Friday, 7 January 2011

Border Focus: Sudan

The Southern Sudan Independence Referendum is due to begin on 9th January 2011, but how did Africa’s biggest country come to the point of being split in two?

What is disputed?

Problems in the Sudan stem from poorly thought out colonial borders and policies, and essentially what is disputed is the role of the south and other peripheral areas of the country within the larger Sudanese nation.

The dispute is often portrayed as fight between regions (north vs south) or ethnicities (Arabs vs black Africans), but it perhaps more useful to see it as a fight between the centre and the peripheries, between those holding the power and those marginalised from power.

As a result, while the likely independence of Southern Sudan will solve the marginalisation of the south, it will not solve the problems of other groups in the north who have also been fighting against Khartoum for greater recognition.

What is the history of the dispute?

Even before the Sudan gained independence from Britain in 1956, people in southern Sudan and other areas away from Khartoum felt that they were being excluded from the political process.

The first civil war lasted from 1955-1972 and resulted in the Addis Ababa Accords which granted the south a degree of regional autonomy. This was rescinded in 1983, however, and the rise of Islamist powers in the north resulted in a second civil war breaking out in 1983. The southerners were represented mainly by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), headed by John Garang, but the SPLM also tried to represent other marginalised peoples, especially in the Blue Nile, Nuba Mountain and Darfur areas.

The war ended with the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) after 2 million people had been killed and even more displaced. The agreement provided for greater regional representation of some of the marginalised people and gave the SPLM control over governance in the south.

It stipulated a six year interim period in which both sides were committed to working for peace and unity and at the end of the period a referendum was to be held in the south in which the people could vote for unity or secession.

How successful has the CPA been?

The fact that the independence referendum is almost certain to result in southern secession makes it clear that the CPA has not been overly successful. The Power Sharing Protocol established under the CPA, designed to increased southern representation in the central government, and greater local representation in the state governments of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile has been disappointing. Inclusion into the Government of National Unity has not led to the marginalised parties gaining greater influence over state policies. Many complain that the whole government is still under strict National Congress Party (NCP, formerly NIF) control.

Khartoum’s refusal to accept the decision of the Abyei Boundary Commission, and its blocking of the demarcation work of the boundary determined in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague is seen as a sign that little will change for the South if independence is rejected.

Other problems have continued: the Sudanese army did not leave Southern Sudan until 2008, and has been accused of continuing aerial campaigns against the south. The International Crisis Group warned in September 2010 that the border region was dangerous militarised and border demarcation has still not been carried out in many areas.

What is the independence referendum?

The culmination of the CPA is the Southern Sudanese independence referendum, due to be held on 9th January 2011. All Southern Sudanese are eligible to vote, even if they live in the north or abroad. Numerous international countries have made provisions for voting, and the Southern Sudanese government has repatriated tens of thousands of southerners living in the north, amidst fears that they would be intimidated out of voting if they remained in the north.

Almost four million voters have been registered and at least 60 per cent of them must vote during the week long voting period for the referendum to be considered valid. A simple majority either way will decide the result.

The results will probably take some time to come in, and if the vote is in favour of secession, Southern Sudan will become a new country at the end of the interim period on 9th July, 2011.

This gives the two sides six months to deal with residual – and crucially important issues – such as oil revenues, water ownership and border demarcation. There have long been fears that Khartoum would try to interrupt the referendum process or that a vote in favour of independence could lead to war, but al-Bashir’s recent comments that he will accept the verdict either way is positive.

Another crucial issue is to do with the oil-rich border-straddling Abyei region. Abyei residents were meant to have their own referendum on whether to join the north or the south on 9th January, but this will not happen. Instead, its future is likely to be negotiated over by the GoS and SPLM.

What are challenges facing newly independent country?

If, as most analysts expect, Southern Sudan votes to become the first new African country since 1993, it will have huge issues facing it. The second civil war resulted in the deaths of some two million people, and huge numbers of southern residents have been displaced. The south has been ignored and underdeveloped since the colonial period and much of what infrastructure was there was damaged during the civil wars. Persistent food shortages have been an issue (for much of Sudan) since the 1990s, and will likely to continue to be so in the future.

While the south has access to most of the country’s water, it will be a landlocked nation, and will be dependent on the north for many things, not least for the pipelines to carry its oil to markets.

The political class in Juba, while having governed since 2005 is still relatively inexperienced, and corruption is already an issue. The pace of reconstruction has been incredibly slow, and the South has relied heavily in recent years on the World Food Programme, despite some $6 billion in oil revenues coming in.

The new countries leaders will also have a challenge in constructing an idea of national unity and identity. For most of the colonial period their authority has come from their rejection of Khartoum. When they don’t have anyone to blame for the problems any more, unity may be harder to engender.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the south would be better off staying with the north. The support the SPLM has received from its regional neighbours over the last few decades means that it is already to a certain extent integrated into the east African economy, and they will continue to have the goodwill – and more importantly the donor dollars – of the international community for coming years.

For the full history of the dispute, for more analysis, and for Menas Borders' expert report for the SPLM/A in the Abyei Arbitration, please see the full Border Focus, here.

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