Sudan Prepares to Break Apart

Sudan Prepares to Break Apart

Finally, after decades of catastrophic civil war, Africa may give birth to a new nation.


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.

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.

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."

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