Sudan Prepares to Break Apart | The Nation


Sudan Prepares to Break Apart

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Juba and Malakal

"The suffering of southerners was created in colonial times," says Peter Lam, a retired teacher in his 70s from Malakal, a trading town in Sudan where north meets south on the banks of the Nile River. As Sudan's second independence approaches, we are discussing the first, and what has gone wrong.

About the Author

Tristan McConnell
Tristan McConnell has reported from Africa since 2004. He is currently senior Africa correspondent for GlobalPost and...

Also by the Author

Paul Kagame has been praised for leading Rwanda’s recovery after the 1994 genocide. But his image has become increasingly tarnished, with reports of political repression now joined by a UN human rights report accusing his own government of carrying out mass slaughter in neighboring Congo.

Lam tells me that Britain's colonial neglect of the south meant that when it came to negotiations for independence, southern "native chiefs" were conned by the sophisticated northern "teachers and philosophers" into accepting a deal that united the country under a single government in Khartoum. "When independence came we felt deceived by unity and we revolted," recalls Lam.

In fact, Sudan's civil war began in 1955, the year before the country gained independence. The people of southern Sudan, an oil-rich but terribly poor region where most of the 9 million or so inhabitants have either Christian or animist beliefs, say they never got their independence. That is why they fought the dominance of the Arab Muslims of northern Sudan for the better part of fifty years. At last, they believe, independence is coming. "Now is our real independence," Lam says with a broad smile. "The south has already gone."

On January 9 southern Sudanese are scheduled to vote in a referendum on secession that is expected to split Africa's biggest country and give birth to the world's newest nation. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called a vote in favor of separation "inevitable." The referendum is the culmination of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), brokered by the United States and others, which ended the last twenty-two-year round of north-south fighting. By the time it was over, 2 million had died, mostly from starvation and disease rather than direct violence. Perhaps 4 million more had been forced to flee their homes, leaving the region in tatters. In mid-November southerners began registering to vote, marking the final step toward the referendum, but there are widespread fears that the vote may trigger a return to catastrophic violence.

For now, there is a singleness of purpose reflected in a growing sense of separate national identities, as southerners return from the north—some out of fear for their safety, some out of excitement at the prospect of independence—and northerners prepare to leave the south. Even before the referendum, you can see Sudan tearing itself in two.

Malakal is a two-hour flight north of Juba, the southern capital-in-waiting. Seen through the airplane's window, the Nile and its banks are a brush stroke of vivid green painted on an endless tinder-dry brown canvas. The White Nile dissipates into a vast wetlands known as the Sudd, which from the air looks like an endless pasture, until the plane banks and the grass resolves itself into swamp as the sun reflects off the water.

The airstrip and the town of Malakal are bookended by rival barracks: the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) on one side and the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) on the other. As with the country itself, an unclear line separates the north and south of Malakal. When fighting has erupted in the years since the CPA, it has often been here. In 2006 and 2009 hundreds were killed as the armies took each other on, firing mortars over Malakal's crumbling, tin-roofed buildings and sending tanks and troops onto its wide, rutted streets. At the center of town a stone mosque built by Egypt in the 1940s dominates the surrounding market, where Arab traders keep the local economy alive selling goods to southern businesses and buyers. As the day passes, the mosque's minaret casts a shadow like that of a sundial across the dust-colored bungalows and shanties.

Apart from oil extraction, fast-growing telecommunications and an impressive new brewery in Juba, southern Sudan remains largely un-industrialized. Investors from as far afield as China, India, America and Europe are looking to the oil and agriculture sectors, but for now southern Sudan produces almost nothing and imports almost everything. Businessmen from neighboring Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Eritrea have rushed in since the end of the war, competing with northern Arab traders who have long cornered the southern market.

But as the referendum approaches, things are changing in Malakal. Every day barges coming upriver from the north arrive at the port carrying southerners and their belongings. They go to live with relatives, quickly dissipating into the population. No one is counting, but there are thought to be thousands returning every month. Meanwhile, northern traders tell me they are planning to shut up shop and go back to the north to sit out what they fear might be a dangerous referendum period.

While the north-south fault line is deep and antagonisms are intense, there are fears that the south itself may balkanize among competing ethnic groups. Opportunistic politicians in both north and south have grown adept at fanning tensions for their own gain. Tribal fighting has occurred with depressing regularity since the end of the war, sometimes when farmers and cattle-herders clash over land, sometimes when Khartoum deploys its oft-used tactic of funding and arming anti-SPLA militias in the south. Thousands die every year in these conflicts; last year 2,500 were killed. Even during the north-south civil war, fighting between, say, Dinka and Nuer tribes in the south resulted in massacres every bit as brutal as those perpetrated by the northern Arabs on southerners.

The southern government, led by the former rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) under President Salva Kiir, has been making some desperate deals to ensure that the vote goes ahead. Rebellious politicians and powerful southern warlords have been bought off with amnesties, government and military positions, nice houses and a warning not to be remembered as the one who derailed southern freedom. "The south-south thing is here to stay," one foreign military officer told me. "All these conciliatory moves are to ensure the referendum, but afterwards they will re-emerge. The problems will resurface."

"People should separate first, then we will confront what is inside," says Samuel Aban Deng, a senior courtier to the tribal king of the Shilluk, an ethnic group that dominates in Malakal but feels marginalized elsewhere in the south. Dressed in a traditional lawo sheet tied over his shoulder, Deng complains that the Dinka tribe controls the SPLM and has hijacked independence. He says the other southern tribes will not put up with it much longer. "The bigger threat to an independent south Sudan is not from outside, it is from within," he tells me ominously.

The seemingly irreconcilable religious, ethnic and cultural differences that cut through Sudan are exacerbated by the legacy of weapons and brutality from decades of war. And then there is the oil. Sudan's reserves are estimated to be around 6 billion barrels, its production close to half a million barrels a day. Perhaps four-fifths of that oil lies in the south, but all the pipelines head north toward the country's only refineries, forcing the two to work together, at least so far. Under the CPA the oil revenues are shared equally between north and south, but what will happen after the referendum is as unclear as the delineation of the disputed border.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.