Sudan’s War Inside

As pundits warn of a north-south Sudan scuffle, they might miss the real brewing conflict: within Southern Sudan.

Photo Courtesy of Pete Muller
Photo Courtesy of Pete Muller

BENTIU, Sudan—Gen. Gabriel Tanginye has a complicated relationship with his home region of south Sudan. Born and raised there, he has spent much of his life fighting for the country’s north. And during a 21-year-long north-south civil war, that meant Tanginye was fighting against his own regional kin. It’s a role he seemed to have no qualms in undertaking; in 2000, he hijacked a U.N. plane to show his displeasure with the international body’s assistance to south Sudan’s vice president. Today, he lives in the northern capital of Khartoum, supporting his southern-based family from afar.

Recently however, Tanginye has been back in south Sudan trying to make amends. With the looming January 2011 referendum, in which south Sudan is likely to vote for independence from the north, Tanginye realized that his future as a northern military commander may have a limited horizon. So when the men now leading the Southern Sudanese government came calling, Tanginye’s calculation was simple: Take the hefty reward they offered him for switching camps, rejoin the south, bring his 44,000-strong ethnic militia with him, and express his solidarity with his former enemies ahead of the crucial independence vote. Then after the ballot, reconsider his options.

These days, South Sudan is full of men like Tanginye, strategically positioning themselves for key roles in a new, independent nation. In fact, a conference in the Southern capital of Juba earlier this month was meant to take advantage of exactly that, "reconciling" the various Southern minority tribe factions. At this point, there is little attention paid to how or why those reconciliations are made; it’s a matter of patching things up long enough to ensure political and military support for independence from Khartoum. The simple message: United we stand, divided we fall.

But in a fractured country, whose divisions are usually drawn between north and south Sudan, or Khartoum and Darfur, it’s easy to forget that there are other, internal fault lines. In the south, huge fissures separate the population along tribal, linguistic, and economic lines. Two decades of civil war have made matters worse; guns and money bought alliances that have sliced apart communities and families. In recent months, the international community has been warning of a war in Sudan around the referendum — between the north and south. But even if a new independent Southern Sudan emerges without a shot being fired early next year, it may not be at peace. The convenient reconciliations taking place today look frighteningly ephemeral, which means that the coming war in Sudan might be within south Sudan.

Many of those reconciliations took place last week, when the south’s ruling party brought together more than 20 registered opposition parties at a conference aimed at building consensus on issues essential to the future of the Southern Sudan. The most significant outcome of the five-day meeting was a clear expression by the parties of their strong commitment to the January 2011 self-determination vote. Lam Akol, the leader of the breakaway Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement-Democratic Change faction, for example, ran against Southern President Salva Kiir in the April elections, but he seemed as committed as the next opposition member to southern secession. The support of these key South Sudanese political players is critical for the region’s government, because these men could prove to be spoilers if not appeased or convinced to get in line with the common agenda.

Already however, a number of signs suggest that the government’s bold attempt at political and military inclusivity won’t last long. Many of the now reconciled enemies of the Southern government happen to have significant military forces under their command, leaving a huge margin for troublemaking should alliances falter. And it’s not hard to lure many of these leaders away for a price: Since April, there have been three post-election insurrections of note.

Take Tanginye’s case, for example. Despite spending most of his life as a bush fighter, Tanginye holds powerful cards in the Southern Sudanese political arena — and he knows it. When I met him in one of Southern Sudan’s provinces, Unity state, he was relaxing riverside near the regional governor’s mansion. He boasted of his force strength, emphasizing that his tens of thousands of men are under the control of no army, and loyal to him alone. "I own these guys, and they will do what I tell them to do," said Tanginye. Stories are swirling around Bentiu, capital of Unity state, that Tanginye will leave town with suitcases of cash and swaths of land to enrich himself and his people — simply for claiming that his men will fight for the south if it comes to that. After the referendum, Tanginye may well find a higher bidder for his loyalty and that of his militia. And there are many men in south Sudan in the same position.

There are other reasons to think that an independent Southern Sudan will struggle to achieve sustainable peace as well. Tribal loyalty bodes against long-term reconciliation, and its role in politics should not be underestimated. If the southern government is not carefully put together after the referendum, including representatives of all Southern Sudan’s more than 40 tribes, it risks the wrath of an armed insurgency in one remote corner or another. The marginal populations that wouldn’t be represented have in the past found other ways to make their voice heard — taking up arms in militias like Tanginye’s.

Indeed, tribal discontent is already rearing its ugly head. The past year has seen an uptick in armed cattle raiding and deadly intercommunal violence, perhaps in anticipation of how unequally the benefits of peace may be shared among ethnic groups. The southern army’s attempts at disarming the civilian population in the run-up to and aftermath of the April elections illustrated how tribal tensions can be exacerbated by the composition of the army itself; various minority groups suspect that they are targeted for disarmament because of their tribe’s relation with the majority groups within the army.

Every possible destabilizing factor here is also magnified ten-fold simply by the copious quantities of small arms swirling around. In Unity state, a tank sits ominously outside the Unity state governor’s mansion; the governor himself is guarded by boyish looking soldiers who man anti-aircraft assault weapons mounted on pickup trucks. Every sign indicates that the military apparatus may be gearing up for an even bigger, internal fight.

To outside observers of Sudan, it is tempting to believe that an autonomous south would mean an end to the country’s long civil strife. But the war on the horizon might not be the one that everyone is expecting.

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