South Sudan's accusations of northern interference stoke tensions

South Sudan's charges that Khartoum is arming rebel movements to destabilize the future independent country could further strain between the historic rivals.

Maggie Fick/AP
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.

It’s a gross understatement to say that Sudan’s North and South have a lot of details to sort out before July, when the oil-rich South breaks away and forms the world’s newest country. In recent news coverage in the aftermath of the south’s independence vote last month, there have been many references to the laundry list of crucial questions that must be addressed in negotiations between the south’s ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and the National Congress Party in Khartoum. Borders, oil, debt, water, citizenship... suffice it to say, these talks won’t be easy and are likely to be fraught with at least some degree of contention and mistrust, despite the successful and peaceful referendum process concluded last month.

For this simple reason, the comments this week of the secretary-general of South Sudan's ruling party at two separate news conferences in Juba, the South's capital, are concerning. On Tuesday and Wednesday, Pagan Amum, who is also the South Sudan government’s Minster of Peace and Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) Implementation, pointed his rhetorical finger directly at Khartoum for their role in sponsoring several southern militia groups opposed to the southern leadership and the army.

"It is common knowledge that all the militia groups are receiving armaments and financing and support from circles within northern Sudan," Amum told reporters on Wednesday in Juba.

“This is a strategy to destabilize Southern Sudan, I’m sure this will fail, the people of Southern Sudan are so united as you’ve seen in the referendum,” he added, as if to counter the argument that an attack on a southern town by one of these militia leaders last week in volatile Jonglei state was completely unrelated to simmering tensions within the south.

I am not convinced on a couple counts. First, while the Khartoum government’s sponsorship of proxy militias in peripheral regions of Sudan is not without precedent – Darfur is a clear recent example – the South's government has failed to produce tangible or verifiable evidence of such illicit support, save a transport helicopter captured in murky circumstances last year in Upper Nile state. On Wednesday, Amum asserted that Khartoum had provided support to a former southern militia leader bringing arms into the South once again in the aftermath of the referendum, but apart from saying the men traveled with their guns and uniforms by road, he did not provide specifics.

Second, there are deeply rooted grievances within the South, among South Sudanese, that have not yet been addressed by the South's government. Due to the rampant presence of small arms throughout the South, these grievances are often dealt with violently (for more information on the armed insurrections that sprung up after last April’s disputed elections, see these Small Arms Survey documents).

But more importantly than my opinion on the credibility of Amum’s statements is the fact that such comments stoke tensions between north and south when cooperation is badly needed to pull off the south’s “final walk to freedom,” as South Sudanese like to call the historic process which will soon result in their government’s declaration of independence. Amum himself said at the Tuesday news conference here in Juba that peaceful relations between the North and South are necessary for the stability of both regions. I hope that members of his party are urging him to exercise more restraint in his comments moving forward in this sensitive period.

Maggie Fick is a freelance journalist based in Juba, Sudan who blogs here.

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