The Gravity of Relations between Juba and Khartoum

Image: Flickr, PROAndrew Smith
Image: Flickr, PROAndrew Smith

After many decades of squabbling, in-fighting and bitter civil war, indications are that the inhabitants of Africa’s largest state have decided that a peaceful split may be better than living “unhappily together ever after”.

The long awaited referendum that pessimists thought would never happen was conducted without a hitch. United Nations and IGAD observers agree that Southerners voted in a free and fair atmosphere. As the votes are being counted, Africa and the world are waiting with baited breath to hear whether Juba will become the latest jewel in the crown of African capitals. The referendum, a crucial milestone agreed to by the signatories of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that brought the North-South civil war to an end in 2005, is cause for celebration. Doomsday scenarios, offering images of a return to war, dominated analysis of Sudan’s prospects in the run-up to the referendum. But, even though Sudan may have passed a crucial test, and that Sudan’s leadership – especially President Omar Hassan al Bashir, and the country’s SPLM Vice-president, Salva Kiir, should be applauded for their willingness to walk the high road of peace while refusing to return to the low road of conflict in the bush, several challenges remain.

A vote for secession does not mean that Southern Sudan will miraculously be transported to another realm. Geographically it will remain in the same place; the only difference being that politically, the territory may witness the birth of a new independent state. As a result of the fact that Southern Sudan won’t suddenly get up and stomp off into the sunset, as it happens when a marriage breaks up and one of the two partners evacuate a shared abode, Juba and Khartoum can be compared to two planets that will remain caught in each other’s gravitational fields. This means that the one can’t make a move without the fall-out of its decisions somehow impacting on the other’s orbital path. Thus, in as much as the referendum may cause planet Juba to become the centre-point of its own newly established political universe (or, what Political Scientists like to call – an independent state), its sister planet, Khartoum, will maintain an influence on the direction in which the SPLM may choose to steer planet Juba. The same is of course true for planet Khartoum, which, on its part still has to deal with rebellion in some of its other outlying planets, especially the one called Darfur.

It is necessary to be reminded of the fact that Sudan encompasses about 2 million square kilometres of territory. Due to historical factors and the vestiges of colonialism, Sudan (in its unified guise) incorporates the harsh desert climates of North Africa, and the green mosquito-endowed lowlands of Africa’s equatorial regions. This geographical diversity is furthermore complimented by rich cultural, linguistic and ethnic diversity. Sudan’s post-colonial experience has been characterised by war. The first civil war broke out months before the country became independent in 1956. This war ended in 1972 ushering in a precarious decade of peace which was shattered in 1983 when Dr. John Garang de Mabior and a well organised underground network of soldiers and officers in Southern military units rebelled against Khartoum’s policies.

Sudan’s arduous history of conflict has by and large been caused by economic and political marginalisation of its peripheries. Furthermore, the centralisation of power in the hands of ruling elites encamped in the capital Khartoum, created conditions ripe for rebellion against the central state. With Southern Sudan edging ever closer to independence, it is necessary to take stock of political processes still ahead for planet Juba and planet Khartoum in the next six months until the CPA process draws to a close.

In an article published by this magazine last year, I reflected on the post-referendum negotiations between the National Congress Party (NCP) and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). These talks, thus far successfully mediated by former president Thabo Mbeki in his capacity as Chair of the AU High Level Implementation Panel for Sudan, are arranged around four working groups including: citizenship; security; financial, economic and natural resources; and international treaties and legal issues. These talks essentially aim to get agreement between the NCP and SPLM on how to deal with political-economic and social governance challenges both Khartoum and Juba are confronted with as the country is proverbially torn in half. As political processes unfold in Sudan, one of the most crucial areas where both planet Juba and Khartoum will have to apply the wisdom of King Solomon, combined with the bravery of King Taharqa (one of Sudan’s famous Black Pharaohs who ruled the Egyptian empire from where Khartoum is located today all the way through to Palestine between 690 and 644BC) is at the coalface of co-managing its oil industry.

The government of Southern Sudan (GOSS) derives 98% of its income from oil exports. These exports run through the North to Port Sudan. This implies that if its lifeline is cut, or somehow disrupted, the people of Southern Sudan face the real threat of waking up to independence with a state that implodes even before it rolls off the factory floor. Sudan, in both its Northern and Southern extremities can be described as the biggest political experiment of the second decade of this century. 75% of Sudan’s 5 billion barrels of oil lies under Southern soil. The biggest client for this oil is China which buys 60% of it, accounting for about 6% of total Chinese imports. In terms of national interest, and geopolitical complications implied in managing the oil sector the morning after the divorce, Khartoum and Juba will have to be locked into intense and incredibly complex negotiations in the coming months.  Southern Sudan will have to gradually take control of managing the sector, while a new business deal will have to be thrashed out. In terms of the CPA, oil revenues are currently shared on a 50-50 basis between Juba and Khartoum. A future oil governance regime will have to move away from this deal, and may entail the South paying fees for the use of Northern infrastructure. Plans have been floated to construct a 3600km pipeline from Juba to the island of Lamu off the Kenyan coast. Such a pipeline will take years to complete, while several doubts remain about its economic feasibility, and environmental impact.

This leaves the divorcees with no choice but to cooperate. Therefore, negotiations, constant deliberation, and a spirit of cooperation will have to be institutionalised as central components of the future Juba-Khartoum axis. Oddly enough, the one most divisive and deadly factor that fuelled the flames of Sudan’s second civil war (1983-2005), may form the kernel of a cooperative relationship in the Sudan’s post-referendum political universe.

The post-referendum negotiations will furthermore have to interrogate complex questions of citizenship. Will Northern Sudan allow Southerners living there to carry dual citizenship? Will Northern Sudanese or a Muslim minority in Southern Sudan be accepted as equals in a society still awash in the stark memories of a war that left no person unaffected and more than 2 million dead? In the run-up to the referendum, more than 150,000 Southern Sudanese who had lived in Northern Sudan as refugees, returned to the South. It is furthermore estimated that about 50% of Sudan’s total population live on the North-South borderline. This will necessitate good neighbourly relations to be established between Juba and Khartoum with the goal of minimising the risk of conflict, and enabling Sudanese people who have to cross the border for economic and socio-cultural reasons to continue with their normal lives. This is why political disputes between Juba and Khartoum stand to have a tremendous impact on social conditions of Northern and Southern communities. About 80% of the North-South border is agreed on, but the unresolved border demarcation issues in areas such as Abyei, could, if not managed properly, be cause for conflict.

A further matter that needs urgent attention is the postponed referendum in Abyei. The NCP and SPLM could not come to an agreement on who’s eligible to vote in this district. This leaves residents of Abyei in a political no-man’s land, with the fear that it may fall between the cracks. The nomadic Misseriya tribe cross over into Southern Sudan and Abyei on an annual basis to migrate towards water and grazing for their cattle. The Dinka Ngok tribes in the area, backed by the SPLM, refuses to accept the Misseriya as ‘permanent residents’, which, in their opinion, means that the Misseriya can’t vote on whether Abyei is to be part of Southern or Northern Sudan. What the disputes in Abyei further illustrate is the complex political challenge implied in managing a territory where two opposing lifestyles (agrarian versus nomad) intersect with complex geopolitical questions of resources (oil and water). Some researchers estimate that nearly 20% of Sudan’s total population live semi-nomadic pastoral or nomadic lives.

2011 will prove to be a pivotal year for Sudan. Its people and leaders will be called on to make the transition from a history of animosity and conflict, see itself through a process of painful secession, and subsequently move into a somewhat unpredictable future. The unpredictability of North and Southern Sudan’s future hinges on the ability of the NCP in the North, and the SPLM in the South, to manage the political fall-out of Southern independence. One of the first and probably most important consequences Southern secession will hold for Northern Sudan is the fact that a new government will have to be formed in the North. As part of the CPA provisions for a government of national unity, the SPLM holds 28% of Sudan’s current cabinet positions. SPLM representatives in the national parliament, as well as its cabinet members, will be withdrawn from these political structures once the proverbial ‘independence writing’ is on the wall. This will necessitate a complete shuffling of political cards in the north.

Recently, a faction of the Eastern Front (which signed a peace treaty with Khartoum in 2006) made an alliance with the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) which is still fighting pitched battles against the central state. Such an alliance brings back the ghost of the civil war when the SPLM had allies in the East, and the Nuba mountains. This means that the politics of resistance against Khartoum will continue unabatedly in the northern deserts after Southern independence. Hassan al Turabi, until 1999 president Bashir’s trusted ally, recently called for peaceful ‘regime change’ to wipe the NCP government off Northern Sudan’s political map. This means that Southern secession promises to have a direct and lasting impact on the politics of Northern Sudan. Dwindling income from oil, and continued grievance politics against Khartoum (especially in Darfur), form the outlines of the political battlefronts Khartoum will have to negotiate as the South slips away into its newly independent dawn. Independence for Southern Sudan therefore heralds not only new beginnings for the South, but could send uncontrollable shockwaves through the North where president Bashir will have his hands full to nurse the Northern economy along while cobbling together a new government and constitution.

While Northern Sudan deals with its own internal processes, Southern Sudan’s rulers will have to deal with the humanitarian, socio-economic, and infrastructural needs in its territory. During 2010 millions of Southerners were dependent on international food aid, while basic social services such as health care, schools, and basic administrative infrastructures were mostly non-existent. A further cause for concern in Southern Sudan is the extensive land disputes that have erupted since the end of the civil war. Since 2005, countless refugees and IDPs that returned home to Southern Sudan found the land they vacated during the war settled upon by others. In some cases SPLA officers, or ethnic groups with links to the SPLM, use their connections to the GOSS to deny displaced people the right of return to their lands of origin.

Due to a lack of economic development, people’s livelihoods are directly tied to land. Therefore land disputes can easily translate itself into a cause for local-level conflict and instability. The fragile Southern state furthermore has only about 40km of paved road in a territory about the size of South Africa. Southern Sudan, after independence, will furthermore find itself in a rather unstable neighbourhood with the Lord’s Resistance Army camped in its territory, and a proverbial hornet’s nest of rebel groups fighting against each other and a fragile state in the DRC with which it shares a border. To the North, the ongoing insurgency in Darfur will test relations between Juba and Khartoum as can be seen in warnings from Khartoum that it will not tolerate Southern support of, or harbouring of rebels fighting against Khartoum’s armed forces. At a seminar hosted by the South African Institute of International Affairs on 13 January, the Sudan’s ambassador to South Africa, H.E. Dr. Ali Yousif Ahmed Alsharif, raised the idea that Northern and Southern Sudan should consider signing a permanent and binding non-aggression pact. Accordingly, Southern Sudan should desist from harbouring or supporting any Darfur rebel movements. This furthermore means that the North and South should not play host to nor support parties that seek to undermine the other. In as much as oil may be a cause for cooperation, lots remain to be done in terms of maintaining trust, and ensuring that the divorcees do not stoop to bludgeoning each other with clandestine knobkieries and the arming of militias to chip away at the other’s security bulwark. Former president Mbeki’s work, as trusted AU mediator in Sudan, is thus cut out for him at the level of mediating a deal on post-referendum security arrangements between North and South Sudan.

Although Southern Sudan may be internally underdeveloped, and prone to local-level instability, peace in Southern Sudan has already had a positive impact on the region since the signing of the CPA. Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia all suffered the negative consequences of the civil war. Since the signing of the CPA, Ugandan and Kenyan businesses have been thriving in Juba, furthermore implying that a stable independent Southern Sudan will have more positive benefits in store for its East African Community neighbours. But, further to the North, the regional behemoth, Egypt, is battling to find a voice to project its regional influence and continue to stake its claim over the water of the river Nile.

The Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) established in 1999, has been trying to get all of its member states including Burundi, the DRC, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda to sign up to the Cooperative Framework Agreement. According to this agreement the NBI will be transformed into a Permanent Nile River Commission. The purpose with this Commission will be to share the water of the Nile in an equitable manner between all the countries that border on this critical resource. Sudan and Egypt have not signed up to this agreement, partly due to the fact that Egypt receives more than 95% of all its water via the Nile, and a colonial-era agreement signed in 1929 that gives Egypt the right to veto developments on the river in upstream countries. If Southern Sudan becomes independent it will also need to access the waters of the Nile for agricultural, industrial and hydro-electricity developments. If it signs up to the NBI, and accepts the Cooperative Framework Agreement, it will tip the balance of forces in the NBI significantly in favour of those seeking a new regime to govern usage of the waters of the Nile. In an era of desertification, population growth, and pressure for economic development in East and North Africa, friction in the Nile Basin (which encompasses 3.3 million square kilometres, and is home to 280 million people of which more than 50% live on less than one dollar per day) can have disastrous consequences for regional stability while it also raises the ugly spectre of future ‘water wars’.

Southern Sudan thus becomes independent with a complicated mix of internal political-economic conditions and an even more unpredictable set of regional geopolitical interests breathing down its neck. After the April 2010 national elections the SPLM was widely criticised for its power mongering in Southern Sudan. In one case General George Athor Deng rebelled against the SPLA and the SPLM due to him not being elected as governor of Jonglei state. General Deng held a very senior and influential position as Deputy Chief of the General Staff for Moral and Political Orientation of the SPLA.  He was ultimately followed into the bush by Major General Gabriel Tanginye, Robert Gwang and Colonel Gatluak Gai. Each of these officers took several hundred, and in some cases more than a thousand troops into the field and out of the political program unfolding in Southern Sudan. President Kiir did pardon these four high ranking military officers in the run-up to the referendum, but, this incident illustrates the precarious and unconsolidated nature of not only the SPLA, but also the democratic political system in Southern Sudan. The reason for raising this bit of contemporary history here is that in as much as the SPLM will be celebrated as the movement/party that delivered Southern Sudan to independence, it will have to address questions of internal cohesion, while carefully managing the political and economic expectations of its constituency. If not managed well, internal dissent, and a well developed spirit of rebellion may yet come to bite it in the hind quarters if the promised land of an independent South does not live up to the high expectations Southerners have of the future. Complaints of corruption, and allegations of ‘dictatorial tendencies’ in the SPLM, will have to be addressed in a post-independence government. It may be necessary for Southern Sudan to join initiatives such as the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI) to allay fears of corruption and centralisation of political-economic power in Juba.

So, what can one conclude from all of this? Firstly that current developments in Sudan stand to have a lasting impact on the African continent. A continued peaceful unfolding of the CPA process may prove that it is possible for erstwhile enemies to bury the hatchet permanently. Sudan may also prove that it is possible for the AU to involve itself, as constructive force, in the resolution of incredibly complex conflicts on the continent. Sudan can furthermore teach the lesson that historical wrongs can maybe not be solved over night, but that continued effort, deliberation and negotiation can bring even the worst of enemies closer to find a space of accommodation. Yet, aside from all the positives, internal political challenges in both Northern and Southern Sudan will require leaders of the territories to remain committed to the principles of peaceful coexistence. Southern Sudan will continue to require truckloads of international aid, developmental assistance, and political support to nurse the embryonic state created after the CPA towards something resembling an institutional framework that works to the benefit of all Southern Sudan’s historically downtrodden, war-fatigued, impoverished, and displaced peoples.

The views expressed in this publication/article are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA).