Welcoming the 194th
So, by July of this year we’ll probably be welcoming the 194th (or 195th, or even 204th) independent state on the planet to the concert of nations. South Sudan held an independence referendum between January 9 and 15. The results will come out, officially, in a bit less than a month. But already we have the one number which allows us to declare the results without having any official results: turnout was 83%, up and above the 60% turnout threshold required for validation. Based on early rumours, as expected, the secession option will gather roughly 90% or so of the votes.
Explaining what led to South Sudan’s independence entails explaining the confusing and intricate Sudanese Civil War(s) as well as much of recent Sudanese history. Briefly, and perhaps far too briefly to offer a fully correct explanation, the referendum is a direct result of the 2005 peace talks which came as the resolution to Sudan’s main conflict in the last decade of the twentieth century.
South Sudan is ethnically different from northern Sudan, which dominates the politics of the country. In contrast to the arid deserts of the north, inhabited by Muslims and paler-skinned Arabs, South Sudan is, to put it briefly, largely Christian/animist as well as largely ethnically African. It is also not as desertic as the north, being dominated largely by grasslands and thus by settled populations rather than nomads and pastoralists. The civil war, the second in Sudanese history, started around in 1983 and picked up steam in 1989 after an Islamist-instigated and supported military coup led by Omar Al-Bashir, who serves to this date as Sudan’s President. The conflict opposed the north and the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), and led to one of the bloodiest wars since World War II. Summarizing it to a conflict between the Khartoum state and the SPLA would miss the point, as this “civil war” very much involved neighboring nations who all pretty much hate Bashir. Uganda, Chad, the CAR have had or still have internal conflict bordering on civil wars involving rebels groups such as the Ugandan LRA which were actively backed by Sudan (while Uganda, Chad and other countries backed the SPLA). Bashir, in addition to funding and harbouring various foreign rebel groups, also used (and uses, in the case of Darfur) paramilitary forces of which the Janjaweed are the most infamous.
The Civil War also took place in Darfur, but it is best thought of as a separate conflict ran concurrently with the war in the South. The Darfur case is extremely complex, and was not covered in this referendum. Officially, there is to be a referendum in 2011 in Darfur to choose between centralism and some sort of autonomy with a regional government dominated by Darfur’s two largest rebel groups (JEM and SLM). However, the referendum is in reality infinitely delayed because talks between the rebels and the government are stalled.
It might surprise that a pariah president like Bashir is being so smooth and conciliatory in the run-up to the vote as well as in the consequences of the vote. This surprisingly conciliatory attitude from a dictator likely stems from a lucid recognition of both the inevitability of secession and that not all that much will change. In the 2005 peace deal, the SPLA, the most powerful of all rebel forces in the country and basking in abundance of weapons and machinery, accepted the northern institutions while Bashir accepted the southern institutions which the SPLA had setup during the war, during which the SPLA controlled most of the south. Since then, the reality has been that the SPLA has let Bashir run the north according to his will while Bashir has let the south run its affairs quasi-independently under the auspices of the SPLA. After July, it will largely stay this way. Bashir and the NCP will still have control over the north, and the SPLA will continue running the south as they have since the peace deal. Except that the south will be independent. Another reason for Bashir’s conciliatory is that he may be seeing a smooth and peaceful transition to independence in the south as a way to bail himself out of isolation. Already the Americans have thanked him for his attitude by dropping sanctions and the bellicose tone about human rights and the Darfur genocide.
There are two iffy regions not covered in the vote. The first is Abyei, a buffer zone between north and south, which held a vote at the same time on whether it wanted to define itself as southern or northern. Not all of Abyei voted, and the north has been assured control over the part of Abyei which has oil. The other regions are the Blue Nile and South Kordofan, which held rigged popular consultations which will award these regions to the north. These regions sided with the south in the war but have in effect been ceded to the north, and thus could be a headache in the future for both countries.
The next step will be to strike a deal between north and south on the sharing of oil revenues. Most Sudanese oil comes from the south, but it is refined in Khartoum and exported from Port Sudan. Oil fields also straddle the border between north and south.
The next question, also, will be the fate of the north. Freed of the south, will the north’s government close in and return to the dark Islamic days of the 1990s with Sharia law? Or has the NCP been discredited in the north for the secession of the south and will its hold on power be strenuous? There is a mix of fear and apprehension in the international community in regards to the north’s future.
As for the south, which might adopt a new name (such as Equatoria), it won’t satisfy the desires of those who wish to see more democracies spring up in Africa. The SPLA has total and dictatorial control over the south and its rule over the south will continue unabated following independence. Former southern rebel groups who were once funded by Khartoum have since joined in with the SPLA with the lure of rewards and jobs for its supporters. The new South Sudan will be a one-party authoritarian regime where the SPLA and the government will be intricately linked (if not formally connected).