Sudan politics: All eyes on the south


With the elections in Sudan out of the way and a new cabinet finally in place, attention is focused squarely on the referendum on the future of the south. We consider that this referendum is likely to go ahead on schedule on January 9th 2011, even though there remains much to do to prepare for the vote. There appears to be a strong sentiment in the south for secession, even though some of the minorities harbour fears of Dinka domination, and a breakaway vote could cause trouble in border areas.

The elections in April resulted in a comfortable victory for Omar al-Bashir, the incumbent, in the national presidential contest. Salva Kiir won a similar victory in the south, and their respective parties, the National Congress Party (NCP) and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), dominated the national parliamentary election, with about 73% of the seats going to the former and 22% to the latter. The cabinet announced by Mr Bashir on June 14 reflects the election’s outcome, with nine of the 35 seats going to the SPLM and most of the remainder held by the NCP. The main change has been the replacement of the SPLM’s Deng Alor by Ali Karti of the NCP as foreign minister, and the award of the oil portfolio to Lual Deng of the SPLM. The southern party had pushed hard for this, given that most of Sudan’s oil reserves lie in the south. However, the change has also entailed splitting the former Ministry of Energy and Mining into three departments, with responsibility for mining and electricity being hived off to NCP ministers.

Independence road

The main task of the new government will be to prepare for the southern referendum. Both of the governing parties have to maintain a difficult balancing act. As well as negotiating the framework under which Southern Sudan could become independent, the NCP and the SPLM have to consider a situation under which they would remain united. In his inaugural speech before the National Assembly at the end of May, Mr Bashir once again insisted that the government was committed to holding the referendum on time and that it would “accept, in good faith, the choice of the south”, although the government would call for unity, plan for it and work for it. However, the NCP has not yet publicly offered any concessions on unity arrangements, much as the SPLM has not publicly offered any concessions on the option of independence. Nonetheless, the SPLM has repeatedly blamed the NCP in public for failing to make unity attractive. In the coming months, the NCP might seek to offer a unity option that the SPLM and southerners could accept, for example with arrangements for increased autonomy (above what the south already has), possibly within a federal framework—although Darfur and Eastern Sudan might demand similar treatment.

However, referendum preparations have far to go. Quite apart from the major negotiations needed about referendum options and post-referendum arrangements, which have not yet begun in earnest, the referendum commission and its subsidiary offices that will implement the referendum have yet to be established—and this needs to happen very soon, given that it is due to be held in just seven months time.

Separation sentiment

The critical factor in favour of independence for Southern Sudan is the belief of many of southerners that they would be better off under this scenario. This belief is the result of the decades of marginalisation and discrimination that southerners have experienced at the hands of successive national governments in Khartoum. It is also reinforced by their memories of how their autonomy under the 1972 peace agreement, which ended Sudan’s first civil war, was eventually abrogated. After the two-decade-long second civil war, the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) provision for a referendum on self-determination—developed in the 2002 Machakos Protocol—and Southern Sudan’s receipt of a share of revenue from southern oil production, have raised expectations about the viability of an independent south.

Nevertheless, the SPLM is not intrinsically secessionist, although many among its ranks and in its leadership are, or at times have been, in favour of independence. During the war between 1983 and 2005, the SPLM’s overarching political objective was to create what its then leader, John Garang, termed a “New Sudan”, by which was meant a more just and democratic country that would better serve the interests of marginalised and disadvantaged peoples—including those in the north. The Sudan People’s Liberation Army fought outside the south, in South Kordofan, Blue Nile and Eastern Sudan, and even tried to open a front in Darfur. To this day the SPLM still counts many northerners among its members, including its deputy secretary-general (and abortive presidential candidate), Yasar Arman.

Sentiments of support for southern independence are sometimes voiced by northern Sudanese, typically on the sympathetic grounds that the south has suffered enough. Another stream of northern thought is typified by Al-Tayeb Mustafa (an uncle of the president, Omar al-Bashir), who argues forcefully for secession through Al-Intibaha, a daily newspaper published by the Islamist Just Peace Forum party that he leads. Mr Mustafa argues that the southerners are too different and it is in the north’s best interest to be rid of them and instead reinforce its own Muslim Arab identity, an argument that many see as racist. Embittered northerners also sometimes claim that hardliners in the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) would like to be rid of the south merely in order to strengthen their grip on the north, although it is unlikely that this view is widely held within the NCP.

Committed secessionists in the SPLM and the south will likely become more vocal in the coming months. But whether the SPLM will ultimately throw its weight behind a campaign for outright independence will depend most of all on what forthcoming negotiations for post-referendum unity arrangements yield.