Sudan Edging Towards the Brink as Arab Aggression intensifies

As the Sudanese regime bombs the Nuba heartland and moves Missiriya Arabs into a near empty Abyei, tension is rising across Sudan, especially along the still undemarcated North-South border and in the oil fields.

On 9 June, Khartoum bombed Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) troops and civilians alike in Pariang County, Unity State, said the Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS). With less than a month before South Sudan formally declares Independence, officials from the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) privately talk about ‘ethnic cleansing’.

This goes way beyond the leverage that many thought the National Congress Party (NCP) was seeking for its on-off negotiations with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement over oil arrangements, the border and the referendum on Abyei’s status, due last January. The SPLM said over 100 civilians were killed in the invasion, while the International Organsation for Migration said on 5 June that it and other agencies had registered 95,994 people as displaced from Abyei. Most have gone to the South.

Heavy artillery was fired towards the home of the SPLM’s Abdel Aziz Adam el Hilu, widely assumed to have won May’s South Kordofan Governor’s election, in which Ahmed Mohamed Haroun Adam, whom the International Criminal Court has indicted for war crimes, was declared victor. Khartoum’s army tried to arrest Commander Abdel Aziz, who went to SPLA headquarters at Luweri, near Kauda. The NCP wants the SPLA, now the official Southern army, out of the North; the SPLA (in need of a new name) says its fighters in Kordofan are mainly Northerners. Nuba fighters have said that any move against their positions in eastern South Kordofan would mean war.

Khartoum is bombing Nuba villages. It is detaining people who worked on the SPLM’s election campaign and ‘has executed some, including one working for the UN’, Kamal Kambal, the Chairman of the SPLM Northern Sector in Britain, told AC. ‘Before the elections, we warned the UN in Kadugli that People’s Defence Force militia were being deployed in the area,’ he said, ‘but they did nothing.’

From Dubai to DC

Talk of coups and assassination attempts in the South has been swirling in the border and oil areas, where fears are highest that the NCP will push its troops beyond Abyei into the South in a bid to delay Independence and to hold on to the crucial Upper Nile and Unity State oil fields. Rumours spread this week in Bentiu that Southern Vice-President Riek Machar Teny Dhurgonwas on his way there to talk to Governor Taban Deng Gai, who was said to be ‘leading a revolt’ against the GOSS. In fact, Riek was in the United States, seeking more robust support, after an investment trip to the United Arab Emirates, with a GOSS ministers’ delegation. Reports are that he had met international oil-trader Trafigura (in the South since 1999) in Dubai. The rumours, reinforced by an increased SPLA presence in the area, looked like part of an NCP disinformation campaign.

Riek had previously returned to Juba from Khartoum in a fury, we hear, after failing to secure a Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) withdrawal from Abyei. Riek, who is believed to want to succeed Southern President Salva Kiir Mayardit, is building an international profile. He was an observer at May’s Commonwealth meeting in Kuala Lumpur, indicating South Sudan’s eagerness to rejoin the fold of Britain’s ex-colonies, as well as Malaysia’s importance to the South’s oil sector.

With the SPLA, UN and interested governments seemingly powerless to reverse Khartoum’s invasion of Abyei, in violation of 2005’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), the rapid militarisation of the border threatens Sudan’s peaceful divorce, as do the Southern militias. Worryingly for the young Juba government, not only did the UN’s Zambian battalion perform lamentably in Abyei, the SPLA did too, as well as in confrontations with rebels in Unity, Jonglei and Upper Nile.

Khartoum has said it won’t recognise the new nation unless the border is fully demarcated and that UNMIS will no longer have a mandate north of the border. In London on 6 June, Foreign Minister Ali Ahmed Kurti insisted his government would recognise Southern Independence: such contradictions are regular NCP tactics. The Governor of Jonglei, Kuol Manyang Juuk, says Khartoum supports the rebels in the South, who now call themselves the South Sudan Liberation Army and are led by his former deputy, Lieutenant General George Athor Deng. He also says that defecting SPLA 4th Division commander Peter Gatdet Yak is bringing reinforcements directly from South Kordofan.

The defection of thousands of battle-hardened SPLA soldiers in April left a huge gap in the defences of the front-line state of Unity, with its vulnerable oil fields just south of the border. Local authorities turned to press-ganging recruits, scooping up schoolboys and UN and aid agency staff, including watchmen guarding a UN World Food Programme compound. Gatdet later claimed prisoners he had captured included young children.

Paradoxically, the SPLA is seriously overmanned. One senior staff officer said that it needed to halve its numbers. In air power, armour and artillery, the SAF had a clear advantage, he confided, but in infantry, Khartoum couldn’t compete. However, this meant the SPLA had to feed, equip and pay tens of thousands of troops that it couldn’t deploy, which helps to explain why defence consumes over 40% of the budget. ‘What can we do?’ he said. ‘If we try to dismiss them, they might be tempted to join the rebel militias.’

The SPLA has managed to quell at least one major insurgency: that of the former ‘Northern’ contingent of the Joint Integrated Unit under Maj. Gen. Gabriel ‘Tanginye’ Gatwech Chan, which comprises mainly former pro-Khartoum southern militia. They surrendered in Malakal on 25 April, easing tension in the Upper Nile capital. The SPLA also claims to have brought Murle militia leader David Yauyau back into line, reducing the threat to Jonglei. Yet the border remains a tinderbox. An attempt to free Tanginye from house arrest in Juba was foiled.

The militias’ activity, and particularly their renewed use of land mines, is delaying emergency aid to the tens of thousands of people displaced into the South from Abyei, as well as the return of Southerners from the North. The militias are laying both anti-tank and antipersonnel mines, brand new and reportedly made in Iran. On 2 June, one exploded between Awila and Bon, in Unity, under a vehicle carrying supplies from Abiemnom to Mayom for an international non-governmental organisation. The driver and three passengers died, and a woman was seriously injured. Gatdet’s people are angry, we hear, that the UN forces remove the mines as fast as they can lay them. There is suspicion that this particular mine was intended to stop UN ‘interference’, since UN cars are the main users of that stretch of road.

The 16 May festivities, anniversary of the foundation of the SPLM/SPLA, were symbolically held in Bor, capital of Jonglei and birthplace of the SPLM, and were intended as a dress rehearsal for the 9 July celebrations in Juba.