Looking beyond Southern Sudan's independence on 9 July, officials in Upper Nile State are working to boost peace and reconciliation in a state prone to insecurity, conflicts over land and inter-communal animosity.
"We are launching a campaign `One nation, one people, one town' with the aim of fostering peace and reconciliation, especially inter-ethnic reconciliation," Father Mathew Pagan, the coordinator of the Catholic Church's Justice and Peace Commission in the Diocese of Malakal, told IRIN. "We already have mobilizers in place as these are the same people we used to sensitize the public during preparations for the referendum [in January].”
Saying the campaign would go beyond independence, Pagan said the church was working together with the government and NGOs to help especially the vulnerable populations.
Upper Nile State, together with Unity and Jonglei states, forms the Greater Upper Nile region of Southern Sudan, an area that has recently been hit by insecurity due to activity by rebel militia groups. Moreover, the three states have, since October 2010, received a significant number of Southern Sudanese returning from Northern Sudan ahead of independence.
"Independence is likely to worsen conflicts over land in Upper Nile as more returnees arrive from the North," a resident of Malakal, who declined to be named, told IRIN. "More sensitization is needed for people to understand that things won't change overnight."
In February and March, rebel militias engaged the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) in fierce fighting in the town of Malakal, displacing hundreds of civilians.
Andrea Maya Felo, deputy governor of Upper Nile State, told IRIN in Malakal, the state capital: "As a government, peace and reconciliation is our priority - reconciling the Shilluk [dominant community in the state] among themselves [those pro-Dinka and those against the Dinka]; we even spoke to the Shilluk king recently about the establishment of a peace initiative and he welcomed the idea. He promised to work with us."
Although there are many communities in Upper Nile State, the Shilluk are native to the region. Since the process to secede from the North began about six years ago, the Shilluk have increasingly felt marginalized politically amid claims that their land has been grabbed by others, mostly by the Dinka, a group widely perceived to be over-represented in the ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement.
Maya said land conflict in Upper Nile was not only about the Shilluk and Dinka communities.
"We are involving all communities in the state in efforts to resolve disputes over land," he said. "We have a Land Commission that has been established and we are waiting for independence so as to begin resolving these disputes. There are elders who know the land demarcations in the state well and we've been telling our people to be patient; there is no point in fighting internally because these disputes will be resolved after independence."
However, a conflict resolution expert in Malakal, who requested anonymity, said the Land Commission was largely ineffective and disputes over land were currently being handled by the ministry of planning or by local chiefs.
"The problem is that the Land Commission is not functional on the ground; therefore, there is a lack of directive or guidelines on how to deal with land disputes locally," the expert said. "In cases where land is demarcated, complainants can go to the physical planning ministry but if the land is not demarcated you can only go to the king or the chief in case of a dispute."
An official of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in Malakal, who requested anonymity, and who is involved in a UNDP conflict-resolution project in the state, told IRIN confusion over land ownership and land usage was a contributor to conflict.
"There must be clear guidelines on land ownership [according to the constitution land belongs to the community but usage is managed by government] and its usage. If this is not addressed, there is always going to be conflict. Sustainable usage of land, forests and other natural resources must also be encouraged."
The UNDP official said other factors contributing to land conflict in Upper Nile were disputes over grazing land, charcoal-burning and brick-making.
The proliferation of small arms in the Greater Upper Nile region was another matter of grave concern: "Everyone has a gun on two… The majority of these weapons come in from neighbouring countries or from Northern Sudan. In March, in one day, some 200 assorted weapons were collected during a disarmament effort in one district. More needs to be done. If there is to be any disarmament, this must be done across the region in one day to avoid people transporting their arms to other areas.”
The creation of counties based on tribal lines has also contributed to land conflicts in Upper Nile State, the official added.
With Southern Sudan’s independence just weeks away, the region’s political feuds with the North have intensified with reports of attacks by Northern forces intensifying in disputed border areas such as Abyei, South Kordofan State and Unity State. In Upper Nile State, local leaders have claimed that insecurity in the state has been fuelled by militias used by the North to destabilize the South.
In a letter dated 29 May to Southern Sudan President Salva Kiir Maryadit, the Shilluk king, Reth Kwongo Dak Padiet, expressed concern over insecurity in parts of his kingdom, which he attributed to militia forces allegedly supported by the Khartoum government.
"In Upper Nile State and Collo [Shilluk] Kingdom in particular, my people are suffering from security threats and occupation in areas such as Kuek and Obod, in Manyo County...," Kwongo said in the letter.
He said the militia activity had resulted in extensive displacement and loss of lives and property.
Kwongo said that while the Shilluk understand the need for the deployment of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) to fight the insurgency, "the Collo community is very much concerned about the excesses and negative repercussions associated with the presence of SPLA forces among our communities in the area."
He said the SPLA forces "should be disciplined and settled in designated areas [barracks]”.
Another thorny issue, King Kwongo said, was boundary disputes with other counties in neighbouring states and within Upper Nile State itself.
"Disputed border areas with Jonglei State include: Piji, Atar, Khor Fulus and other areas. Disputed border areas within Upper Nile State include borders between the following counties: Fashoda County and the newly created Akoka County; Malakal and Bailet over Malakal town; Panyikang County and Bailet County over Anagdiar payam [district], just to mention a few," King Kwongo said.
The UNDP official said that under a UNDP project, communities in the state had identified lack of transport by law-enforcement bodies as one of the main issues affecting security.
"UNDP procured 14 vehicles - one for each county in Upper Nile - with one county, Melut, getting two vehicles," the official said. "Speedboats were also procured for nine [riverine] counties. Moreover, 14 motorcycles, Thuraya phones and hand-held radios were also purchased for use by police in the counties. This has helped in improving the state's security.”
Observers say that before the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), issues to do with land were clearly spelt out in the constitution, but after the CPA introduced the clause that land belongs to the community, disputes and conflict over land increased.
Upper Nile State deputy director of the South Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, Samuel Adieng, said most disputes over land in the state involved the Shilluk in Panyikang and Fashoda counties who claim their land has been grabbed by the Dinka.
In a 3 June paper entitled South Sudan: Peace the Priority, the Rev Ezekiel Kutjok, moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Sudan and a former general secretary of the Sudan Council of Churches, said the interim government in Southern Sudan after 9 July should take measures to minimize, if not stop, intra-tribal conflict and animosity.
"Border conflicts among counties within Southern Sudan should be dealt with thoroughly to guarantee harmony among all people," Kutjok said.