The Independence Brigade

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For more than half of its independent history, Sudan was locked in brutal north-south civil war. And for anyone under the age of 30 -- about half of the country's people -- war has been a near constant reality. Displacement, active combat, and immense suffering have afflicted the Southern Sudanese people, who bore the brunt of the suffering during the second civil war throughout the 1980s and 90s. Then, in 2005, an incredible peace was brokered -- with one very large caveat: In 2011, Southern Sudan would vote on whether it wants to remain a part of Sudan or secede. That moment is now upon us; a self-determination referendum is scheduled to be held on January 9, 2011. Many worry that the north won't let its southern half go without bloodshed. Yet it is so likely that Southern Sudan will vote for an independence that the Obama administration recently declared it "inevitable."

With the prospect of independence looming, Southern Sudan is hard at work trying to act like a state before it becomes one. The semi-autonomous southern government, led by the political wing of what was once the south's main rebel group, has made impressive strides over the past five years. When the rebels became the regional government in the southern capital of Juba in 2005, there were virtually no roads and only a handful of cars. Today, the southern government has built the bricks and mortar of a capital -- but also institutions such as a cabinet and a judiciary from scratch.

Perhaps even trickier than building a bureaucracy from an insurrection is turning a rebel force into a legitimate military. The Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and the Southern Sudan Police Service are bloated with untrained, unprofessional, ex-rebel fighters -- a sizeable proportion of whom were loyal to individual militia commanders who fought on different sides in the civil war. Men like the one pictured here in Pibor, a remote corner of restive Jonglei state near Ethiopia, learned how to fight in the bush during the civil war and have had little formal education. Then there's the sticky issue of child soldiers; the southern army says they have fewer than 1,000 children in its ranks, and it has pledged to make its army "child-free" by the end of the year. Accomplishing this tall order, however, could prove difficult given the plethora of other pressing priorities. This week, the Obama administration waived a requirement for Sudan to come into compliance with a law prohibiting child soldiers -- arguing that additional funding and support for the country's nascent army must take priority over penalties for the inability to enact immediate reforms. But international officials working in Juba say reform of the army, the police, and the handful of other security forces is a project that will take decades.  


The first task in professionalizing a military is figuring out what exactly it will and will not do. The army's modernizers -- a hodgepodge of international donors and internal Southern Sudanese military officers -- envision it securing an independent Southern Sudan's international borders and protecting the nation from external threats, first among them the north. In theory, the army would not take the lead on internal, civilian-related security as it does now. These tasks would be left for police -- but this force also needs building.

In addition to basic border protection, however, the military is once again preparing for the possibility of war. Despite five years of peace between north and south, mistrust between Juba and Khartoum is at an all-time high. Many here are skeptical that the north will let Southern Sudan secede without a fight. And so the army has to be battle-ready. Here, heavily armed soldiers stand guard on top of the Juba international airport on October 1 as they await Southern Sudanese President Salva Kiir's arrival home from a trip to the United States.


Prior to the creation of the official Southern Sudanese Army, the Sudan People's Liberation Army -- the rebel group that fought 23 years for autonomy from the repressive central government in Khartoum was the region's main fighting force. "Victory is certain," their motto proclaimed. Unfortunately, their unity didn't prove so firm. During the war, factions of the SPLA often fought one another, only prolonging the conflict. Khartoum took to sponsoring dissident southern rebel commanders and opportunistic militia leaders. After the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in 2005, Kiir tried his best to unite the dividers, bringing on board a number of key militia leaders by granting them positions in the southern army. The 2006 Juba Declaration, which officially integrated these ex-militiamen into the military, is still considered Kiir's greatest accomplishment in his five years as president.

But the line between civilians and armed actors remains blurred, a legacy of past militias built from community groundswells. Repeated attempts by the southern army to disarm civilian populations have resulted in bloodshed. A 2006 campaign in the remote Jonglei state, for example, resulted in the deaths of more than 1,500 people after members of one tribal group took advantage of the vulnerability of their recently disarmed neighbors by raiding their cattle and settling other scores. The southern government has outlawed the possession of weapons by civilians in public, but in some instances it is difficult to tell the difference between a soldier in a ragtag uniform and a civilian in clothing resembling militia attire. Here, men walking in the town of Pibor carry weapons for protection; their clothing does not clearly indicate whether or not they are soldiers, police officers, or simply ordinary citizens.


The task of transforming a fractured rebel movement into an army begins with the soldiers themselves. International donors, including the United States but particularly Britain, are working with the top brass of the southern army to devise strategies to professionalize their troops -- and make their work conditions more livable. The life of a rank-and-file Southern Sudanese soldier is far from easy. Salaries are often paid infrequently, new uniforms and weapons are hard to come by, and living conditions in the field are dire. Yet there are few other options for employment for young and old soldiers alike. Here, soldiers, police, military police, and the wildlife service patrol the Sobat River, near Southern Sudan's border with Ethiopia.


There are countless more "to-do's" on the southern army's list: Disarming and demobilizing elderly and otherwise infirm and aged soldiers unfit for service; identifying child soldiers and finding a way to reintegrate them into civilian life; selecting and training elite units to serve in the presidential guard, border patrol forces, and other specialized arenas; training soldiers on proper weapons storage and maintenance -- not to mention teaching officers how to fire a weapon accurately and safely. Even more difficult is coming to terms with how the pervasive reality of tribalism in Southern Sudan impacts dynamics within the military. Since many of the rank and file soldiers were drawn from local militias, they are often more loyal to a commander who hails from their same village or tribe than the idea of a national army. The creation of a southern state, commanders hope, may help bolster nationalism among the army's ranks. Above, military police prepare to escort the southern president in a convoy in Juba. The mounted, Soviet-era, 50-caliber belt-fed assault weapon can blast a hole through a car's engine block.


In the five years since the war ended and donor money began flowing into the war-devastated south, the international community's effort to support security sector reform has become a multifaceted, multi-donor, multi-million-dollar undertaking. Though far from perfect, there are signs from the ground that coordination among international actors, particularly at the donor government level, is improving. Although diplomats from both the British and American consulates are tasked with overseeing security sector reform funding, the bulk of the work itself is done by contractors, including Adam Smith International and Civicon. The British generally have the lead on strategic, officer-level training and advising, while the Americans are involved in building basic infrastructure such as new barracks and training sites.   

Internationals working on these programs in Juba admit -- off the record, of course -- that strategic, internal army reform is not the top priority for the southern army at present; preparing for another possible war with the north comes first.


But the most difficult reform cannot be bought and paid for. It's political. With Southern Sudan's self-determination vote little more than two months away, internationals working on security sector reform in Juba quietly admit that it is unclear who would show up to fight for the SPLA if war with the north breaks out. An accurate estimate of the size of the army is not publicly available. Likewise, the contractors working on payroll reform for the various branches of the security forces, including the police and prison service, do not disclose the number of men in uniform. The topic is considered too sensitive; a unified south is sacred in the lead up to the referendum. Soldiers here are seated in front of a faded billboard calling for peace, picturing Southern Sudanese women in traditional dress while a triumphant Northern President Omar al-Bashir waves his trademark cane. This is the reality that most in Southern Sudan hope to end.


Before he died in a helicopter crash in 2005, the SPLA's commander-in-chief, the southern war hero Dr. John Garang, told fellow southerners in a speech:

"I and those who joined me in the bush and fought for more than twenty years, have brought to you CPA [the Comprehensive Peace Agreement brokered in 2005] in a golden plate. Our mission is accomplished. It is now your turn, especially those who did not have a chance to experience bush life. When time comes to vote at referendum, it is your golden choice to determine your fate. Would you like to vote to be second class citizens in your own country? It is absolutely your choice."

Here, soldiers patrol the border with Ethiopia.


Young police recruits sit in an open air classroom receiving training on how to read and interpret a map. The pupils at this site near Juba, photographed in early October, have been training since January without pay, but many seemed to be in good spirits and proud of what they had learned and accomplished to date. These young recruits have all had some formal education; some are even secondary school graduates. These soldiers are part of a new era in the police service; their predecessors in the police force are mostly illiterate former soldiers and rebel fighters.


In addition to its military, Southern Sudan is training thousands of new recruits in preparation for the upcoming referendum vote. U.N. police advisors from the $1 billion per year peacekeeping mission are supporting this project, training the fledgling force in VIP protection, crowd control, and other specialized fields. The hope is that the police service -- not the army -- will prove capable of promoting and protecting internal security during the referendum process. But if tensions escalate around the vote, which it did during recent national elections in April, it's likely that the army would step in to back up the police.

Here, riot police form a phalanx at the police training site in the town of Rajaf in October, for the U.N. Security Council visit on October 7. The visit included U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice. 


Although the police trainees are pictured here with batons, Southern Sudanese police typically carry AK-47s. Hand guns are difficult to come by. AK-47s were a standard feature of the latest civil war; an influx of small arms during the war has left a security dilemma in its aftermath. Many families in rural and remote areas have several automatic weapons in their possession and are reluctant to hand them over for fear of attack by rival neighboring groups. While members of both the police and army still tote these guns, a shortage of ammunition means soldiers and police officers are unable to practice their marksmanship skills regularly. 


When U.S. Ambassador Rice and other Security Council members visited Southern Sudan on Oct. 7, Southern Sudan's minister of internal affairs, Gier Chuang, had a message for them: "We need your support in a serious way" ahead of the referendum, he said, specifically to support police training.

Chuang got his wish. The U.S. State Department paid for riot gear for a small, elite force, and various U.N. agencies have helped pay for the construction of barracks and classrooms.


Human rights advocates raised alarm bells this week when the Obama administration opted to waive the requirement that the Southern Sudanese Army be free of child soldiers. The rationale for the waiver was to prevent the child soldier law from cutting off funding to military reform. On the ground in Southern Sudan, the logic behind this decision is clear: The southern army and police force simply need to receive training and funding in order to move forward in their professionalization effort -- part of which involves demobilizing child soldiers.


Young police recruits demonstrate a "high-risk arrest" during the October 7 Security Council visit to Rajaf. U.N. police advisors are assisting in these training programs, which is why a U.N. vehicle was used for this demonstration.


New recruits, like the ones pictured here, tend to have more education than many of the older officers who served in the southern army during the war. Here, young new recruits stand at attention at a Southern Sudan Police Service training site in Bentiu, the capital of Unity state -- an oil-rich region bordering northern Sudan. 


The police recruits in this class are indefinitely in training for now -- unsure when and if they will be deployed throughout the south to monitor and provide security for the coming referendum vote. In an ideal situation, this riot gear will not be needed during the seven day polling period. Polling stations will be set up across the south -- even in tiny villages accessible for most of the year only by helicopter or on foot.


The challenges facing Southern Sudan as it braces for an uncertain future as an independent country are enormous, but the spirit of optimism pervades. Southerners who fought for decades to be free of Khartoum are eager to govern their own affairs. While the current pre-election period seems precariously calm, it is undeniably marked by hope and excitement among everyday citizens. Here, a police officer takes a break from his referendum security training course in Bentiu to pose for a portrait.

High expectations, however, will likely be tempered after the vote, when the hard work of nation and state building truly gets underway -- that is, if Khartoum does not dispute the results of the vote and try to block the south from seceding. Of all the nascent government institutions here, it is the security sector that has a make or break role in the future of Southern Sudan. Unlike the old SPLA motto, though, victory is not certain.

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