With few months left until the South Sudan referendum, the ruling south Sudanese party, or SPLM, is preparing for the vote by cleaning house. Since last week, President of South Sudan Salva Kiir has very publicly extended olive branches to a number of rebel leaders, political opposition, and other armed actors in the South who have the potential to stir up violence and threaten the vote. These actors have diverse agendas and varying sources of support, but all have unsettled grievances with the ruling party.
Kiir reportedly sat down with opposition leader Lam Akol in a rare meeting two weeks ago in Juba. Akol, who is the leader of the opposition party SPLM-DC and ran against Kiir for presidency, welcomed the outreach, saying, “The most important thing for all of us is how to do and prepare a conducive atmosphere for the referendum.” Talks with Sudanese army Major-General Gabriel Tanginye have reportedly compelled the general, formerly aligned with the northern army, to join the SPLA. Tanginye’s forces – which make up the northern portion of the joint North-South force in Upper Nile – have been major sources of instability, clashing twice with the SPLA in Malakal, in 2006 and 2009.
President Kiir offered amnesty to George Athor and Galwak Gai, both of whom led rebellions motivated by election grievances. In response, Athor declared a ceasefire with the SPLA and said that negotiations with the army would begin soon, in an interview with Miraya FM.
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.
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.