The South Sudanese say they know things are bad when people stop blaming violence on former civil war enemies in the north and start accusing each other.
And that is exactly what has been happening in recent weeks, souring the mood ahead of independence in July.
“We are fighting each other,” said former soldier Akok Jal, drinking warm beer in a tin-shack bar in the southern capital, Juba. “The north might be giving the rebels guns and wanting us to fight, but we should face the fact that these are also problems we have with ourselves.”
The last few weeks have seen rebel massacres, allegations of a plot to unseat the government, press intimidation and claims of assassination threats at the highest level, in the soon to be independent south.
Hundreds of people, many of them civilians, have been killed in fighting between rebel groups and the south’s army since January’s largely peaceful independence referendum, in which southerners voted almost unanimously to form their own nation.
After the violence, which forced an estimated 16 000 people to flee their homes, rumours and accusations abounded.
Presidential adviser and senior general Alfred Ladu Gore last week dismissed reports in a northern newspaper that he and other senior leaders, including deputy commander-in-chief of the southern army Paulino Matip, were part of a plot to join rebels challenging southern president Salva Kiir.
Surprisingly, he did not accuse Khartoum directly, as has previously been common in the south.
Instead, he alleged the “crudely written” story was “concocted here in Juba and sent to Khartoum” to smear his and other leaders’ names.
Then he provided accusations of his own, alleging he had reports of an assassination threat.
“A number of prominent public figures were targeted for assassination either before or after the independence of the south,” Gore told reporters.
Seven leaders, including himself, Matip, and the south’s vice-president, Riek Machar, had been threatened, Gore claimed, but he could not provide details or say who was responsible.
It adds to the woes of the oil-rich but grossly impoverished region as it prepares for full independence in July.
Divisions run deep
Tensions are high — a newspaper that printed claims by a rebel loyal to renegade general George Athor that he would attack Juba had its copies seized by security forces last week.
The south has more than 60 different ethnic or linguistic groups, and divisions run deep following decades of war with the north, which exploited ethnic rivalries by backing splinter militias distrustful of the mainstream southern leadership.
Athor, the self-styled rebel commander thought to be hiding out in a remote base in Jonglei state since his rebellion began a year ago, told Agence France-Presse by satellite phone: “We want to achieve a successful democratic state of South Sudan.”
But he gave little explanation as to how his rebellion will aid that process, nor why he rejected a presidential pardon and broke a January peace deal, saying only that the southern army attacked first — claims it denies.
The rebel leader has also made grandiose claims to be uniting forces under a group named the “South Sudan Democratic Movement”.
Such titles evoke bitter memories for many southerners, harking back to the war period when rebel forces splintered into rival factions, some supported by Khartoum.
“It’s about generals wanting to take their share of power, and they risk losing the peace we have won,” said a businessman in Juba, who declined to give his name.
“They don’t care about the people, they are squabbling among themselves like dogs over a bone.”
‘Nations are made, not born’
One man who knows the risks of a return to war is 79-year-old veteran Joseph Lagu.
He signed a 1972 peace deal to end Sudan’s decade-long first north-south civil war, but saw it swiftly fall apart when southern grievances were not addressed.
“My appeal to the boys who have chosen to take up arms again is to rethink their position,” Lagu told reporters.
“We took arms to liberate our people. If it is a matter of losing elections today, why don’t you wait for the next term and stand again? This is what democracy means.”
Academics warn that enormous efforts are needed to bring the south together.
“The main glue that binds south Sudan’s multiple nationalities together is the history of their struggle for freedom, a history of collective opposition to the north,” said southern academic Jok Madut Jok.
The professor of history at Loyola Marymount University in California points out that many nations have gone through prolonged struggles to forge a collective identity. “Nations are made, not born,” he added. — AFP