Sudan will effectively suffer two losses if it opts to carry out the referendum on southern self determination on schedule on 9 January 2011 without first resolving its outstanding and volatile issues. The referendum, which is most likely to result in southern secession, is supposed to put an end to a long history of wars between the north and the south, rather than planting the seeds for another conflict, which this time will be fiercer and far more costly [than previous wars]. What is the point of the country paying such a steep price of accepting the referendum and division if this does not result in peace and stability?
So far, this does not seem to be a promising situation in light of the rising tensions and the failure to solve the Abyei issues and reach an agreement on border demarcation which in my opinion is the most important issue, in addition to failing to solve other outstanding disputes over oil, water resources, debts and citizenship. Despite these problems, there is strong pressure for the referendum to take place on schedule, on the basis that the outstanding problems can be carried forward and resolved during the transitional period, which will last for 6 months immediately following the referendum, ending in July 2011. However this would be risky, as the negotiations that are taking place today are being conducted between two parties within the same country, and there is an incentive for a resolution to be reached in order for these problems not to prevent the referendum taking place on time. However following the referendum and the likely secession [of the south], these negotiations will practically be negotiations between two independent states, despite the fact that the southern state will not “officially” be established until the end of the transitional period, or 11 July 2011, as stipulated by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. This would see the negotiations being far more difficult with national sentiment being at its peak, especially in the south which would be overjoyed upon winning secession. This would mean that many [in the south] would see making any concessions in the border issues a continuation of the south’s submission to the north. If these outstanding issues triggered a war, this war would certainly differ from previous conflicts as both the north and south are well-armed, particularly the south which has spent much of its oil revenues on purchasing arms and enhancing its military capabilities.
What is even more dangerous is that the two sides are planning to export their problems and conflict beyond their borders should relations continue to decline. Khartoum is accusing the southern government of seeking to rally armed militias in Darfur to inflame the conflict there in the event of a war breaking out between the north and south, whether this is a direct war or a proxy war. Sudanese government officials have issued warnings to the southern government in Juba about Minni Arcua Minnawi’s – who leads a faction of the Sudanese Liberation Movement – and the appearance of his fighters in the south, in preparation of resuming the war in Darfur. Although the south denies providing any supporting to Minnawi and his faction, or even allowing them to use the south as a base of operations to launch offensives in Darfur, the writing is on the wall, as they say. The Darfur-based Justice and Equality Movement [JEM] is also operating along the border between the north and the south and is being pursued by the Sudanese forces, which has led to cross-border bombardment. As long as the war in Darfur carries on, the north’s flank will remain exposed, in addition to this the southern self-determination referendum could encourage other movements in western or eastern Sudan to demand self-autonomy.
For their part, the southerners are accusing the al-Bashir government of arming northern tribes located in the region adjacent to the south, as well as of mobilizing the al-Masiriya tribes that are contending for the Abyei region and which are demanding the right to participate in the referendum on the basis that they have always existed in the region between the north and the south, using this area as pastureland. Juba has also accused Khartoum of supporting and arming movements that have split from the south’s ruling Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement [SPLM].
Some believe that the key to solving the issues between the north and south lies in Abyei, on the basis that this is the time bomb that could plunge the entire country into chaos; therefore solving this problem now would alleviate pressure and help in resolving all other issues. However if this remains unresolved, this could hinder the referendum at the last minute. Even if the referendum itself is not affected, peace between the two parties will be in jeopardy [if this issue is not resolved]. What is certain is that the referendum on the future of Abyei will not take place on schedule, at the same time as the southern referendum for the voter registration period is over, whilst the dispute over who is eligible to vote [in this referendum] has yet to be settled. The only possible solution lies in an agreement being reached between the governments of the north and south, or via the mediation efforts that are being led by former South African President Thabo Mbeki and supported by western parties such as the US, Britain, and Norway. There are a number of proposals on the table, the worst of which is a proposal for the temporary “lease” or “division” of the Abyei region for a period of seven years, during which western countries will finance a development program for the al-Masiriya tribal areas in the north so that it does not join the south. When this lease expires, these regions would then return to the south. However a solution such as this is nothing more than a painkiller, for although it dulls the pain it does not eliminate the root causes of the problem, and therefore Abyei would remain a pressure card that could potentially be used to inflame [the country].
Sudan must resolve its problems before the referendum, not after it. The international community must take action and exert pressure to ensure this, rather than proposing that these issues be delayed and dealt with during the transitional period. A renewed war between the north and south would not only result in the loss of 100 billion dollars – according to a recent special report- but the repercussions of this war could reverberate from Cairo to Cape Town, and from Djibouti to Dakar. This sentiment was expressed by President Obama’s Special Envoy to Sudan Scott Gration in his interview with Asharq Al-Awsat last week, and I do not think that he was over-exaggerating.