MALWAL KOI, South Sudan -- Landing by cargo plane on a runway of sun-baked mud, close to the border of southern Darfur, I am greeted by an unexpected sight: a political rally. The president of South Sudan, Salva Kiir Mayardit, will be arriving shortly, campaigning for Paul Malong, the endangered, incumbent governor of the local area. The Sudan People's Liberation Movement -- South Sudan's armed, African rebellion against northern, Arabized rule, now turned ruling political party -- is out in force. Activists in red and white march and chant. Soldiers shoo children with sticks. Local tribal leaders carry spears, symbols of their authority.
This desolate, parched portion of South Sudan (dry at least until the rainy season turns every road into a mud river) was a battlefield during Sudan's 22-year civil war, which claimed 2 million lives before ending five years ago. Now it is a political battleground. Campaign posters plaster trucks and stalls at the market, some familiarly calling for "Hope and Change." Elections in mid-April will choose national and local leaders and set the stage for South Sudan's independence referendum, scheduled for January of next year. The outcome of these elections may determine if South Sudan becomes the world's newest nation -- or stillborn state, plunged back into one of history's bloodiest civil wars.
At opposition headquarters in nearby Aweil -- a brick-walled compound, holding an open, thatched meeting room -- Gen. Dau Aturjong predicts victory in his independent bid for governor. Dau fought as a guerrilla, gaining a reputation for honesty and restraint. He complains the SPLM has conducted a political purge -- putting candidate selection in the hands of illiterate party hacks, dominated by the current governor. "The most qualified people are not being employed," Dau says, clearly counting himself in that number. He criticizes SPLM corruption and warns of voter intimidation and outright fraud.
The next day, President Kiir, looking thin and exhausted, is dismissive of independent challenges to his ruling party, accusing them of being funded by the north. "It is the only way they can weaken the SPLM," he says. But Kiir is clearly worried enough to bring most of the SPLM leadership to the region to campaign. Will there be violence from whoever loses the election? "We have been all around telling our people not to be violent. People in the south know what violence is. They know the consequences."