We are miles from paved roads or running water, but Bol Meen Manyiel scars sitting prominently below his cheek bones, a tribal V tattoo across his forehead is more concerned about being away from his gun. The young Dinka herdsman is sitting in a jail in Cueibet, a mud-and-brick village some 200 miles northwest of Juba, the South Sudan's raggedy upstart capital. Earlier in the week, thieves had made off with four of his 18 cattle, he explains. He took after them with his rifle, which is when the police arrested him two days ago. Now, they have also confiscated Manyiel's stolen cows. The authorities, he feels, have turned age-old bush justice on its head. "What do they expect us to do? Follow the cows empty-handed?" he says. "If a thief finds you without a gun, it is up to him whether you live or you die."
Such are the challenges of creating a nation in a place that development, and modern-day law and order, has yet to reach. For decades, South Sudan was at war, rebelling against the government based in the north. In 2005 a peace deal finally brought Africa's longest-running conflict to an end. For Sudan's long marginalized South, the deal offered a rare seat at the national table. But the pact also contained an important exit clause, the holding of a January 2011 referendum in which the South would be offered the option of secession. The referendum is expected to result in a resounding vote for independence less certain, though, is whether a separate South can achieve the peace it needs to succeed on its own.
In April, Sudan held nationwide elections, designed under the peace deal as a significant step toward healing old wounds ahead of the independence vote. Instead, they revealed that tensions between the regions still run high. Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir who's wanted in The Hague for war crimes in Darfur retained his national seat, despite the best efforts of those in the South, who overwhelmingly voted for a challenger who had already dropped out of the race. Southerners also exhibited near-total solidarity at the polls for their own leader, Salva Kiir, who won 93% of the votes for South Sudan's regional presidency.
Next up: the referendum in January 2011 which, if the vote goes as predicted, could be followed by official secession as early as that July. The North will likely resist the South splitting away, for fear that it will lose territory and oil, most of which will lie as far as the North is concerned on the wrong side of any new border that's created. But in theory, the question of whether to separate or not will be one for the South alone to answer and, as most Southerners see it, independence would finally put a merciful end to centuries of subjugation and neglect.
South Sudan's history is one of raids by slave traders, marginalization by British colonial rulers and, after Sudan's independence in 1956, repression by the northern government. That was the spark for two civil wars the first starting on the eve of independence and running until 1972; the second raging from 1983 until 2005 in which more than 2 million were killed. During his May 21 inaugural address as the South's first elected leader, Salva Kiir blamed the North for the failure to reconcile the two sides. "Genuine processes of political, economic and social reform should have been made to repair the seriously damaged pillars upon which the Sudanese state is erected, and erase grievances of the past," he said. "This has not come to pass."
But independence will hardly solve all of the South's problems. Kiir must build a functional state out of his war-ravaged land and without infrastructure, institutions or even much know-how. South Sudan is also crisscrossed by a web of competing ethnicities and clans whose hostility toward one another manifests itself in tribal clashes and deadly cattle raids. Thousands of South Sudanese have died over the past two years in bloody internal conflicts. Kiir's Sudanese People's Liberation Movement, too, is split by factional infighting. After April's elections, one former general who lost his bid to run a powerful governorship launched his own miniature rebellion against the state. He has since been joined by two other disgruntled dissidents, each skirmishing with South Sudan's army, which has yet to successfully squelch the uprisings. The fear is that, in a place where war has become a way of life and guns seem as plentiful as people, still more violence could follow. In his speech, Kiir acknowledged his administration had failed to deliver "the dividends of peace." His solution so far? A campaign to confiscate arms.
Which is how Manyiel ended up in jail. Awaiting his release so he can go tend to his dwindling livestock, Manyiel's jubilation at the advent of the peace deal is fading fast, only to be replaced by a familiar bitterness. "When the peace came, people handed over their guns because they didn't believe there was an enemy among us," he laments. But his recent troubles have shown that enemies remain and he fears more thieves will come with the onset of the rainy season, which waters the land and makes long-distance rustling more feasible. In the old days, traditional justice provided some order. These days, it seems to Manyiel, no rules apply. He has to re-arm, he says. "If you go out there, you will find our neighbors with their guns. Why not us?"