South Sudan's wobbly start
Rustling with Kalashnikovs
Independence has left South Sudan with much to do
Mar 24th 2012 | BEDUNGE SWAMP | from the print edition
ON MARCH 16th George Clooney, a film star, was arrested for picketing the
Sudanese embassy in Washington, DC. His aim was to highlight the brutal
campaign by Sudan's government to suppress a rebellion in the Nuba
Mountains, close to the border with newly independent South Sudan. Sudanese
forces have blockaded Nuba villages, bombing them from Antonov transport
planes. The UN says that, with the planting of crops interrupted, 400,000
are in need of food aid.
Mr Clooney's celebrity brought welcome focus to the plight of the Nuba. But
across the border in South Sudan there rages an equally vicious war, and one
that attracts even less attention. In the blistering flatlands of its
Jonglei state, violent clashes have for years pitted three cattle-rearing
tribes against each other: the Nuer in the northeast, the Dinka in the west
and the less numerous Murle across the centre and south.
Other tribes scorn the warlike Murle, who speak a distinct language and
reputedly sided with the Arab north during Sudan's decades-long civil war.
They are certainly fierce. Murle raids for cattle and a far more valuable
commodity, children, have prompted Dinka and Nuer warriors to retaliate in
kind. The bigger tribes have slaughtered thousands of Murle in the past
year, while Murle have killed hundreds of Nuer in cattle raids this month
alone. UN sources say more than 100,000 people in Jonglei and the
neighbouring state of Eastern Equatoria have been driven from their homes.
South Sudan's weak central government has announced an offensive, deploying
some 12,000 soldiers to discourage tribal raiding in Jonglei. But on a trek
to the Bedunge Swamp with 12 armed rangers, your correspondent found a
parched and desolate landscape of fear. The Murle burn back the grass to a
blackened stubble wherever they stop, so as to see their enemies (and lions)
coming. Camping out spooked the rangers. " We need 30 men to hold off the
Murle," their commander said.
Two armed figures running in the distance made the rangers level their
rifles, but the figures vanished into tall grass. A few kilometres further
on, a group of Murle women and children huddled around a broken lorry. They
were headed for the safety of Juba, South Sudan's capital, a sign that
renewed fighting is expected. The elusive figures turned out to be Murle
boys protecting the convoy.
Beside another disabled lorry deeper in the bush, a Murle mother and her two
children were fainting from thirst. The lorry had been shot-up by "bad
people" three days before. The cattle in the transport had not been watered;
they were beginning to buckle. The Dinka trader in charge of the lorry,
Daniel Deng, had taken a risk buying the cows from a Murle area. There was
little chance of rescue; it was two days' walk to any settlement. "Tomorrow
the cattle will die," Mr Deng said. Possibly, the children will follow.
When the rains come in April and the Bedunge turns to marsh and then
glutinous mud, sending up clouds of malarial mosquitoes, this region is all
but cut off from the outside world. But that is true not only of South
Sudan's vast empty corners; its few main trunk routes can also remain
impassable for months. This makes Juba, with its police, air connections and
solid tarmac link to Uganda, a magnet. "You can drink tea on the roads
here," boasts an official in the roads ministry in the city.
It also means that Juba hogs the country's power and wealth. Government
ambitions of bringing the "town to the village" remain mostly talk. Even
when roads are open and bandits cleared, the cost of travel, as well as of
all imported goods and skills, is prohibitive. The Americans say half their
aid is lost on logistics. Simply to link the country's ends with two tarmac
highways would cost over $3 billion, a sum nearly equal to the government
budget. Tribal troubles aside, South Sudan also needs to demobilise
thousands of soldiers, many of whom are without skills, but overly fond of
Still, there are causes for hope. The savage nature of the land makes it
hard for any single tribe to wrest complete control. Strife may be chronic,
but all-out civil war is unlikely. As for relations with the north, tensions
that mounted following the two countries' formal divorce last July have
again eased markedly. Earlier this month Sudan and South Sudan agreed to let
citizens of both countries move freely, reside, conduct business, and buy
and sell property in either. Sudanese herders should thus be able to return
to seasonal pastures in South Sudan, and the north may now end threats to
expel 500,000 "Africans" back to the south.
This boosts hopes for an early deal on sharing oil revenues with the north,
which at present handles South Sudan's exports. In February the Juba
government cut off the oil in protest at high transit fees, depriving both
countries of revenue they desperately need and helping to cause a global
oil-price spike. Getting the oil flowing would be good for everyone.
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Received on Sat Mar 24 2012 - 16:07:14 EDT