A few days ago, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that Sudan “is a ticking time bomb of enormous consequence”, indicating that the secession of the South is inevitable, and the situation must be dealt with on this premise. At the same time, she advised the South to offer compromises and deals to the North, in particular regarding the issue of oil, “unless they want more years of war”.
Last Friday, Salva Kiir Mayardit, First Deputy President of Sudan and President of the Government of Southern Sudan, said in a meeting to the Black Caucus in the American Congress, that the future of Sudan was “hanging in the balance”. He indicated that unity was no longer an attractive option, and that all evidence indicates that the southerners will choose ‘independence’, in the upcoming referendum on the 9th January 2011. Salva Kiir also took the opportunity to respond to the advice of Hillary Clinton, criticizing her call [to offer concessions to the North] as one “to buy our freedom”. He considered it unjust to demand that the South hand over the majority of their oil reserves to the North.
On the same day, the Sudanese Embassy in Washington distributed the text of a letter written by the Second Vice-President Ali Osman Mohamed Taha, Chief Supervisor of the Southern Issue, addressed to the U.S. Administration, describing them as one of the driving forces who stood behind the Sudanese peace agreement in 2005, on the basis that a future referendum would be conducted. In his letter, Taha calls for the Obama Administration to move in the coming period to instigate “a new beginning in U.S.-Sudanese relations”, by lifting sanctions and ceasing their pressures. He also suggested that the U.S. Administration suspend the prosecution of President Omar al-Bashir, especially as he is the individual “who controls the decision for war or peace”.
Yet these opinions come at a time when the U.S. Administration is stepping up its action, regarding the issue of a referendum in Southern Sudan, after realizing that time is running out. The proposed referendum date is only 109 days away, meanwhile problems are accumulating and indicators suggest that failure to reach a satisfactory solution, and clarification on issues such as borders, oil, water, and bilateral relations, may lead to either the abandonment of the referendum, or a “tempestuous divorce” amidst outstanding problems. The result in both cases would be a bloody war.
The reality is that American action has come after a period of hesitation, fluctuation and differences within the Obama Administration, regarding the Sudanese issue. This indecisive state was not resolved until after Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Africa in June, where the topic of Sudan was at the top of his agenda. During a stopover in Kenya, Biden met with Salva Kiir, and discussed ‘the future of the South’ with him. He stressed the U.S. Administration’s support for the referendum to be held on time, and pledged to offer support to the South, whilst also advising southern leaders to seek to resolve their outstanding issues with the North, before the referendum date.
That visit, and subsequent meetings within the Obama Administration, resolved the differences and hesitancy. The Administration adopted a strategy to put pressure on Khartoum, to organize the referendum on time, and to put pressure on Juba to ensure that the referendum would be conducted in a “free and fair atmosphere”. More importantly, America decided to pursue a policy of ‘incentives or sanctions’ with the Sudanese government, to ensure their cooperation regarding the referendum, which seems to be overtaking the issue of Darfur on the list of Washington’s priorities. From this perspective, the Administration has developed its plan to lift U.S. sanctions on Sudan gradually, and in calculated steps, in accordance with certain key dates in relation to the referendum. This will encourage Khartoum to meet the 9th January deadline, and moreover will help to ensure that the Khartoum government recognizes the outcome, especially if the result is southern separation.
Under this strategy, Obama also decided to attend a specific meeting with Sudan, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting last Friday. In doing so, he aimed to convey the message that the U.S. Administration, at its highest levels, is giving the subject of Sudan, and the southern referendum, its utmost attention. Obama also wanted to protect himself from the widespread criticism leveled against him in Washington, which has argued that he has abandoned his election promise to give the Sudanese issue his attention, after criticizing the Bush Administration for not applying enough pressure or acting upon the issue.
There is another dimension to this resurgent American interest in the Sudanese situation. It is also motivated by a great concern for the prospect of a renewed war in Sudan, this time even bloodier, especially after the South has stockpiled weapons over the past few years. There is also the fear that the war could expand and draw in neighboring countries, leading to turmoil in the region, especially with the presence of a rebel movement in Uganda, the tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and the collapsed state of Somalia. Furthermore, what happens in Sudan after the referendum will have far reaching implications, both regionally and internationally. Secession will ignite a volatile issue in the region, where there are numerous minorities, amid much ethnic, religious and tribal overlapping, and ‘loose’ border interpretations. The ‘independent’ South possesses in its genes all the hallmarks of potential future problems, raising fears of a ‘Sudanese Rwanda’. Therefore, the separation of the North and South does not mean that the issue has come to an end. Instead, a lot needs to be done to ensure stability, and prevent clashes which could easily result from oil, water, or tribal and border tensions.
The Sudanese ‘divorce’ is inevitable, given current indicators. The witness to proceedings will be American, as is the desire of both parties. Meanwhile, the Arabs will be mere spectators, but that is another issue…