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Sudan's Power Play

Commentary, 6 January 2011
Those campaigning for independence in the forthcoming South Sudan referendum will be cautiously optimistic. Should their hopes be fulfilled, the poll will not be the end of the road, but rather the beginning of Sudan’s next chapter.

Those campaigning for independence in the forthcoming South Sudan referendum will be cautiously optimistic. Should their hopes be fulfilled, the poll will not be the end of the road, but rather the beginning of Sudan's next chapter.

By Anna Rader for

6 January 2011

 Sudan Elections

On Sunday 9 January 2011, South Sudan will go to the polls in a momentous seven-day referendum. The choice is between unity with Sudan to the north or independence as this century's first new nation. A principal provision of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), the outcome has long been anticipated.

The final verdict is but a few weeks away, and the mood is cautiously optimistic. Decades of civil strife preceded the settlement at Naivasha, and the stakes for both sides are high. The war-battered south favours secession, but there are considerable impediments to sovereign success - not least the prospect of becoming a small, landlocked country hedged by powerful (Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda) or unstable (the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic) neighbours. For Khartoum, the referendum portends the severance of Sudan's natural resource stocks, but also promises a once-in-a-lifetime bargaining opportunity with which to offset the economic and reputational costs.

The Power of Perception

Like many of contemporary African states, Sudan's future was written in the past. Since at least the nineteenth century, the country has been fractured by warfare in a repetitious play of dominion and insurgency. Racial, cultural and religious divisions have coincided with a history of unequal relations - between core and periphery, north and south - but at its heart, Sudan's crisis has always been about power: over land, people and opportunity.

Though the charismatic former leader of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), Colonel John Garang, called for unity, South Sudan has long been agitating for freedom. The fierce Anyanya resistance movement emerged after independence in 1956, objecting to the perceived 'cultural colonialism' of the north, which perpetuated the economic marginalisation of the southern, western and eastern regions of Sudan in favour of the riverine heartland of Khartoum. Following the failure of the 1972 peace agreement, the SPLM galvanised opposition during Sudan's second civil war, from 1983 to 2004.Though it fought for a culturally diverse, shared Sudan, it advanced the psychological partition of the north and south by identifying Khartoum as its enemy. Meanwhile, Omar Al-Bashir's administration pursued a comprehensive 'Islamisation' of the state - consolidating its power but consequently further alienating it from the 'African' south. The CPA, signed incrementally over a number of years, was designed for peace - for unity - but the war of perceptions was not resolved. Though there are some in the south who oppose partition, the loudest voices pledge secession - and have done so for the last five years, if not longer. In Juba, the future capital city, the SPLM government has also been a strong advocate of independence, hardly surprising since it stands to gain at least the transitional reins, if not a permanent slice of the cake. 

Bargaining Power

Meanwhile, the international community's eye is trained on the south, which suits Khartoum. Sudan is an enormous and complex country, with myriad regional tensions of which the north-south diode is but one. To the west lies the plagued region of Darfur, and to the east another area of simmering insecurity. Moreover, Khartoum's greed for the national oil wealth has meant it has neglected its northern constituency, underinvesting in agricultural development, and there are strains here too. It is no coincidence that the conflict in Darfur escalated following the 2005 Naivasha agreement between the north and the south - its resistance groups also wanted a settlement - but it is unlikely that Bashir will allow the international community to dictate affairs within the rump following partition: southern secession may well end up costing Sudan's other maligned regions their freedom.

And this may be the devil's bargain that Juba must strike in return for an unproblematic secession. Already the referendum in Abyei - the oil-rich region along the north-south border - has been postponed, and ballots in two southern areas will not be held on time. To ensure a fair and credible outcome, the vote must garner a 60 per cent turnout and a 50-plus-1 per cent majority, and also be free of the electoral fraudulence that marred the general elections in April 2010. Although Bashir's recent diplomatic overtures to Juba included a promise to respect the people's decision, many expect legal challenges to the referendum's result, in addition to general stonewalling; and the Sudanese president is unlikely to forgo an opportunity to exchange the ICC warrant in return for his political amenability. Many of the CPA's provisions have yet to be fully implemented - much of the border remains undemarcated, and dual nationality and citizenship arrangements are unclear for instance - requiring further compromise and concession, principally from the south. There are also serious fears of insecurity and conflict in the aftermath of the result, fuelled by land-grabbing and an escalation in the already-accelerating population transfers.

The just-in-time nature of much of Sudanese politicking suggests that much of this bargaining would always have been last-minute, but the clock is ticking. There is little in place in terms of a precious post-referendum settlement, and there remains significant ambiguity over the nature of the new nation, should South Sudan choose independence as expected. Nevertheless, at the top level, there has been promising progress on oil-sharing and an apparent thawing in relations - at least in public. The real test will be on the ground, where a soft border would be a welcome salve to the many inter-racial families who inhabit the north-south divide, and the nomadic pastoralists for whom a militarised boundary would fundamentally undermine their way of life.

The referendum is not the end of the road, but rather the beginning of Sudan's next chapter. After the dust settles, there will be much to reflect upon - not least thwarted expectations and difficult choices. Intra-south clashes are inevitable as the proverbial cake is cut; Khartoum may also revert to its favoured use of proxies, particularly to ensure that the prizes stay on the northern side of the border. Whatever the result, this is a time for meaningful international engagement and support for both parties, and a strong dose of political courage within Sudan.

Anna Rader is editor of the RUSI Journal

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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