KHARTOUM, Sudan — After weeks of scattered
clashes that left hundreds dead, rebel militias in southern Sudan
have united in a new armed movement against the young southern
government, raising the prospect of civil war even before South
Sudan declares independence in July.
"We have formed a new group. It is called the Southern Sudan
Democratic Movement. We are calling the army the Southern Sudan
Army," said renegade general George Athor, who is heading the rebel
command, speaking earlier this week by satellite phone from an
The new coalition formally brings together five different armed
militias spanning four of South Sudan's ten states, said the rebel
leader. General Bapiny Monituel, who leads one of the five factions
and whose forces have clashed heavily with the southern military in
the past days, confirmed the emergence of the umbrella movement
under Athor during an interview with McClatchy in the northern
The formation of the new rebel coalition confirms fears that the
spreading patchwork of miniature insurgencies would coalesce under a
single coordinated campaign against the southern military, posing an
existential threat to the world's newest nation before it even
officially comes on the scene.
The United States and other western countries had pushed hard for
southern Sudan's January referendum on independence to proceed as
promised, hoping the nation's partition would bring a final chapter
to decades of war that has left southern Sudan one of the least
developed places in the world, with two million dead.
Now it appears that the U.S.-backed peace process may succeed in
ending the south's longstanding war against Sudan's northern
government, but in the process will spin off an extremely fragile
state wrought with violent internal divisions of its own.
The real strength of the new rebellion is still not known, but
momentum is on its side. Defections from within the southern
military are increasing almost daily, and the militias are gaining
manpower on the ground as a series of messy military offensives by
the southern army - the Sudan People's Liberation Army - has failed
to deal a decisive blow.
So far, the southern government's main response to the rebellion
has been to accuse the northern government of arming the dissidents,
just like old times.
"This (new rebel movement) will not be a new thing for us because
we already know that they are being coordinated by the military
intelligence in Khartoum," said Philip Aguer, the SPLA spokesman.
Athor called these accusations of northern support "big lies."
Monituel also dismissed the claim, saying he only has enough guns
for 3000 of his 5000 men and lacks even a vehicle on the ground.
Earlier this month, senior southern cabinet member Pagan Amum
released internal northern military documents alleging that Athor
was receiving arms from the north last year. But a number of
independent experts have dismissed the documents as poor forgeries.
The disparate renegade commanders have many differences, but they
seem united by a list of local and tribal grievances about the
current southern leadership. These grievances date back to the
previous war, when the SPLA - then the main southern group fighting
against the northern government - fractured largely along tribal
Then, the splinter commanders formed competing movements, but
most ended up covertly aligning with the northern government to
receive arms to fight the main SPLA force. In exchange, the
breakaway factions helped clear their area for oil exploration.
After the 2005 peace deal between the SPLA and the northern
government, which established regional self-rule leading up to this
year's referendum, many chose to reintegrate into the SPLA, but
others chose to join the northern military instead.
Monituel was one of the latter.
"It's better to be with the north than (with) a Dinka, because I
know we cannot stay together with Dinka men for more than five
days," he gave as an explanation for his decision at his home on the
outskirts Khartoum, where his six years on a general's salary could
explain the new shiny Hummer parked outside.
His comments underscored the deep tribal bitterness fueling the
individual power plays.
Monituel is a Nuer, Nilotic rivals closely related to the Dinka,
southern Sudan's dominant ethnic group. The Nuer comprised the
majority of the breakaway fighters during the war, but many have
since reconciled with the SPLA, whose founder and current leader is
Athor, a Dinka, lives on Nuer land, and most of his fighters are
Nuer. Two other factions in the new rebel movement are from other
marginalized tribal minorities, the Shilluk and the Murle.
According to James Kuong Ninrew, a Presbyterian pastor who heads
the Nuer Peace Council, which works on conflict resolution and
reconciliation, the rebellions do not currently have the broad
support of community leaders on the ground, but he warned that the
heavy-handed response risks worsening the situation.
"If they (the SPLA) don't handle this well, it will end up as
tribal kind of clashes. And once it becomes tribal, people will join
without knowing exactly what's the cause," said Ninrew.
He blamed the SPLA for failing to seriously pursue peaceful
integration of the militias into the army.
"They (the SPLA) are not ready to absorb all of them," said
Athor - a former deputy chief of staff of the SPLA who rebelled
after losing a gubernatorial race late last year, and who is
believed to maintain strong connections and some inside support from
within the SPLA - said he is ready to talk with the government.
"We are willing to negotiate very much, but I don't think they
will accept. The SPLA only knows the sound of bullets," said Athor.
His demands include inclusion in the new constitutional review,
representation in an interim government until new elections can be
held, and integration of his forces into the SPLA.
Monituel said he sent his troops south in order to integrate into
the SPLA, but now he is not interested after the SPLA instead
attacked his positions. In the three days of ensuing fighting, the
SPLA is believed to have suffered heavy losses, and his men held
Now, the emboldened warlord says he is preparing for war.
"They wanted to attack us. Now there is no solution except
fighting," he said.
(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His reporting
is supported in part by a grant from Humanity United, a
California-based human rights foundation.)
[ Copyright ©2002-2010 SouthSudan.Net