Clock is ticking in South Kordofan and Abyei

Nanne op 't Ende

5 January 2008

At first I felt reluctant to take them seriously: all these people - Nuba and khawadja alike - saying that war in South Kordofan was inevitable. Travelling through the SPLM controled areas things seemed to be more or less al right. I saw many returnees building new houses in the plains; large herds of cows; children going to school. Trade was up, church building was up.

Even arriving in Kadugli I did not have a sense of tension. Some of my SPLM friends were clearly working on plans for the future. The past Governorship of the SPLM had been a bit of a disaster but at least Daniel Kodi was here now as Deputy Governor and he seemed to be on top of things. So when Khalid said I was mistaken to think all was fine in Kadugli, I didn't take it too seriously.

Khalid is working for an NGO as a food security co-ordinator. He showed me how little the Government had been doing to help the returnees in the Western Areas of the Nuba Mountians. Slowly I started to realise the immensity of the problem in South Kordofan, if only from the perspective of development and rehabilitation. The distances; the terrible roads; the lack of funding; the lack of qualified people; the lack of Government support.

A driver hitching a ride after his bus had broken down, told me all about the political rivalry between the NCP and the SPLM, and how it blocked development. Both sides were trying to prevent the other party to succeed in anything that might look good during the 2009 election campaign - like constructing roads, rehabilitating schools, getting clean water everywhere and so on. "The NCP shouts 'Allahu Akbar,' and they do nothing. The SPLM shouts 'SPLM oye' and does nothing." said the driver. "But I don't want akbar, I don't want oye: I want schools, clinics and roads!"

Back in Kadugli Khalid turned out to be right about the tensions in the city. I was arrested for taking photos of a police parade. After a long morning at the security office I was out on the streets again, with a different perspective on Kadugli - and the urgent advise not to stay in the city much longer

The same day someone well informed told me he thought there was now a division between SPLM politicians in Kadugli who are planning for a way forward for the Nuba, and the SPLA Nuba 'on the mountains' who are scared because they have no idea what the future might bring. The SPLA were supposed to have left South Kordofan by January 8 and the Joint Integrated Units were not yet functioning. A bit further down the road the South might secede and where would that leave the Nuba? So they were scared - and the Mountains were full of rumours about a return to war.

The same person (neither an NCP or an SPLM man) had the idea that the SPLA was trying to provoke the new Governor, Omer Suleiman, into showing his (what they beleived to be) true colors: that of an NCP hard liner. SPLA troops had shown up at places above the 1956 border where they were not supposed to be. So far, the Governor had ignored them.

I still thought he exaggerated or couldn't see the full picture. After all, most of the SPLM politicians were SPLA commanders themselves, surely they are in touch with the men in the field? I did notice a staggering lack of understanding of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement among the lower ranks, and great disappointment in most of the military. But the politicians were about to start their campaign to explain what the CPA was all about, and how the SPLM was going to tackle the elections. In the mean time the military wouldn't do anything foolish to jeapardise the peace agreement, would they?

Days after I came back home, news about the clashes in elMayrem came out. SPLA against Misseriya. The remarks of the 'well informed person' about SPLA provocations came to mind. And I remembered all the openly professed opinions that war was better than this useless peace. Had the SPLM politicians in South Kordofan no control over the SPLA troops in their area? Or were they just paying lip service to peace? And how about the NCP? Was this how the Governor - known to have been a PDF leader - responded to the said provocations? Through the Misseriya? Were the Misseriya provoking the SPLA? It would fit a familiar pattern. And it would fit the image of two parties trying to put the blame for returning to war on each other.

Speculation... and no one in Kadugli answering his phone.

On Januay 3 a high delegation of NCP and SPLM, headed by Minister of Cabinet Affairs Pagan Amoun and Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Mohamed Hussein, went to South Kordofan and Bahr al Ghazal trying to calm down the Misseriya and SPLA. However encouraging it was to see the partners in peace cooperate to prevent further escalation: the next day saw renewed violence.

The lack of succes of this intervention emphasizes the questions about the SPLM and NCP politicians: how much control do they have over the SPLA military and the PDF militias respectively? Are they orchestrating the clashes, or are they incapable to end them?

Where the SPLM politicians are concerned, I fear that they have limited control over the SPLA in South Kordofan. A simple example may help to illustrate this. It has become a common practice by SPLA soldiers in the area administrated by the SPLM to arrest people for petty misdemeanors and to punish them on the spot with 101 lashes: "100 lashes for the crime and one for the stamp" as the saying goes. The SPLM politicians in Kadugli are aware of this practice. They know it is against all laws, they know it is harmful to the party's reputation. But they are unable to end it.

Surely there is a difference between unlawful lashes by individual SPLA soldiers in the Nuba Mountains and uncontroled clashes between SPLA troops and the Misseriya in Abyei, but the question is: do the soldiers listen to the politicians?

Has the NCP in South Kordofan more control over the Misseriya? If the NCP wants to make it look as if it really wants peace, it would be more convincing when things calmed down after the visit of such a high delegation. It all reminds me of the situation in South Kordofan last year, when the Misseriya and the Nuba were in a serious conflict over passage in Lagawa. Tens of people were killed in the clashes. For months NCP and SPLM politicians were unable to end the violence.

Surely both parties are issuing statements that point to the other as the cause of all trouble. It could all amount to just that: a blame game, trying to go back to war without taking the blame. But then why go through the trouble of sending delegations and trying to prevent escalation? The situation along the border is so confused that escalation would have been easy and no one would ever know who fired the first bullet.

I believe there is a strong tendency among both the Misseriya and the SPLA in South Kordofan / Abyei to get back to fighting. Maybe settle some scores, maybe try to escalate the situation because there is too little benefit from peace. Whatever the fighting parties are aiming at: the politicians from NCP and SPLM do not seem to be in control. On the one hand that is good: they probably don't cause the violence. On the other hand it is bad: they can't end it either.

Just a few days left to go untill January 9. Only if the troops have actually been withdrawn by then - the SAF to the North, the SPLA to the South, there is a chance that the violence along the border can be contained. While I was in Nuba, there were signs that the troops were moving and that the Joint-but-not-yet-Integrated Units would actually be integrated before January 9. It is still possible to hold the peace. But the clock is ticking.

The Nuba Mountains Homepage was made by Nanne op 't Ende.
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