In January 2011, if they are allowed to, the people of the southern provinces of Sudan will almost certainly vote to declare the independence of South Sudan from the north. The referendum is to be the culmination of an armistice in the longest-running civil conflict in Africa, between the Sudanese government seated in Khartoum and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) of the south. Said to have killed some 2 million people, and displaced 4 million more, the north-south war has largely been in abeyance since the conclusion of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed by the parties in Naivasha, Kenya on January 9, 2005.

Chapter one of the CPA, the Machakos Protocol of 2002, affirmed “the right of self-determination” for southerners and provided for extensive southern autonomy pending the referendum. By fostering respect for the remarkable ethnic, religious and cultural diversity of Sudan’s various regions, the implementation of the CPA was intended at Machakos to make a southern vote for unity with the north “an attractive option” in the referendum. But because the CPA included only the south, and not the other outlying regions of Sudan that have battled Khartoum, it failed to foster a vision of pluralism and greater democracy for the entire country.

One important question is how such visions have lost out to separatism in Sudan’s post-independence history. And with the outcome of the January 2011 plebiscite almost a foregone conclusion, the other question is what will happen in Sudan once it splits in two.

Center vs. Periphery

The civil war in Sudan is still wrongly depicted in the West as a racial clash between “Arabs” and “Africans,” a religious quarrel between Muslims and Christians, or some poisonous brew of both. In fact, the north-south fighting is best understood as one of several violent disputes between the central state in Khartoum and the periphery, whether in the south, the Nuba Mountains or the western reaches of the country, such as Darfur. Khartoum has reacted to the various rebellions with extreme force in part to discourage the discontented peripheral regions from rising up together under one banner. At the same time, with the aid of the ignorance and disinterest of the outside world, the regime has largely been successful in propagating an image of each revolt as fundamentally different from the others.

Sporadic warfare between the army and southern guerrillas began shortly after Sudan declared independence in 1956 and has outlasted several central governments, military and civilian. The government and army officer corps have always been dominated by Muslim northerners whose native language is Arabic and who claim Arab lineage, whereas the south is populated by tribes who profess Christianity or animist religions. Cultural and religious differences have contributed to the fighting, particularly since Khartoum tried to impose “Islamic” penal codes and mores upon the south, beginning in 1983. The SPLM, for its part, wove themes of “Africanity” into its radio broadcasts. But the core grievances of the south are related to the inequitable distribution of state investment and political power, as well as the unequal redistribution of the fruits of southern resources. Under British colonial rule, the dense swampland of the south, distant from the sea, was left undeveloped, while the territories of the Arab-identified tribes in the north, closer to ports and easily navigated portions of the Nile, were used for cotton cultivation and other enterprises. To transport the cotton to market, the British needed railways; to run the economic ventures, the British needed an educated local bureaucracy and, thus, schools. As in colonized countries around the world, this educated class of Sudanese, comprised mainly of northerners, became the first generation of nationalists and the managers of the post-colonial state. As Joseph Garang, a Sudanese Communist Party intellectual who was briefly minister of southern affairs, said in 1970, “There followed the familiar story of incompetent and unconcerned leaders, and corrupt parliaments, which could not and did not take interest in problems of progress or the redress of uneven development between the north and the outlying regions of the country.” [1]

The stakes in the struggle over the south rose considerably in 1978, when Chevron discovered oil near Bentiu in the southern Upper Nile province and near Heglig in the south of the Kordofan province. The government of Col. Ja‘afar al-Numayri had concluded a peace with southern militias at Addis Ababa in 1972, creating a semi-autonomous Southern Region and incorporating the guerrillas into the national army. With the Chevron finds, Numayri attempted to redraw the regional boundary to transfer the oilfields to the north. Fighting broke out anew, and in 1983 Numayri abrogated the Addis Ababa Agreement and rescinded the partial autonomy of the Southern Region. In the same year, the SPLM and its eponymous army were founded in neighboring Ethiopia under the generalship of John Garang de Mabior (not to be confused with Joseph Garang above).

Numayri was overthrown in 1985, but the successor civilian government proved unable to make peace with the SPLM as hardliners in the cabinet associated with the National Islamic Front (NIF) undermined more flexible figures. The NIF mounted its own coup on June 30, 1989, led by Gen. Omar al-Bashir, preempting an extension of a promising one-month ceasefire and negotiations over suspension of shari‘a-based laws in the south. Bashir and the NIF canceled the ceasefire, imposed a stricter “Islamic” legal system and outlawed all political parties and other “non-religious institutions.” The war in the south took an abrupt turn for the worse. The army bombed camps of southern war refugees and police later expelled southerners from shantytowns around the capital. The mid-1990s saw heavy fighting, with Khartoum arming paramilitaries and enlisting the aid of the cultish and brutal Lord’s Resistance Army from Uganda to attack refugee camps near the Sudanese-Ugandan border. In a sign of the ferocity of the battles, Chevron sold its interest in the oilfields to the central government.

At decade’s end, the two sides were at an impasse, both believing victory was at hand, and neither willing to concede the other’s demands. Talks led by the East African initiative the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD) achieved agreements in principle that collapsed as the prospect of implementation loomed. The Bashir regime, by this point, had divested itself of NIF ideologues and concentrated power in its own hands. To the southern demand for a referendum on independence, Bashir said, “Go to hell.” [2] Bashir was particularly loath to compromise with the SPLM because it had joined the National Democratic Alliance, a group of opposition parties and other regional rebels that wanted a complete change of regime in Sudan.

Enter Washington

When President George W. Bush took office in 2001, US Sudan policy was a welter of competing prerogatives. The Bashir regime, having sheltered Osama bin Laden, had been blacklisted (and, on one occasion, bombed) by the Clinton administration. In 1996, the United States had announced transfer of $20 million in surplus military equipment to three of Sudan’s neighbors, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Uganda, which many observers assumed would be funneled to southern Sudanese rebels. There were rumors that Special Forces personnel were training southern fighters in Uganda and reports that the US would deliver pallets of food aid to the SPLM, but follow-through on the latter promises was minimal.

This hard, if wavering, line was urged upon the White House by an odd coalition of right-leaning evangelical Christians and liberal members of the Congressional Black Caucus, both of which groups were up in arms over the repression of the “Christian,” “African” south by the “Muslim,” “Arab” north. The lobby hoped that Bush, himself an evangelical Christian, would intervene much more forcefully than Clinton had on the southern side. But oil companies were anxious to regain access to the Sudanese petroleum deposits, which had turned out to be larger than previously thought. The Bush administration accordingly opposed a version of the Sudan Peace Act that barred firms invested in Sudan from registering on the New York Stock Exchange. After the September 11, 2001 attacks, meanwhile, the Bashir regime had information on bin Laden and al-Qaeda that the US security establishment coveted. On September 28, Republicans in the House of Representatives shelved the Sudan Peace Act at the White House’s request.

The Bush administration wound up bucking its evangelical base to establish much warmer relations with Khartoum and engage enthusiastically in the IGAD negotiations. Bush’s Sudan envoy, the former senator John Danforth, was also an evangelical Christian and played a major role in convincing his co-religionists to allow the IGAD process political breathing room. Unlike in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Bush administration did not require that hostilities cease before it sat down to mediate talks between the combatants — or even after the talks had produced an accord. Danforth, for instance, brokered an agreement on the protection of civilians that did not explicitly require Khartoum to cease its aerial bombardments of the south, which continued throughout 2003 and 2004. The key US contribution to negotiations, however, was the proposal, which John Garang eventually accepted, that self-determination would be limited to the south. With the remainder of the restive periphery removed from the discussion, Khartoum was mollified and the door was open to the signing of the CPA.

Endemic Dissent

In addition to recreating an autonomous region of South Sudan, the CPA brought southerners into the central government in Khartoum. Garang was made president of South Sudan and first vice president of Sudan. Oil revenues were to be divided evenly between the central and southern governments. There was an atmosphere of hope that the CPA could usher in a new era for a united Sudan, whose political factions would no longer exploit racial, religious and cultural differences to win zero-sum games of power. The primary cause for pessimism was that the CPA did not embrace other outlying areas, chiefly, at this time, Darfur.

War had erupted in Darfur in 2003, with Khartoum again ordering in the bombers and inciting a paramilitary force, the janjaweed, against the rebels. It was only in the succeeding year, however, that the fighting drew significant international attention, as Human Rights Watch and others obtained evidence of state complicity in mass killings of civilians and other grievous crimes. The same coalition that had pressed Clinton on the south assembled to push the Bush White House on the disaster in Darfur, about which the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington issued an unprecedented “genocide alert.” In July 2004, Secretary of State Colin Powell also described the killings as “genocide,” though the Bush administration took no action commensurate with the term. Five years later, the International Criminal Court in The Hague indicted Bashir for “crimes against humanity and war crimes” in Darfur, the first time in history that a sitting president has been so charged.

The structural flaws of the CPA were apparent as well in the three days of riots that broke out in the Sudanese capital and the southern town of Juba in August 2005, when Garang was killed in a helicopter crash. Many southerners were angered by the state’s “lack of respect” for Garang — initial state news bulletins had claimed he was not dead — and the rioting took on an ethnic dimension, as the shops of Arabs were attacked while those of “Africans” were spared. In Juba, more than 250 Arab-owned businesses were torched. Rioters from the Khartoum shantytowns, however, directed their rage at police stations, government offices and other symbols of the state, chanting not against northerners but against Bashir’s ruling clique. The shantytowns are inhabited by internally displaced people from the Nuba Mountains and Darfur, as well as the south, and discontent there is rooted in the state’s failure to integrate the displaced into the economy as well as its intransigence in the civil war. [3]

The combined effects of international pressure over Darfur and domestic unrest bolstered the hardliners in the Bashir regime and convinced many previously hopeful southerners that the vision of a pluralistic new Sudan was a chimera. In 2008, the SPLM rejected the census figures reported by the central government, according to which there are 8.26 million people in the southern provinces, or 22 percent of the total population. SPLM leaders claim the south has a third of Sudan’s population, and view the census figures as an attempt to backtrack on the 50-50 oil revenue sharing stipulated by the CPA. Khartoum moved to grab a larger share of the country’s hydrocarbon wealth by effectively annexing the Abyei region in southern Kordofan, site of the rich Heglig oilfields. By the terms of the CPA, Abyei is to hold a referendum in 2011 on whether to join South Sudan or remain part of the north, and there is significant popular sentiment behind the former choice. In 2008, some 60,000 people fled Abyei to the south after government-backed militias attacked the main city. The next year, a special tribunal in The Hague ruled to alter the borders of the Abyei region to give the central government control of the oilfields and the Nile pipeline.

Dissent from the regime remains endemic, as shown in April when the major opposition parties (including the SPLM) boycotted national elections, amidst widespread allegations of fraud. The SPLM won reelection to office in the autonomous south with 93 percent of the vote.

Fragile Peace

Like his predecessor, President Barack Obama entered the White House facing expectations that he would toughen the US stance toward Khartoum. A key member of his campaign foreign policy team, Susan Rice, had been a Sudan hawk in the Clinton administration’s National Security Council, advocating more and stricter sanctions on the Bashir regime. Rice, however, was given the job of ambassador to the UN, distancing her somewhat from policymaking. Meanwhile, Obama appointed Scott Gration, a retired Air Force general, as his special envoy to Sudan. To the ire of his detractors, Gration has followed in Danforth’s footsteps, dangling carrots to persuade Khartoum to soften its policies and mostly eschewing the stick. He has particularly enraged the American Sudan lobby with comments to the effect that the Darfur genocide is over and that Bashir’s indictment has made US diplomacy more difficult. In both cases, the State Department hastily corrected him, affirming that the US regards the genocide as ongoing and fully backs the ICC accusations. Gration has been widely mocked for these remarks to the press: “We’ve got to think about giving out cookies. Kids, countries, they react to gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk, engagement.” [4]

Sudan activists, like John Prendergast of the Enough Project and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, call for targeted sanctions against officials of Bashir’s regime, an arms embargo on the government, a suspension of debt relief, arming the SPLM and other measures to support the south more boldly. It is fashionable among these activists to contrast Obama’s failure in Sudan with Bush’s success. [5] The weaknesses of the CPA and the battle over Abyei are omitted from these facile comparisons.

An alternative perspective comes from Andrew Natsios, who was director of USAID from 2001 to 2005, with special duties related to Sudan, and then Danforth’s successor as special envoy. [6] Natsios criticizes the ICC indictment as, at best, impractical, and, at worst, detrimental to peace in Sudan. The idea of a trial for Bashir, he says, derailed the informal reparations that were being successfully negotiated between Darfuris and Khartoum. Meanwhile, Arab League and African Union leaders see the “the ICC’s moves as Western neo-colonialist impositions,” and have rallied behind Bashir in resisting the arrest warrants. The warrants cannot be used as a bargaining chip, as some hawks suggest, because ICC charges cannot be dropped and any US promise to do so would have no credibility. In arguing for a “practical peace” that focuses immediately on the CPA, Natsios’ position is probably close to that of the actual policymakers.

Outwardly, the Obama administration is indeed committed to implementation of the CPA, without compromising efforts to halt the violence in Darfur. The State Department takes no position on separation of the south from the rest of the country, but pledges to provide assistance with electoral procedure and infrastructure, as well as, if need be, border demarcation. In line with the Bush administration’s approach, Obama hews to a Khartoum-friendly line on the opposition and separatist movements in Abyei, southern Kordofan and the Blue Nile, calling for these movements to be disarmed and their regions to remain integrated with the north. Though the US cannot say so, it appears that its Sudan watchers are preparing for southern secession. The 2011 federal budget includes a requested $42 million for USAID “to continue to build and transform the Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Southern Sudan from a guerrilla army to a professional military force.” According to press reports, the State Department has already arranged with private companies for training of the army in South Sudan. [7]

The dominant narrative is that Sudan will implode and war will resume following the 2011 referendum. Both Khartoum and the southern regional government are amassing arms. The SPLM has reportedly been obtaining tanks and other weapons through Kenya, in addition to whatever assistance the US may already be supplying, and Bashir’s government has been accused of arming groups that oppose the SPLM in the south. While Bashir insists that the referendum will be held, the regime’s manipulation of the April elections has fueled concerns that it will be delayed, which could easily lead to violence.

Washington seems to share the fear that the plebiscite will be postponed. In September, Gration told Khartoum that the US would remove Sudan from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, reestablish full diplomatic ties and loosen sanctions to permit American investment outside the oil sector, if the Bashir regime would guarantee that the referendum will be held on schedule. The US envoy also wielded a stick, saying that sanctions could be tightened if the regime’s cooperation was not forthcoming. Khartoum rebuffed the offer as unwarranted meddling in its domestic affairs. “If somebody is saying they will do what’s agreed upon,” regime functionary Rabi‘ ‘Abd al-‘Ati told Reuters, referring to Bashir’s promises, “there’s no need to say to him, ‘I am warning you.’” ‘Abd al-‘Ati went on to decry the mixed signals repeatedly sent from Washington.

Whatever happens in January 2011, the other conflicts in Khartoum’s periphery will be unresolved. Should the referendum proceed and the south secede, rebels in Darfur and separatists among the Beja tribes in the east will lose crucial (and resource-rich) internal allies, even as they may be inspired to follow suit. Should the process be interrupted and fighting pick back up in the south, the model of the CPA for resource sharing and political pluralism will presumably be discredited. A few analysts believe that southern secession will make all of Sudan’s wars easier to end, simply by taking the longest and costliest of them off the list of concerns. In any case, there is little reason to believe that the Bashir regime will passively preside over the further dismemberment of its domain, as it will surely see additional autonomy arrangements. Indeed, Khartoum may see southern secession as an unpalatable prospect, but also a chance to consolidate its rule elsewhere, particularly if international attention to Sudan again fades. In the absence of peace agreements that are truly comprehensive and redress the utter lack of democracy in Sudan, the likely futures of this war-ravaged country range from bleak to bleaker.


[1] Joseph Garang, “The Roots of the Southern Problem,” Review of African Political Economy 26 (July 1983).
[2] Dan Connell, “Peace in Sudan: Prospect or Pipe Dream?” Middle East Report 228 (Fall 2003).
[3] Khalid Mustafa Medani, “Black Monday: The Political and Economic Dimensions of Sudan’s Urban Riots,” Middle East Report Online, August 9, 2005.
[4] Washington Post, September 29, 2009.
[5] See Nicholas Kristof, “Obama’s Failure in Sudan,” New York Times, August 28, 2010; and John Prendergast, “Obama Is Still AWOL on Sudan,” Wall Street Journal, September 3, 2010.
[6] See Andrew Natsios, “Waltz with Bashir,” Foreign Affairs, March 23, 2009.
[7] The East African (Kenya), September 1, 2010.

How to cite this article:

Amanda Ufheil-Somers, Chris Toensing "Scenarios of Southern Sudanese Secession," Middle East Report 256 (Fall 2010).

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