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Dividing Sudan

Print edition : Feb 11, 2011 T+T-
A Sudanese woman living in a camp in the Mandela area of Khartoum waiting to leave for the South to take part in the referendum, on January 5. As many as 53 per cent of the southerners who had registered in the North voted.-ZOHRA BENSEMRA/REUTERS

A Sudanese woman living in a camp in the Mandela area of Khartoum waiting to leave for the South to take part in the referendum, on January 5. As many as 53 per cent of the southerners who had registered in the North voted.-ZOHRA BENSEMRA/REUTERS

South Sudan will soon be an independent country, going by the mood of a week-long referendum.

FROM all available indications, a new country will be adorning the map of Africa soon. The future of the continent's largest country, Sudan, was at stake in the second week of January, when the people of South Sudan participated in a week-long referendum on a two-way split of the strife-torn nation.

Under the terms of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2005, brokered under the auspices of the George W. Bush administration of the United States, North Sudan had agreed to allow the South to opt for either unity or separation. The central government in Khartoum thereby adhered to the CPA, which had brought the 50-year-long conflict to a close. More than two million Sudanese lost their lives in the turmoil that started soon after Sudan gained independence from the British in 1956.

Until the eleventh hour, Western governments and media had cast doubts about the sincerity of the government led by President Omar al-Bashir to allow a free and fair referendum. On a visit to Juba, the capital of the South, a few days before the referendum, the President had reiterated that he would abide by the verdict. If the vote is for secession, we will support you and congratulate you, he said during the visit. In southern Sudan, the people are hailing the United States as their liberator.

Many African leaders had warned against the break-up of Sudan, arguing that it would have a domino effect. Almost all the countries in the region have inherited borders drawn up arbitrarily by the colonial powers. Many governments fear that they will now come under pressure from the West to redraw the map of the continent.

The African Union (A.U.) had taken a stand against countries being divided on the basis of ethnicity or religion, fearing that the political map of the continent would unravel in no time. So far only Ethiopia has had the distinction of voluntarily allowing an independent country to emerge from within its territory. Eritrea broke away from Ethiopia in 1993. After the initial bonhomie, the two countries have been engaged in a war over disputed borders.

Other countries in the African continent have also experienced serious attempts at secession. The attempt to detach mineral-rich Katanga from the Congo with the backing of Western mercenaries in the early 1960s was the first serious attempt. In Nigeria, the Biafra war started just six years after the country's independence in 1960. The four-year-long civil war led to the loss of more than a million lives. The wounds from the war are still to heal. As in Sudan, most of Nigeria's oil wealth is in the South of the country. Many separatist movements are already active on the continent.

Path to secession

The turning point in Sudan came in the 1970s when the military ruler, General Jaffar Nimeiry, suddenly introduced Islamic law at a time when the South was enjoying autonomy for the first time. The waters were further muddied in the late 1980s when Khartoum decreed that strict Sharia laws were to be implemented. Though the laws were applicable only in the North, it sent the wrong message to the mainly Christian and animist South.

John Garang, who had emerged as the undisputed leader of the South in the 1980s, had at one time rejected separation saying that the goal was to convert Sudan into a secular and socialist state. But after the collapse of the socialist bloc and the overthrow of his ally President Mengistu Haile Merriam of Ethiopia, Garang changed course and became an ally of the West. If he had not died in a helicopter crash soon after the signing of the CPA, he would have become the President of the new state that will come into being in June 2011. His former deputy, Salva Kiir, will be the new President of South Sudan.

In the week-long polling that took place under the watch of thousands of Western observers, there were comparatively few instances of violence. And the violence that occurred was mainly a result of clashes between tribal militias in the South. After the polling, the Chairman of the South's Referendum Commission, Ibrahim Khalil, announced that more than 83 per cent of the eligible voters in the South and 53 per cent of those registered in the North had cast their votes. One to two million southerners have been living in Khartoum for generations, and many of them had registered to vote in the South. The eligibility criteria for voters were spelt out in the CPA. In all, there were 3.5 million registered voters; 80 per cent of the electorate is illiterate.

Celebrations have already started in Juba though independence will be formally declared only in June. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who is heading an observer's mission, has said that the vote was fair and the counting will also be done in a transparent manner. The likelihood is that the referendum result would be for independence, he told the media.

The Barack Obama administration seems to be very happy with the outcome. According to an Egyptian scholar on Sudan, Hani Raslan of the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, the U.S. is dead-set on seeing the emergence of an independent state of Southern Sudan to achieve political aims on the African continent. He told the IPS news agency that the U.S. insistence on independence for the South had more to do with its geopolitical ambitions. Raslan pointed out that in the final days of the Bush administration, the U.S. had set up the Africa Command (Africom). The central component of this command will be a large military base. This base is likely to come up in South Sudan. The U.S. had acted as the midwife in the birth of Kosovo in 2008. Today Kosovo hosts the biggest U.S. military base in the Balkans.

As a reward for Khartoum's accommodative stance, senior U.S. State Department officials have hinted that Sudan will be dropped from the list of states supporting terrorism, and sanctions on it will be lifted for allowing a peaceful secession.

Other important countries such as China had also sent big contingents of observers for the referendum. Beijing has big investments in the hydrocarbon sector in southern Sudan; 24,000 Chinese citizens work there. At present, around 60 per cent of the oil produced in the South is bought by China. India too has a sizable stake in the petroleum sector but is not as big a player as China.

China, seeing the writing on the wall, had already started cultivating good relations with the political leadership in the South. It opened a consulate in Juba in 2008, which was then upgraded to a full embassy last year. Pagan Anum, Secretary-General of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), said that China played a key role in consolidating the smooth implementation of the CPA. India's role in comparison has been noticeably low key.

The southern Sudan exercise is an example of people exercising their right to self-determination. Like Kosovo's independence, South Sudan's independence has set a precedent that will no doubt encourage separatists in the Indian subcontinent. Helmy Sharawi of the Cairo-based Arab-Africa Centre contrasted Washington's enthusiasm for the Sudan referendum to the indifference shown to a similar referendum proposal for Kashmir by the United Nations Security Council in 1948.

But before independence for the South is formalised, there are many outstanding issues that are to be resolved. These include border demarcation and the sharing of oil revenues. Right now, the oil revenues are shared equally but the agreement between the North and the South expires in July this year. The two sides have not been able to come to an agreement on the issue so far.

Another contentious issue is the dispute over Abyei, an oil-producing province situated along the North-South border. Though the residents of Abyei were not allowed to participate in the referendum, there were clashes between the Dinka ethnic group and the Misseriya Arab tribesmen here. Around 38 people were killed in the clashes. Carter gave a clean chit to Khartoum, saying that the Sudanese army was in no way involved in the clashes.

Abyei will be holding a plebiscite of its own to decide its future course but disagreements over the voters' list have forced the U.N. to postpone the vote for the time being. Abyei is important for the North as most of the oil-producing areas fall within South Sudan. But Khartoum controls the pipelines through which the oil is exported to international markets. Ninety per cent of Sudan's export earnings are from oil.

Landlocked South Sudan's only direct access to the sea at this juncture is through Sudanese ports in the North and its economy is almost entirely dependent on oil exports. In the short term at least, the South will have to depend on Khartoum to get its oil into the international market. But there are indications that plans are afoot to build an alternative pipeline through Kenya that would end the dependence on the North for the export of oil.

The issue of sharing the waters of the Nile is also bound to come up sooner than later. Already Egypt is threatening action against upstream states such as Ethiopia for diverting the Nile waters. As Egypt had a big stake in neighbouring Sudan, Cairo sent several high-level delegations to the meet with the southern leadership to convince it to opt for unity in the run-up to the referendum.

The new country will also be facing serious developmental challenges. South Sudan, which is bigger than Spain, has asphalted roads totalling less than 100 kilometres. The South, scarred by decades of war, has few hospitals or schools but is overflowing with guns and militias. Large-scale corruption, triggered by massive oil revenues, has already reared its head.

Inter-ethnic disputes over revenue-sharing and pastoral rights, are turning bloodier. The Nuer and Shiluk ethnic groups are alienated from the Dinka, who dominate the SPLM.

The problems of Sudan will not be solved by the secession of the South. Darfur is still on the front burner as far as the U.S. and the West are concerned. Their attention will now turn to that troubled region of Sudan.

Other restive ethnic groups along Sudan's border with Ethiopia and Eritrea are trying to raise the banner of secession.