BENTIU, Sudan – To ensure an overwhelming vote for independence in an upcoming referendum, Southern Sudan officials are embracing rebel military commanders blamed for the deaths of southerners during and after a civil war between the north and south.
They even sacrificed several bulls to welcome back a leader who had defected from the southern army and is now a senior commander in the northern army — the south's erstwhile enemy.
"We forget everything for the referendum," said Gideon Gatpan Thoor, the minister of information for oil-rich Unity state, ironically named since it was the site of brutal fighting among southern factions. The fighting was often stoked by the north's support for rival militias.
The effort to bury the hatchet comes less than three months before a vote that could see Africa's largest country split in two. Southern Sudan President Salva Kiir earlier this month pardoned the commander, Gabriel Tanginye, and two other former members of the southern forces.
Regional political and military leaders this week welcomed Tanginye in Bentiu, the capital of Unity state, at the governor's riverside residence. A tank stood outside the residence, part of a huge security presence in the city which has only one paved road. A white bull was sacrificed in his honor. Tanginye danced alongside southern officials, raising his cane in the air.
"I'm very happy to be back," Tanginye told the crowd. He showed he is already on board with the south's overriding goal, declaring: "We need to go for separation."
Tanginye says he commands a militia of 44,000 men, some of whom were behind the killings of scores of people in clashes in 2009 and 2006, after the civil war officially ended in 2005. Though Tanginye is not trusted by many southern leaders, he is still seen as a key figure with an armed constituency that cannot be ignored.
Tanginye told The Associated Press that negotiations with the south's president and senior military leaders will result in the "merger" of his troops with the south's Sudan People's Liberation Army, the former rebel group that is now the south's military force. Many of Tanginye's men currently serve in the northern Sudanese army.
There are indications that the other two recently pardoned men, George Athor and Gatluak Gai, also intend to rejoin the southern army.
Athor is a former deputy chief of staff in the army. A delegation of his men arrived in Juba, the south's capital, on Sunday to begin talks over the reintegration.
"This is a way of testing the water ... Athor's men have come to see the situation, whether people are hostile or welcoming to him," southern army spokesman Lt. Gen. Kuol Deim Kuol said.
The south's vice president, Riek Machar, told reporters in Juba on Tuesday that Athor has decided to rejoin the army but Kuol said final authorization must come from Kiir, who as president is the commander in chief.
The southern government is also trying to build consensus among opposition parties ahead of the vote.
A five-day conference convened by the southern ruling party in Juba brought together more than 20 political parties last week to discuss stalled preparations for the referendum and other topics. The conference's closing statement noted the unanimous agreement among all parties that both the south's referendum and a separate vote in the region of Abyei on the border must be held on Jan. 9 as called for by the 2005 peace agreement.
Lam Akol, leader of the breakaway SPLM-Democratic Change, told AP that his party wants to retain its independence from the south's ruling party, but said southerners must be united in their support of a peaceful and credible referendum — partly because any problems with the vote could be used by the central government in Khartoum to argue against its validity.
"We have now made the attempt to unite. We will hope to keep this unity firm and strong and in that respect unity will guarantee that all of us work for the interests of Southern Sudan," said Akol, who led a split within the southern rebel movement during the war and later allied with the north.
Despite his history, the south's ruling party reached out to him, a strategy that could prove successful in the run-up to the vote.
Whether the south's diverse population — represented largely by military strongmen — will remain unified afterward is less assured.