Sudan: The Trouble Ahead

With ten days to go until South Sudanese independence, tensions are high. Violence continues along the disputed border, and aid organisations fear another humanitarian crisis in a country wracked by conflict. At this crucial intersection, can Sudan be pulled back from the brink?

By Anna Rader for

This is an extraordinary time for the Horn of Africa. In many ways, it stands just outside the West's field of vision, whose focus on the Middle East and North Africa is occasionally uncomfortably punctured by Somali piracy, conflict in Darfur and the extreme poverty and hunger provoked by successive regional drought. The failure to develop a sustained, coherent diplomatic strategy towards Somalia has been one reason for the continued crisis of legitimacy of the Transitional Federal Government and the roiling insurgency across the south-central area.

Sudan, on the other hand, has benefited from the external spotlight, and it may be better for it. On 9 July, the south of the country will famously become the fifty-fourth state of Africa and the world's newest nation, leaving the rump state to lick its wounds and try to cash in on its cooperativeness in the bank of world opinion. But the road to partition has not been easy, and there remain a number of serious obstacles to peace, many of which are a hangover of the country's comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) that ended thirty years of civil war in 2005.

The CPA was a significant achievement in this very conflicted region. Mediated by the members of the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development, in particular Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, and overseen by international donors like the US, UK and Norway, the peace process took over three years, and established a range of power- and wealth-sharing arrangements between the Sudanese government based in Khartoum and the South Sudanese administration in Juba. The hallmark of the agreement was the recognition of South Sudan's right to self-determination, a considerable feat of negotiation on a continent whose institutions champion sovereignty. A referendum on southern independence was duly held on 9 January 2011, with 98 per cent of eligible Sudanese voting in favour of secession - a decision that set in motion the final stages of the CPA interim period.

Abyei: The Deal-Breaker

But in May, the cauldron of unsettled scores and local tensions in the disputed border region boiled over, reigniting conflict between north and south. The spark was the unresolved issue of Abyei, an oil-rich state traditionally administered by Khartoum but claimed by the south. Abyei was the CPA's Achilles heel: a political football, it has become imbued with national significance, despite the fact that it is not the heartland of Sudan's oil fields - these lies to the northeast and south. Abyei was one of the so-called Three Areas, together with Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, which were granted self-determination mechanisms in the CPA in order to assuage key constituencies on both sides. But neither the latter two's popular consultations nor Abyei's referendum took place in January as originally planned, as Juba expended political capital to ensure its own future and Khartoum quibbled about possible outcomes. Border demarcation, a pre-requisite for South Sudan's statehood, stalled, and the rising tensions distracted from crucial pre-independence state-building in the south, and reconciliation between the two future neighbours.

The 21 May takeover of Abyei by Sudanese Armed Forces, reportedly in response to the ambush and murder of an army unit along the border, was a bid to secure the Sudanese fringe and extract concessions before independence. Analysts had expected Khartoum to obstruct the referendum; but the relatively smooth operation, together with President Bashir's timely acknowledgement of the result, suggested that the Sudanese government was prepared to play ball.

Fracture in the North

But this underestimated the depth of the oil issue amongst the Khartoum elite, whose power base is built on oil revenues, an estimated two-thirds of which will now be lost to South Sudan. Bashir's indictment by the International Criminal Court on war crime charges will not go away, and he has lost valuable allies in the Arab Spring's deluge, making the need to consolidate internal control even more important. Sudan is not a coherent bloc, and is riven by fault-lines, not least those that run through the west in Darfur, the site of a protracted humanitarian crisis and an estimated 2.9 million refugees. Darfur remains a devastated region, isolated from Khartoum.

Sudan's north-eastern region, Red Sea State, also has the potential to make life difficult for the rump government - despite a peace agreement in 2003, the poverty and marginalisation that led to an invisible insurgency there in the late 1990s have not been addressed. The recent uptick in violence in Southern Kordofan reveals another hidden seam along which the predominantly Muslim Nuba have erupted. Their grievances are strikingly similar to those that activated the southern, western and eastern rebellions: economic and political disenfranchisement from the centre, lack of religious and civic freedom, poor governance, and few or no returns on the promised development dividend.

Inclusive Governance

It is easy to portray Khartoum as the villain, and it is true that Sudan's colonial history, sheer physical size and complex ethnic make-up have all contributed to the crucible of conflict. But it is also the case that the Islamicisation of the state during the 1980s was unable to provide a credible narrative to unify the country. That multiculturalism and inclusive governance are crucial is the lesson of Sudan's recent past - and indeed of this year's Arab Spring - but it will require enormous political maturity to readjust Sudan's course towards a more equitable bargain for its minorities and regions, particularly as Bashir proclaims an expansion of Sharia Law, a development which will only further alienate Sudanese in the north who want a better balance between religious and tribal cultures.

For the South, this is an important lesson, and one that the government in Juba should heed. The current violence along the border, in Abyei and in Southern Kordofan is costing lives; and the UN Security Council's recent decision to permit the deployment of Ethiopian peacekeepers along the frontier is a sign of the gravity of the situation. But, despite fears of civil war, it will not prevent independence. What it will do is remove the enabling environment that the new republic so desperately needs in order to tackle the huge challenge of building state capacity and unifying the country. 9 July will be a momentous occasion for the people of South Sudan, and for African history. Western governments have pledged support and aid, and there are Western military trainers and experts in Juba in order to help facilitate post-independence stability. But, like Sudan, the South has its own internal challengers, with divisions articulated along tribal lines, and splits and defections in the Sudan People's Liberation Army. The South has a short window in which to deliver the so-called peace dividend, secure its borders and build legitimacy; key tasks include restructuring the security sector and negotiating strategic relationships with Sudan over oil and Egypt over the Nile. These are not easy tasks, and South Sudan will need prolonged international engagement - not the lukewarm and ambiguous diplomacy offered to Somalia - in order to meet them.

Anna Rader is the editor of the RUSI Journal.

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


Anna Rader

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