On July 9 the Republic of South Sudan is set to become the newest nation in the world. But rather than capping a six-year peace process, the landmark is mired in renewed fighting.
Attacks launched by the government in Khartoum began last month in the contested border area of Abyei but have grown increasingly aggressive, including aerial assaults by the North and house-to-house killings. That plus the growing influence of Islamic hardliners in the Khartoum lineup speak less to the new day promised by the South's independence and more to a return to the past: June 30 marked the 22nd anniversary of the coup that brought to power the National Islamic Front of President Omar al-Bashir that has led to the deaths of as many as 3 million Sudanese, in the South as well as in Darfur.
The Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) launched attacks in mid-June in the Nuba Mountain area of central Sudan, known as South Kordafan state. In Kadugli, the state capital, eyewitnesses reported two churches burned, the Church of Christ and the Cathedral of the Episcopal Church of Sudan. At the Episcopal church, according to a witness, a guard stationed inside the church was dragged outside and murdered. SAF soldiers also went door to door in search of suspected members and supporters of the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM), which fought the North for over 20 years, and reportedly executed them. Meanwhile aerial assaults by MiG jet fighters and Antonov bombers have left mud and grass homes burned to the ground and villages destroyed. One eyewitness estimated to me that over 1,000 had been killed in only a few days of attacks.
At the same time, northern forces also conducted air strikes in nearby Unity State, an area with numerous oil as well as military installations.
The assault on the Nuba Mountains region is reminiscent of attacks by northern forces 10-20 years ago and food blockades that starved the population-reducing it from over 1 million to less than 400,000 by 1998.
Aid officials who have long worked in Nuba fear a return to those conditions. "This is a catastrophic event," said Ken Isaacs, vice president of Samaritan's Purse. "All development aid and humanitarian assistance that was going in is halted, and we fear for the Sudanese a return to the thread-like life waiting to get essential materials."
With less than three weeks to go before a formal handover in the South to a new government, the renewed military hostility along the border by the North should act as "huge flashing red lights," said former State Department Special Representative on Sudan Roger Winter. "They are signaling that over the next few weeks, and during the post-independence period, relations between Khartoum and the South will likely be poisonous at best," he told the House Committee on Foreign Affairs at a hearing on June 16.
The Obama administration dispatched deputy national security adviser John Brennan to Sudan in June, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also addressed the crisis during her visit to an African Union meeting in Ethiopia last week. But many are critical of the administration's soft approach to Khartoum, which has so far meant diplomatic statements about the fighting without specifically blaming Khartoum.
Following her speech in Addis Ababa, Clinton met with Sudan's recently promoted presidential advisor Nafi Ali Nafi. "Nafi is viewed by many as one of the most influential and brutal security officials in Sudan," says Africa analyst Ted Dagne. Nafi was Sudan's security chief when it granted safe haven to Osama bin Laden in the 1990s and reportedly maintained close ties with al-Qaeda, in addition to planning the genocide that took place in Darfur over the last 10 years. Members of Congress have urged Obama to include him on the U.S. list of wanted terrorists-not negotiate with him.
Read Roger Winter's full testimony (download PDF), which includes background on the contested areas.