As the date for the South Sudan self-determination referendum draws near, talk and debate are growing around the future of the largest Arab and African country, and the 10th largest country in the world in terms of area. While a comprehensive discussion is taking place both inside and outside political circles in Sudan, many are observing the developments, especially because what happens over the next few months will have significant repercussions in the country and outside.
Many envisage a grim picture, and are fearful of the consequences if the referendum process is delayed, or if it is held at a time when matters are still unresolved. There are large and potentially volatile cases still awaiting agreement, on issues ranging from border demarcation to the division of natural resources such as oil and water. These issues, unless they are agreed upon, could ignite a war now or in the future. There are of course other issues, like the matter of Sudan’s external debt, which southern officials say they are not responsible for, considering it to be the debt of the North. Additionally, there are issues relating to nationality, and the fate of southerners currently living in the North, and vice versa.
It is worth noting that after five years of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which determined the date of the referendum, there are still many unresolved problems. Even with regards to the referendum process, some details are yet to be agreed upon, between the ruling National Congress in the North, and the ruling People’s Movement in the South. The referendum office was not formed until a few weeks ago. This, if anything, indicates that the concerned parties, especially in the north, did not believe or were not originally convinced, that the country would be on the brink of separation as the referendum approaches. Instead the government was preoccupied with securing its position and strengthening its grip on power, rather than securing the country and encouraging elements of unity. Thus they have lost critical years through delays and political jockeying, whilst the factors weakening unity have mounted up, and have accelerated the steps towards separation.
The South, for their part, did not sit idly waiting for the ‘gracious’ North to grant them equal unity, which has not been achieved from 1955, the date of the first southern rebellion, until today. But even during the years of peace between 1972 and 1983, and then between 2005 and 2010, conditions did little to lessen the southern citizens’ sense of injustice, and instill a sense of full citizenship and equality. Therefore, it is not surprising to hear lots of southerners talk about refusing to live as second class citizens. During demonstrations in support of separation, that are almost systematic in the South these days, they chant slogans such as “no to slavery…yes to separation!”, or “no to the confederation…yes to independence!” and “goodbye to the North!”.
These sentiments did not suddenly appear, they did not suddenly grow over the past five years, but they are the result of a lengthy accumulation dating back to the mid fifties. Perhaps they have intensified over the last 20 years, especially after the current government fuelled feelings of hostility and division when it declared ‘Jihad’ [against southern Sudan in 1989], and sent young men and militias to fight under the banner of a religious war. Many opportunities were lost during the last half century, in a series of wars and incomplete peace. The ‘south issue’ became a pretext for political maneuvers, which resulted in the manipulation of Sudan’s fate.
Where are matters headed now?
In the next phase, there are three possible scenarios facing Sudan. Unity is desirable but ultimately inconceivable, for wishing is one thing, reality is something else. Secession is the second scenario, which is likely according to all indicators and present facts. From reading and carefully following the statements of many officials, or the words of the majority of educated southerners, you realize that they are proceeding towards secession. The southern government has implemented numerous steps indicating preparation for its separation, whether by opening a number of representative offices and consulates abroad, or by establishing a central bank, changing the curriculum, and establishing the nucleus of air and naval forces.
The third scenario is the worst without doubt, for it is a return to war. If war is renewed, it will be fiercer than ever before, and may succeed in delaying the referendum, but will not prevent it. More seriously, it could drag other areas into the sphere of conflict and separation. The war in the South encouraged the outbreak of the war in Darfur, and contributed to the emergence of armed movements in the east and other areas. There is nothing to prevent the war from extending to new areas in the future, whether on the North-South border lines, or beyond. Sudan borders nine countries, some of which could interfere with its conflict, as has happened in the past and will inevitably happen in the future.
Realists believe that the chance of southerners voting in the referendum for unity is very small, especially with the prospect of secession as an alternative. In a case such as this, the hope is that Sudan avoids a ‘bloody divorce’, and that wisdom prevails amongst the North and South, leading to a healthy future relationship. That will come if today’s outstanding issues are resolved, including establishing borders and clear revenue sharing agreements in accordance with international views, before the date of the referendum. Thus by creating a climate conducive to a future mutually beneficial relationship between the two countries (if the South votes to secede), there can be cooperation based on common interests and mutual benefits. Time is running out and stalling will not solve problems, only exacerbate them.