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22 March 2018 23:45 (South Africa)

Analysis: Now for the messy part of Sudan's divorce

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • Politics
sudan problems main

Just a few months after the internationally recognised independence referendum that has, seemingly, forever and in peace split Sudan's Christian-Animist South from the Muslim Arab North, the picture is far from settled. Or peaceful. Or comforting. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

It was obviously too good to last. All that international linking of hands, that virtual singing of “Kumbaya” and the benevolent stewardship of actor George Clooney and his satellite surveillance project. All to ensure the southern third and the northern two-thirds of Sudan had an amicable divorce in that internationally supervised referendum in the south, a few months back - based on the 2005 peace accord. The decades of fighting before that agreement had taken the lives of approximately 2 million people, cost a fortune and helped, along with the depredations in Darfur, drive Sudan into increasing diplomatic isolation from much of the world. 

Now that South Sudan’s independence is less than a month away on 9 July, the pushing and shoving has started in earnest. While world attention has been focused on the hope - and increasing violence - of the Arab Spring across the Maghreb, to Syria, and the states of the Persian Gulf, the Sudan peace process has started to unravel.

It is still possible that Sudan’s national divorce and the virtually inevitable transfers of population will not end up mimicking the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, or the forced transfers of people between Greece and Turkey in the wake of World War I. However, increasing violence around the town of Abyei and other areas may well be setting a pattern for rocky future relations between the two states. Sudan has already sent its troops into the Abyei region, in response to which the UN Security Council ordered Khartoum to withdraw its forces immediately, calling their presence a "serious violation" of North-South peace accords. Because there has not yet been agreement over which country that oil-producing region will belong to when South Sudan becomes independent, the Sudanese military's seizure of the region on 21 May has sparked fears of a renewed civil war.

In addition to this UN call for a troop withdrawal, an AU-sponsored gathering now plans to discuss this growing crisis on 12 and 13 June in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. (The African Union high level implementation panel is the actual organising body.) Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and South Sudan’s president-to-be Salva Kiir will attend, and former South African president Thabo Mbeki will preside over the meeting. Other worthies like Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia will also attend. The latest news reports say this meeting has actually brokered a withdrawal of Sudanese military forces from the Abyei area, although it is clearly too soon to say if this tentative agreement will hold.

Abyei, and the oil-rich area around it, is a bit of turf whose ultimate ownership was left undefined at the time of the partition plebiscite because of overlapping claims over the land and a mix of loyalties of the region’s population. Its inhabitants are a patchwork of southern Christian-animist and the northern Islamic, Arab populations – as well as smaller groups whose allegiances are even more complicated. In some cases, there are tribal groups of ethnic southerners whose religious adherence is towards Islam and whose political orientation remains towards Khartoum.

In addition, in the past several days civilians have also been killed in the town of Jau in Unity State (yes, that’s its real name) when the Sudanese Air Force used its Antonov bombers and MiG jets to bomb the town. In response, a spokesman from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army of the southern region claimed this was part of an ongoing campaign by the northern forces to occupy yet other disputed border regions ahead of the South’s independence day, essentially creating some of those new facts on the ground that are exceedingly hard to erase.

The UN now estimates nearly 150,000 people have fled their homes in the disputed areas, with around 30,000 to 40,000 people fleeing Kadugli, the capital of South Kordofan to escape fighting between the forces of the Sudanese army and the South’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army. South Kordofan is supposed to remain part of Sudan, but obviously not everyone has been totally happy with that demarcation.

Photo: South Sudan's President Salva Kiir addresses the media regarding the situation in Abyei at the presidential guest house in Juba, southern Sudan May 26, 2011. REUTERS/Paul Banks.

The Sudanese Air Force has used aerial bombardments in South Kordofan as well and, in the chaos, the UN and various NGO aid offices have evacuated their staff and let programmes come to grief. Humanitarian agencies have already been warning that delivering their aid efforts will become even more difficult when seasonal rains start because so many roads and grass airstrips in the southern part of the country become virtually unusable. Official and NGO aid organisations have drawn up lots of plans for development efforts in the South, but it may all come to naught if sustained hostilities break out again. “The escalating violence around the north-south border brings the two sides closer to war than they have been in years,” says Jon Temin, Sudan programme director at the US Institute of Peace, a quasi-government think tank.

As these events were transpiring, sponsors of the peace process like the US have begun to issue their warnings to the Sudanese government not to backslide. White House press secretary Jay Carney told Sudan’s government to “carefully consider” the consequences of its actions in South Kordofan. Carney said serious violations of international humanitarian laws would have a negative effect on any rapprochement between Sudan and the US and would put Sudan back on the road to international isolation. The right way forward, said the White House, would be a real cease-fire, full access for the UN and humanitarian organisations and full cooperation with the UN.

Sadly, things aren’t calm inside South Sudan either. Recent reports say about 1,400 people have died in violence inside the region - after the vote for independence. And various local militias remain in conflict with the new central government. SPLA spokesman Philip Aguer said his nascent country’s army was gaining the upper hand and insisted the rebels should lay down their arms. But one rebel group spokesman told media (it’s genuinely amazing – there are rebel groups inside rebel groups and everybody has a media representative) they would fight “forever” against what they claim is an increasingly autocratic government. The rebel groups insist they are opposing the corruption, nepotism and tribe-on-tribe ethnic war of the South Sudanese government, but some observers note that these militias may actually be acting as proxies for the Khartoum government.

The New York Times’ Jeff Gettleman, now reporting from South Sudan’s capital, Juba, wrote the other day: “But diplomats and analysts believe that, rather than trying to start a major conflict, Al-Bashir may instead be playing out a carefully devised strategy meant to ensure just one thing: that when southern Sudan declares independence next month, his northern government controls as much oil as possible, or at least is richly compensated.”

“Khartoum’s capture of Abyei and aggressive posturing on the eve of independence are, among other things, attempts to strengthen their negotiating hand and squeeze the South for as much as possible on oil, economic and border arrangements,” said Zach Vertin, an analyst for the International Crisis Group, which researches conflicts worldwide. In this high-stakes game, the tens of thousands of people who fled their homes during the takeover of Abyei and are now camped out under trees or plastic tarps along the border have become bargaining chips. Both north and south claim Abyei, and analysts say that Al-Bashir would be willing to give Abyei to the south and let the people go home if he gets a good deal on other separation issues, namely the oil.

Meanwhile, John Prendergast, a former US state department official who co-founded the anti-genocide Enough Project NGO, told reporters, “The country will be born amidst this externally supported mayhem, but if the new state doesn't deal with the internal causes of collaboration with Khartoum, it very well could see a civil war develop.”

Moreover, on the formal political front, amendments to a new version of the country’s constitution are alarming southern political opposition figures and democracy campaigners as well as foreign observers who say they are worried these amendments will create – wait for it now – the conditions for a one-party state. The demands on outsiders to help feed the country’s population and create a calmer security climate have served to deflect international concern about the new constitution so far, but even some southern government officials have criticised it as “authoritarian”.

This new draft “transitional constitution” is due to pass into law once independence occurs. In contrast to the earlier “interim constitution” that has been in place since the peace accord, the “transitional constitution” eliminates presidential term limits, gives the president more powers in dealing with the state governments and it would allow Kiir to appoint 66 new members to the parliament. A UN official told reporters “This process (reviewing the constitution) gives an insight into how they see the division of power in the future, and there are clearly some autocratic tendencies.” Diplomatic-speak for “Uh-oh, trouble ahead on this one.”

South Sudan, of course, is in a pretty rough neighbourhood where the neighbours already have some bad habits. Uganda, Libya and Ethiopia have leaders who have been in power for more than two decades, and Eritrea has had the same president since it became independent from Ethiopia in 1993. And, of course, Sudan still has its old stalwart, Omar al-Bashir, who seized power back in 1989. Prendergast adds, “It's very worrying. The Horn of African role models, along with Sudan itself, haven't had a fair election yet. Most presidents appear to want to stay in power for life.”

Beyond the politics of the place, nomadic tribes in the South appear to have begun to fight over stolen cattle. With a booming, youthful population, the demand for cows to pay bride prices has begun to exacerbate traditional conflicts. Aid workers now report there are gun battles as thousands of cattle change hands and someone doesn’t like the exchange rate or feels cheated somehow.

One UN official said the South Sudanese government was responsible for some of these problems because it hadn’t embraced the various rebel groups after the 2005 peace accord. This official’s view was that the new government’s “approach has been to buy them off with patronage or defeat them militarily, but tribal fault-lines are at the heart of this problem. It's a race against time to build a southern identity that is bigger than tribes.”

But even if the violence inside South Sudan can be kept to a minimum, the country will still have a very tough time gearing up economic development – even with its oil wealth. South Sudan is the size of France, but a country that comes with every possible human need in a jumbo-sized package. Oh, and the place is awash with guns left over from generations of warfare.

The country still has fewer than 100km of tarred roads, and the United Nations says it has been helping to feed about 4 million people, half the country’s population. The lack of roads and other vital infrastructure clearly offer real opportunities for development efforts and construction companies, but stability and safety are prerequisites for sustained efforts. By contrast, continuing violence may send millions of southerners, as well as South Sudanese in the North, on the road as refugees, complicating relief efforts as well as development plans.

Like so many other places, South Sudan is to be governed by a liberation movement trying to become a political party, explains Eddie Thomas, a Sudan analyst with the Rift Valley Institute. Thomas adds, “Political opposition often amounts to people in remote areas prepared to take drastic measures.” Seems like just the right time for a study tour to southern Africa to see just how difficult that transition can be. DM

For more, read:

  • Official: 3 dead from north Sudan aerial bombing from AP;
  • Analysis: Rebels, new laws cloud south Sudan's independence from Reuters;
  • Troops to stay in Abyei for now: Sudan minister in Reuters;
  • At least 96,000 flee Sudan's Abyei region -U.N. in Reuters;
  • Ethiopia: AU summit to focus on Sudan's Abyei in The Africa Report;
  • With partition looming, Sudan's future becomes precarious in the Miami Herald;
  • Sudan: Why Abyei is crucial to north and south on the BBC;
  • UN condemns Sudan's takeover of disputed Abyei on the BBC;
  • Sudan: SPLA accuses Khartoum of bombing Unity State on the BBC;
  • Sudan's split  - A last-minute hitch? A northern attack on a disputed town complicates southern independence in The Economist;
  • Sudan: Overview in The New York Times;
  • Thousands Flee in Sudan as North-South Clashes Grow, U.N. Says in The New York Times;
  • Brinkmanship in Sudan as a Deadline Nears in The New York Times;
  • Sudan: Foreigners Evacuated in Border City in The New York Times;
  • Broader Conflict Is Feared as Fighting Breaks Out on the Border in The New York Times;
  • Sudan Threatens to Occupy 2 More Disputed Regions in The New York Times;
  • Sudan Border Strategy May Bring in Ethiopian Peacekeepers in The New York Times;
  • North and South Sudan Tentatively Agree to Demilitarize Disputed Border in The New York Times;
  • U.N. Warns of Ethnic Cleansing in Sudan Town in The New York Times;
  • 2010 Human Rights Report: Sudan on the State Department website;
  • Sudan: Amnesty's Report on Sudan's Human Rights Record on Allafrica.com;
  • Battling to Bring Aid to Thousands of Abyei Displaced on Allafrica.com;
  • One Referendum, Two New Nations in The New York Times;
  • Sudan: The Crisis in Darfur and Status of the. North-South Peace Agreement by the Congressional Research Service;
  • South Sudan: Post-conflict Economic Recovery and Growth – an Agenda for USAID engagement (prepared by contractors for the USG’s foreign assistance agency);
  • North, south Sudan agree to demilitarize Abyei in AP;
  • Deputy ministerof international relations and co-operation Marius Fransmans' speech on Sudan, delivered at the UN on 13 June.

Main photo: Homesteads, locally known as "tukuls", burn in the centre of Abyei, central Sudan in this handout photograph released on May 28, 2011. Northern Sudanese armed forces seized the disputed Abyei region last week, sparking an international outcry and raising fears the north and south could return to full-blown conflict. REUTERS/Stuart Price/United Nations Mission in Sudan

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • Politics

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