Rebel leader's attacks don't bode well for South Sudan

George Athor, leader of a rebel militia in South Sudan, has broken his ceasefire with South Sudan's military, fracturing the future country at the time it most needs to be unified.

By , Guest blogger

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    Puok Kai, 30, a Southern Sudanese prison officer, grimaces in pain as the dressing on his gunshot wound is changed in the Juba Teaching Hospital on Feb.15. Kai was wounded when southern rebel leader George Athor launched an attack on December 9-10. Southern leaders have accused Khartoum of backing Athor's rebellion and of supporting other militia activity in the south.
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George Athor, a former lieutenant-general in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA, the military wing of South Sudan’s ruling party, the SPLM), defected from the SPLM during last year’s election season. Athor “felt overlooked when the party nominated candidates for last April’s presidential and legislative elections. He stood as an independent for the governorship of the south’s swampy Jonglei state and lost to SPLM incumbent Kuol Manyang.” Following his defeat at the polls, he and his men began attacking SPLM targets.

On the eve of this year’s referendum in January, Athor signed a ceasefire with the SPLM. Now that the referendum is over, Athor has broken the ceasefire. “Fighters loyal to Athor captured the town of Fangak in Jonglei on Feb. 9 and attacked an SPLA base,” killing some two hundred persons. The Economist‘s Baobab blog commented that the attack “bodes ill for the soon-to-be created country. In fact, this may be the single worst bit of news since the referendum.” The author added

The greatest threat to the creation of a state of South Sudan comes from internal conflicts. The civil war with the north, where the central government is based, ended in 2005 and while fighting has flared up on occasion, the peace has held overall. At the same time, tensions between the various armed groups inside the south have remained high. The South Sudanese are perhaps their own worst enemies.

Grim predictions about internal conflict in South Sudan received further corroboration this week when Athor’s rebels clashed with the SPLM again.

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The fighting began on Sunday in Fangak county, the same area where more than 200 people were killed last month.

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[The BBC] correspondent in the southern capital, Juba, Peter Martell, says the battles are localised and are very unlikely to affect the rest of the south, but it is one more sign of the challenges the south faces to improve security and bring its people together.

The BBC’s take differs somewhat from the Economist‘s, but both see Athor’s rebellion as a bad sign for South Sudan.

The possibility and the precedent exist for political reconciliation between the SPLM and Athor, but successive battles, especially ones that bring mass casualties, could harm the chances of a negotiated settlement to the conflict. A persistent internal rebellion could in turn hamper the SPLM’s ability to build a stronger state. Finally, Athor’s rebellion might foreshadow further dissent in the future. Some analysts have said that opening the political space is one of the foremost challenges the rulers of the world’s youngest country face. Not all dissidents will take up arms, of course, but opposition to the SPLM will be a significant issue in South Sudan going forward.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.

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