As I write this, it is the eve of the referendum that will decide the fate of South Sudan, which observers unanimously predict will opt for secession. Until quite recently, the Sudanese government and circles close to it held that this prediction was wide of the mark. They said that the south was divided, that the majority of its population was Muslim and that the three million southerners who lived in the north had nothing to gain from separation. But a short while ago, Khartoum changed its tune. It began to openly acknowledge the likelihood of secession and to speak of arrangements for the post-secession phase. It also proclaimed that the new Sudan in the north would now become a purely Islamic state, which was precisely the political choice that had driven the southerners to push for secession to begin with.
However, this is not the issue at hand right now. What is important at this juncture is that Khartoum seems to have reconciled itself to the fact that Sudan will become two states. This, in turn, begs the more immediately pressing question as to the spirit that will govern the new relationship between the north and the south. Will acrimony prevail and, hence, another series of wars and crises? Or will the new relationship be founded on cooperation and mutual dependency based on the extensive range of mutual interests that have accumulated over many years of coexistence?
The general impression at the moment is that secession will not mark the end of the train of crises that have plagued the largest Arab and African nation. The indications so far are that secession will plunge the north and the south into a new maelstrom that will have dangerous repercussions on the future of both sides. The unresolved issues are major ones, and some of these are contentious enough to trigger renewed warfare between the two sides. The disputed region of Abyei is a case in point. The north and the south were unable to reach an agreement over this oil-rich province that would enable its people to hold a referendum over their fate at the same time as the referendum in the south.
If the current situation in Abyei continues, a renewed outbreak of hostilities is inevitable, especially in view of mutual provocations between rival tribes in this province, the loyalties of which are divided between the north and south. In July 2009, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague issued a ruling on the borders of Abyei, narrowing both its eastern and western boundaries. Electoral law grants the right to vote in the referendum to the Ngok Dinka and other tribes of Abyei, but not to the Masiriya tribes that migrate into Abyei for several months a year and fear losing this right if Abyei is annexed to the south.
Another potential source of crisis is the question of the fate of the southerners who live in the north. Estimates vary, but they are generally believed to number between 1.5 and two million, many of who are likely to want to remain where they currently reside. Attempts on the part of the authorities in Khartoum to coerce them to leave would court additional outside pressures on the Sudanese government and augment its international isolation.
On top of such tinderbox issues as Abyei and the status southerners in the north, there are the other potentially contentious problems of the now more than $35 billion in foreign debts, oil revenues, lands rights, currency, water rights, and joint armed forces. It is little wonder, therefore, that pessimists foresee grave repercussions from secession for both sides. Most importantly, they picture the newly created state in the south disintegrating into civil war because of the ethnic discrimination that riddles the areas that will make up the new state, and because of ongoing tensions between the major tribes, notably the Dinka, on the one hand, and the Nuer and Shilluk on the other.
If such conflicts spiral out of control, they could possibly precipitate another secessionist drive and, perhaps, the emergence of a third state in the south. In such an event, it is not difficult to imagine the government of the South lashing out at Khartoum for conspiring to ignite civil strife and supporting rebel movements in the south. Juba might also reciprocate by supporting opposition and insurrectionist movements in the north, which would set both sides firmly on the path to renewed confrontation.
The north, for its part, could face the spectre of further disintegration. The secession of the south might inspire other areas to push in a similar direction. A likely candidate is Darfur where, indeed, the leaderships of the militias there have already hinted that they would pursue the secession option in the event that Khartoum continues to refuse to halt its policies of marginalisation and use of excessive force, and to distribute the nation’s oil wealth more justly and pay compensation to the victims of the war in Darfur. Other likely trouble spots are the border areas of the Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states, which will be organising “popular consultations” to ascertain the will of the people there on the constitutional, political and administrative arrangements of the peace agreement between the north and the south. Some believe that the spectre of instability could even extend into the Sudanese capital, especially now that Al-Bashir has announced that Islamic law would be applied uniformly throughout the country in the event that the south secedes. “If the South secedes, the Sudanese constitution will be amended. There will no longer be occasion to speak of ethnic or cultural diversity. Islam will be the chief source of legislation and Arabic will be the official language,” the Sudanese president said.
On the other hand, the looming crises above could also work to bring the north and south together. Both sides certainly have cause to keep further trouble at bay. They are exhausted politically and militarily, and weighed down by international pressures, and they will need considerable time in order to realign their respective internal situations. The south must meet the immediate requirements of its populace, for which purpose it will have to rely heavily on the north in order to import its domestic needs. It is a poor, landlocked country, and the customary overland routes through Sudan are a much cheaper alternative to air transport. In addition, the south does not yet have its own refineries for processing its oil. It will therefore still need to rely on the refineries in the north as well as on Port Sudan as its outlet for petroleum exports. The south also lacks the human resources and skills needed for many economic, industrial and administrative activities. Such issues, in addition to the need to contend with the millions of refugees moving from the north to the south and vice versa, and their shared desire to have Sudan’s debt, which will be divided between the two sides, rescheduled or written off, should give both sides a powerful incentive not only to cooperate on such matters but also to suspend, for an agreed upon period, the search for solutions to the issues that would prove most explosive if they were handled under current volatile conditions.
Nevertheless, one can only place realistic hopes in this more optimistic scenario if there are parties ready to embrace it and promote it. To me, the party that is best poised to fulfil this function and that would benefit from it as well is Egypt, which is linked to the whole of Sudan —north and south inclusive —by a single strategic fate. But we are not the only interested parties. Other countries have begun to explore ways and means to organise the situation in ways that best suit their interests.Reports are emerging that Kenya is about to embark on a mega project that includes the construction of a new port on the Indian Ocean at Lamu that will be connected to a network of thoroughfares. The project is expected to draw an estimated $16 billion in investment, of which $3.5 billion will be contributed by Qatar in the first phase in exchange for 40,000 acres of agricultural land in Kenya. It is also reported that construction will begin soon on a road between the new port and South Sudan. It is also said that Beijing intends to fund a railway link between South Sudan and Ethiopia.
So, we are on the verge of a race between various states that will be competing against one another to take advantage of the new situation in Sudan. To us, in Egypt, it will be important for North Sudan to retain the political capacities that will enable it to handle complex local and regional realities, which hardly need the additional complication of Khartoum’s transformation into a pure theocracy. Some Sudanese opposition forces are acutely aware of the delicacy of the current situation and have cautioned the regime against policy trends that would drive Darfur, East Sudan, the Blue Nile, Kordofan and possibly other regions out of the Sudanese state. They point out that agreement has already been reached on the constitutional amendments for the post-secession phase and that these basically entail eliminating those articles pertaining to the south and the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005. Another body of opinion goes further to assert that the only way that Sudan will avert future crises that would threaten to fragment the country more is for it to become a civil state founded upon the principle of equal citizenship for all. This Sudanese dialectic, too, could use an Egyptian hand to steer it, not only towards stability but also towards development and progress, which Sudan so desperately needs after decades of war and destruction.
Egyptian diplomacy and policy has exerted enormous pains to bring about Palestinian reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. Now, Egypt’s history and welfare demand that we give Sudan the priority it merits.