she studied Tamashek and Hausa and wrote freelance articles about Nigerien culture and society. Her work has appeared in the International Herald Tribune, the Washington Post, and the Guardian Weekly, among other publications. Maggie holds a Bachelor's degree in international relations from Pomona College. She has traveled extensively in West Africa and is fluent in French.