Relations between North and South Sudan deteriorating amid rebel violence

Violence in towns along Sudan's north-south border has prompted a flurry of accusations that are setting a poor stage for the country to peacefully split this summer.

Tim Freccia/AP
A UNMIS peacekeeper patrol on APC in Abyei, South Sudan on March 11. Scores of villagers have died in recent fighting in South Sudan despite the presence of 10,000 UN troops mandated with protecting civilians. Now, internal documents say UN officials have ordered the peacekeepers not to operate in an area where civilians are at risk in upcoming battles, after being asked to avoid the region by the south's military.

Border relations between North and South Sudan have not been very smooth of late.

This weekend, there was an overnight raid by a southern militia on South Sudanese army forces stationed in the strategic South Sudanese town of Malakal, which the army immediately blamed on the Khartoum government. Then, a top South Sudanese government official announced the suspension of talks with the north’s ruling National Congress Party, accusing the northern government of backing the rebel militia responsible for some of the instability that has rocked the oil-rich south in the month since the results of its independence referendum were announced.

On Tuesday, former South African President Thabo Mbeki, who leads a panel of former African heads of states supporting the North-South negotiations, traveled to Juba to meet with South Sudan's leader Salva Kiir, presumably to encourage the south's ruling party to resume contact with the Khartoum government. After this meeting, Mr. Mbeki told reporters that he was optimistic that the two sides could find common ground and resolve the array of complex "post-independence" issues before July. Ambassador Princeton Lyman, the US government's liaison to the north-south talks, was also in Juba pushing similar messages.

Deteriorating relations between North and South are the last thing Sudan needs as the country’s partition approaches. With a host of important issues regarding future arrangements between the two regions nowhere near being resolved by the northern and southern Sudanese leadership, a breakdown in the talks is a sign of more trouble ahead.

On Monday, Pagan Amum, secretary-general of the south’s ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, leveled harsh allegations against the Khartoum government for the third day running. In his latest briefing to diplomats and journalists in the South Sudanese capital of Juba, Amum presented documents in Arabic which he asserted were proof of the north’s ill intentions. Khartoum's officials have repeatedly dismissed such allegations as baseless. However, the history of the brutal North-South war, in which Khartoum used southern proxy militias to weaken the South Sudanese secessionist movement it fought for more than two decades, suggests that the President Omar al-Bashir-led regime could be up to its same tricks again.

Two months ago, President Bashir garnered international praise for allowing the South’s independence vote to go ahead peacefully – something his government had pledged to do six years ago when it signed a 2005 peace deal with the south.

Now, with violence once again rocking South Sudan and hundreds killed in the past month as the army attempts to contain a number of southern rebellions, the Juba government may be justified in accusing its supposed “peace partner” of wrongdoing in its territory.

At the same time, officials like Amum present a starkly black and white portrait of the violence, failing to acknowledge that some of the grievances of the southern rebels may be grounded in real governance and security problems in the fledgling state.

In any case, a collision course is in the making if Northern and Southern leaders don’t find a way to meet back at the negotiating table – and soon.

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

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