Sudan Prepares to Break Apart
The National Congress Party government in Khartoum is a pariah regime. President Omar al-Bashir, who took power after a 1989 coup, is accused by the International Criminal Court in The Hague of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the western region of Darfur. The United States listed Sudan as a state sponsor of terror after Osama bin Laden briefly made Khartoum his home in the 1990s, and sanctions followed.
But Sudan's oil wealth allowed Bashir to shrug off sanctions, launch a war in Darfur and turn Khartoum into a boomtown. It consolidates his power and buys off his enemies. He is therefore as loath to lose the oil as southerners are to continue sharing it. "These are my resources, they are in my house. How long should I continue to share them?" asks James Marboto Katas, a civil servant in Juba. "This will bring war," he tells me.
The SPLM is even more reliant on the oil than Khartoum: revenues from oil exports account for 98 percent of the south's annual budget. It has earned more than $8 billion from oil since the signing of the CPA, but outside chaotically bustling Juba there is little to show for this bounty. International NGOs have summarized the conditions under which most southern Sudanese scrape a living in an inventory of misery dubbed the "scary statistics": one in seven women will die during pregnancy, the same proportion of newborns will die before their fifth birthday, 90 percent live on less than $1 a day. Of the 9 million people living in the south, 85 percent are illiterate.
"People keep wondering, where have all the oil revenues gone? The problem is a lot of the money has not been spent in the right way," says Leben Nelson Moro, a professor at Juba University's Center for Peace and Development Studies, with soft-spoken understatement. "Corruption is a huge problem, so a lot went into individuals' pockets. There was a feeling among the liberators that they missed out during all the fighting, so they deserved to catch up, to have a house, to send their children to school, to have money," he explains as we sit in the shade outside his campus office.
Other money was spent on the military: keeping soldiers on the payroll and buying the new tanks, anti-aircraft guns, rockets, helicopters and small arms the south is stockpiling in wary anticipation of a fresh fight with Khartoum. Moro says that although NGOs and diplomats might frown on these purchases in light of the desperate need for roads, schools and clinics, southerners understand the priorities. "People simply know that there is a real possibility of war. We need to get the south first, then we can get development, governance, proper elections," he tells me. "If we build now and then we go back to war, what did we build for?"
The United States is weighing in heavily to keep the peace. Washington has dispatched an army of diplomats and helped fund the referendum and UN peacekeepers in hopes of keeping a lid on tensions. There are 30,000 blue helmets in Sudan already—10,000 of whom are in the south, the rest in Darfur—but even so, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned the Security Council in November, "the presence of UN troops will not be enough to prevent a return to war should widespread hostilities erupt."
The UN is mulling sending in more soldiers, has devoted special sessions on Sudan at New York headquarters and has appointed special representatives to keep the vote on track. Aid and advocacy groups have issued dire warnings. Veteran Africa specialist John Prendergast—a former Clinton administration official and co-founder of the Enough Project, a human rights NGO—has been conducting a high-profile campaign, often accompanied by actor George Clooney, to prevent catastrophic violence. Clooney and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof have both warned of the danger of genocide.
Alarmist predictions aside, the signs are not good. As the referendum draws closer, Khartoum has traded fiery rhetoric with Juba on issues as diverse as citizenship and nationality, sharing of oil and water, security arrangements, international debt, currency, border demarcation and the status of the disputed territory of Abyei.
Hard-to-verify reports claim that north and south are deploying troops to the 1,300-mile border, where regular skirmishes erupt between soldiers who disagree on where exactly the line in the sand lies. Referendum preparations are months behind schedule, largely because of Khartoum's stalling, and a parallel plebiscite that is supposed to be held in Abyei seems unlikely to take place in January.
Washington is worried. Southern Sudan is one place in the world where America's foreign policy record this century is unquestionably good. Elsewhere, the Bush years will be remembered for bringing war, but here the United States was part of a troika, including Britain and Norway, that brokered the 2005 peace deal. January's referendum is the culmination of the CPA, and if it passes off peacefully, Washington can lay claim to having helped end a long and bloody civil war; if not, it will have presided over its rekindling. "There was a huge international effort to end Africa's longest civil war. We now need that international pressure to keep the referendum on track," says David Gressly, regional coordinator for southern Sudan at the UN Mission in Sudan, during an interview on the UN base in Juba.
The referendum is about the south, but diplomatic efforts are aimed more at the north, which is seen as the potential spoiler. In November Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair John Kerry visited Khartoum with a message from President Obama: he offered to remove Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terror and begin normalizing relations if Khartoum allows the referendum to go ahead and peacefully accepts the outcome. Washington hopes this and other incentives will encourage Bashir to accept partition.
"The will of the people must be respected by all parties in Sudan and around the world, because we have already seen the alternative," Hillary Clinton told the UN Security Council in November. "The alternative, the unacceptable alternative, is Sudan's past: more than four decades of recurring conflict, 2 million people dead, millions more displaced, simmering tensions that stall development and perpetuate poverty, then erupt again to darken the lives of another generation of Sudanese children."
In Juba there seems little doubt what the result of the referendum will be. Defying the power cuts that blight the emerging capital, an electronic signboard counts down the vote, its dot-matrix display flashing the ever-diminishing time minute by minute. At a popular hotel made of dozens of bolted-together metal containers, SPLM official Suzanne Jambo tells me that delaying or denying southern Sudanese their vote would bring chaos. "Every southern Sudanese, wherever we are, we want our freedom, freedom from the north, which fought us and committed injustices over all these years," she said. "If you want to force me into unity I will go to war."