Sudan is no stranger to struggle. For most of its post-colonial history, the largest nation in Africa has been at war with itself. Two bouts of civil war have ravaged Sudan since its independence in 1956, taking the lives of 2.2 million. Ongoing bloodshed in the western region of Darfur has forced more than two million from their homes and killed over 200,000. The government is a nightmare for human rights, and its President Omar al-Bashir is among the International Criminal Court’s most wanted. The most recent development in the Sudan’s bloody history, however, may give the nation a new reason for hope.
In January, the Sudanese people finally got the chance to take the future of their nation into their own hands. Hundreds of thousands turned out to vote for a referendum on the independence of southern Sudan, which was mired in war for decades for with the north. The process began on January 9, and lasted through the 15th. According to the final count, 98.83 percent of the over 3.8 million registered voters in southern Sudan chose to separate from the north; in many parts of the country the affirmative vote was over 99 percent. On February 7, President Bashir publically accepted the referendum results, and the date was set for July 9, 2011 for southern Sudan—to be named the Republic of South Sudan—to become the world’s newest nation.
The Great Divide
To understand the significance of this vote, one must first look at the dynamic between northern and southern Sudan. While the north is predominantly Muslim and identifies with the Arab world, the south is Christian and animist and has closer ties to sub-Saharan Africa. The discord between the two regions is not only religious and cultural, but also economic and political. Wealth and power have historically been concentrated in the north and northerners have consistently sought to rule Sudan along Islamic lines, including the official appropriation of Shariah law. Meanwhile, the non-Muslim south has been steadfastly opposed to Arab control and has long harbored secessionist sentiment. Just as Sudan won independence from joint Egyptian-British rule in 1956, these tensions spiraled into a full-scale civil war that lasted until 1972, when the military regime of then-President Jaafar Numeiri agreed to autonomy for the south. The respite was short-lived, however, and fighting resumed in 1983. The civil war—the longest in African history—finally came to an end in 2005 when the main southern rebel groups signed a peace treaty with the government of Sudan. The agreement granted the south “semi-autonomy” and included the option of a 2011 vote to remain part of the Republic of Sudan—or to leave.
Six years later, the south has nearly unanimously chosen secession. “This is a new, historic moment for Sudan, a new dawn,” Haile Menkerios, head of the UN mission in Sudan, announced to the Security Council. Although spirits were high and the general mood very optimistic, this new phase for Sudan is not without its share of fears. The most immediate concern is how to draw the border between the two Sudans: it remains highly ambiguous just where the Arab north ends and the Christian south begins. Jeffrey Gettleman, chief Africa correspondent for the New York Times, explained the sharp local division: “One thatched roof hut carries a roughly-hewn cross at the top and next door an identical hut flaunts a crescent moon.” In the 2005 agreement, this regional crossroads, named Abyei, was placed under joint north-south authority with little success. Violence has since persisted between Abyei’s Muslims and Christians; and a separate referendum to decide whether the region should join the north or the south was canceled last month due to partisan disagreements over who in Abyei is even eligible to vote.
Further complicating the matter is the question of oil. Nearly three-quarters of the nation’s crude is produced in the south, but the pipelines to export it run through the north. Sudan has recently witnessed massive economic growth—oil exports since 1989 have tripled the country’s GDP. A cut in the flow would be devastating for north and south, and both sides have expressed deep concern over how to divide their resources and share infrastructure.
In addition to the oil and border quandaries, another major roadblock to a peaceful transition is demobilization. Sudan is haunted by hundreds of thousands of former military and armed rebel groups who fueled the civil wars, and continue today to wreak havoc across the country. Analysts warn that low-level clashes could easily expand into another full-scale war.
On February 6, the day before Mr. Bashir publically approved the vote, a Sudanese army mutiny broke out in the oil-producing Upper Nile State. The military reported over 50 deaths. Last week, 16 were killed in a clash between rebels and a former army commander. A few days later, 100 were reported dead in more rebel-military disputes. What is worrisome is that there is no way of knowing now just how these clashes will impact peaceful transition. As Sudan scholar and Professor at University of Haifa in Israel wrote in an email to the Independent, “We are witnessing the secession between North and South and it is not peaceful; however, this does not imply that it will escalate into full scale civil war, we have to wait and see.”
Crude, Kalashnikovs, and Cairo
As if the threat of violence weren’t enough, Sudan now faces yet another reason for anxiety: political unrest. Mr. Bashir faces many of the same economic woes as his Egyptian neighbor to the north, and anti-Mubarak protests have spurred a wave of anti-Bashir sentiment in Sudan. While most think that it would be highly unlikely for the government of Sudan to follow Egypt in revolution, the opposition’s timing is worrisome, coming just when the government of Sudan should be focusing on post-referendum negotiations with the south. Initially, thousands joined the streets in peaceful protests, but the momentum—and speculation of regime change—all but disappeared when the government responded with force. In Khartoum, the Christian Science Monitor reported that Sudanese security forces attacked protesters with tear gas, water pipes, and sticks. One student was killed, another 113 were arrested, and Bashir made clear that he would continue to rule his country—or what remains of it—with an iron fist.
In analyzing the Sudan vote, it is important to also consider how southern secession may impact the north. In light of the government’s response to the protests, it is clear that the development will not solely change the fate of the south. In a recent op-Ed in the New York Times, Sudan expert and Washington Post correspondent Rebecca Hamilton explained, “With the south now out of the equation, dissident northerners fear being left without allies at a critical moment in the battle to define their new country.” The battle is for political reform, and recent remarks from Bashir paint a bleak future for the north. In December he announced, “If South Sudan secedes, we will change the Constitution, and at that time there will be no time to speak of diversity of culture and ethnicity.”
In the midst of celebration for a new Sudan, both sides are right to temper idealism with caution. The south is escaping the wrath of a tireless tyrant, but half a nation is still privy to the wrath of Bashir. And while southerners largely see secession as the light at the end of a long, dark tunnel, for many, memories from decades of brutal war still ring too close to home. “This war killed millions. You cannot believe just how many people died,” Jany Deng told the Independent in an interview. Deng, a refugee from southern Sudan living in Phoenix, fled Sudan in 1987 and was one of the first refugees from the civil war to be resettled in the US. “But,” he said, his voice picking up, “this is a moment of a lifetime, of history. All the dead, they died for this moment. We are going to have some issues at first. We are a new nation. We need a constitution. But people are tired, tired of the dying. We cannot mess up.” He paused. “The world is watching.”
EMILY GOGOLAK ’12 wonders what Omar al-Bashir has for breakfast.