Deadly Clashes on South Sudan's Path to Freedom

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Pete Muller / AP

Southern Sudanese celebrate the formal announcement of referendum results in the southern capital of Juba, Monday, Feb. 7 2011.

Days after Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir accepted the referendum results granting southern Sudan its independence, more than 100 people have died in clashes between the south's army and a renegade general. The fighting is the latest in a wave of violence that has all but extinguished the party atmosphere in the south, while raising serious questions over the future of the world's newest nation.

South Sudan was already set to be one of the poorest countries in the world, with little in the way of economy, infrastructure, health or education services, or even government. Expecting to finally be able to tap into the oil revenues that the south will take with it when freedom is made official in July, southerners think things will start to change for the better. But if even basic peace can't be achieved, will anything really change?

On Feb. 7, officials in Sudan's capital Khartoum announced that southerners had voted by 99% to separate from northern rule and form a new country in a referendum held in January. The vote was the centerpiece of a 2005 peace deal between the ethnic African southern rebels and Sudan's Arab-dominated government in the north. After decades of war in which more than 2 million people died, southerners could barely contain their jubilation when it became clear that independence was in reach, dancing and singing in celebration. But by then there were already brewing signs of trouble ahead.

Four days before the referendum result was announced, a group of former southern militiamen who are now part of the Sudanese army mutinied against their bases in the south's Upper Nile state after being ordered to disarm. The skirmishes cost 60 lives before calm was restored. Then Just after the outcome of the vote was declared, on Feb. 9, a low-level cabinet minister was assassinated in his Juba office when a man with whom he had a family dispute grabbed a gun left inside the minister's car and followed him upstairs. That same day fighting broke out in the southern state of Jonglei between the south's military, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), and the breakaway forces of George Athor, a former commander who took up arms against Juba after losing a gubernatorial bid for Jonglei in Sudan's April 2010 elections. Athor briefly captured the town of Fangak. The two-day battle left 105 people dead, 39 of them civilians, according to the SPLA.

None of this bodes well for the future of south Sudan. During the previous civil war, more southerners died at each other's hands than were killed by their northern enemies, who funded and armed southern tribal rivals. At one point, then senior rebel commander Riek Machar, who is now south Sudan's vice president, formed his own opposing SPLA with the support of Khartoum, splitting the movement along tribal lines and spiraling the war into an orgy of ethnic southern bloodletting. Numerous other splinter groups followed.

In that sense, Athor — a veteran of the south's guerrilla movement —was simply following an old bush tradition when he attacked an SPLA barracks to begin his rebellion last year. Three other dissidents also launched their own uprisings last year. None have been fully squelched. And, with the referendum over, more violence could follow. In the months leading up to the vote, southern leaders showed rare unity, joining hands for what they dubbed their "final walk to freedom." Even Athor signed a ceasefire just four days before polls opened. The common bond now dissolved, the south's edifice of solidarity could crumble.

Part of the problem is logistical. In a land of swamp and bush, with no paved roads, a seemingly endless supply of firearms, and a population of restless young men, a rural insurgency is much too easy to start and much too difficult to stop. But, other issues are more fundamental. Tribal politics are set to define the new nation's power center. A common complaint for many is the dominance of the new government and army by the Dinka ethnic group, the largest in the south. Rule of law is sparse and favors those in charge; land grabbing is common. The south's new rulers now find themselves accused of being elitist and exclusionary — the same complaints they had about their former Arab rulers in the north. "The [new] leadership must find a way to manage the south's own diversity so it doesn't simply replicate the regime in Khartoum that they've finally managed to escape," says Zach Vertin, an analyst for the International Crisis Group.

Can they succeed? Will freedom open a new path for southern Sudan? Or will the world's youngest nation remain trapped in the bloodletting of the past? For now, all the south can do is hope — and maybe spread the new oil wealth around. "We are calling on our comrade general George Athor to take a look at south Sudan's history," says the SPLA's spokesman Philip Aguer. "Listen to the logic of peace. Try to give a chance for us to build this new nation."