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South Sudan's ruling party mending ties with opposition

South Sudan's ruling party, SPLM, is trying to make amends with opposition groups in order to be more unified ahead of the January referendum.

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The most striking quote from these reconciliations – which the BBC suggests is an attempt by the SPLM to demonstrate to the UN Security Council its seriousness about referendum security – came from Salva Kiir, who reportedly said to Akol: “Political differences should not become obstacles to the general public good.” This message has always been the bottom line of the ruling party, but it hasn’t always been delivered via gestures of inclusivity. Until the last couple of months, the SPLM has largely attempted to remove – not harmonize – political differences and challenges to the ruling party, using military force, harassment, and oppression.

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During the April elections, members and supporters of opposition parties and independent candidates were widely persecuted by the SPLA. An attack in Upper Nile this past June, presumed by the SPLA to be linked to Akol and the opposition party SPLM-DC, spurred SPLA retaliations against not only suspected militia members, but on SPLM-DC supporters and many civilians of the Shilluk ethnic group in general. A Small Arms Survey brief on the situation noted: “Human rights observers reported the army engaging in summary executions, rape, destruction of property, and looting – all accusations the SPLA rejects.” SPLA harassment even extended to aid workers in both Upper Nile and Unity states. In Jonglei, a sharp increase in SPLA presence in response to Athor’s rebellion severely limited UN humanitarian access for several months.

The marked shift toward inclusivity comes just before the highly important independence vote takes place. Whether the change from force to negotiation represents a genuine change in the ruling party’s governance strategy, or whether it is just a convenient and temporary attempt to sweep problems under the rug, remains to be seen. The SPLM appears likely to quell the threats posed by Tanginye, Athor, and Akol by awarding them greater positions of military or political power. Will this strategy make the South safer, or will other potential spoilers now see a tangible gain to be made? It depends on how these negotiations are carried out and how genuinely inclusive the SPLM becomes. When the CPA interim period ends, the SPLM will lose its most powerful unifying tool: the common fight for independence. Genuine southern dialogue and political redress of the varying grievances and sense of marginalization found throughout South Sudan will be key to the viability of what could be a new state with the SPLM at its helm.

Amanda Hsiao blogs for the Enough Project at Enough Said.

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