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Next Steps in Sudan

Richard Weitz

Although the referendum in South Sudan appears to be occurring without major incident, the main challenges lie ahead on the way to an independent South Sudan, the universally expected outcome of the voting and subsequent six-month transition period.

The referendum was a key component of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended decades of conflict between the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) based in the South, and the Sudanese government in Khartoum, led by Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who seized power in a coup in 1989. Unfortunately, the CPA and subsequent rounds of talks have failed to resolve several important questions that could still derail a successful transition to Southern independence. These include borders and citizenship, economics and energy, public administration and local security, and finally the international relations of the two new countries.

The first set of issues concerns borders and citizenship. One obvious question is where to draw the new North-South interstate border. About 200 miles are still under dispute in five areas, the most important being the Abyei region, where the question of which state the region would belong to proved so explosive that the parties cancelled a parallel referendum also scheduled this month on that issue. Although the Ngok Dinka tribe resides in Abyei year-round, Misseriya nomads from the North move into the region each season to provide water and food for their animals. The ensuing problem of determining who should vote in the referendum proved insurmountable and led to the postponement of the ballot. Fighting between the two groups has unfortunately increased in recent days. To avoid further violence, both sides, with the help of the international community, should probably consider creative ways in which the region or its inhabitants could have dual-nationality status.

In addition to demarcation of the North-South border, the parties need to decide how “hard” to make it. At the extreme, one could imagine a fortified frontier along the lines of the border established when Eritrea separated from Ethiopia, with limited movement of people and goods across the boundary. A “softer” border regime would permit the movement of people without visas and the flow of animals and other goods with minimal regulation. The latter arrangement would promote mutual economic development, including joint transborder projects, while respecting the rights of nomads seeking grazing lands for their herds without impediment from artificial national borders.

A related concern is how to determine the citizenship of Southerners living in the North and of Northern Arabs living in the South. The worst outcome would be that they will be deprived of any citizenship, being made stateless, or be expelled or discriminated against on racial and ethnic grounds. The optimal solution would be to allow some form of dual nationality and provide guarantees so that both groups enjoy the same rights as other residents. In any case, the international community—including foreign governments, international organizations and transnational non-governmental organizations—will need to take steps to assure the safety and security of the massive number of Sudanese refugees that have already moved South.

The second set of issues concerns economics and energy. Wherever they draw their new frontiers, both regimes will depend heavily on the revenue they earn from oil sales, which account for almost all of Southern Sudan’s revenue, and more than half the budget of the Khartoum government. Under the CPA, the two sides divided the money they earned from selling the oil, primarily located on the Southern side of the border. When they become two separate countries, they will need to determine how they will share the oil revenue as well as any fees for using the only existing oil pipeline, which connects the landlocked South to Port Sudan on the Red Sea in the North.

Although the natural cause of dispute, the oil sector also creates a form of interdependence between the two states. The North will want a share of the South’s oil revenue, while the South will seek continued use of the North’s oil transportation networks—at least for a few years, until the South either builds a new pipeline through Ethiopia or Kenya or develops a mining industry based on the region’s other mineral resources. The South may contain gold, diamonds, copper, and coltan reserves, though years of continuous fighting and other problems have prevented much exploration for these possible bonanzas. Until further development occurs, both the North and the South would do well to sustain the benign conditions needed to encourage investment by international oil companies as well as coordinate how they will honor existing oil contracts.

One of these benign conditions is effective public administration and local security. As a new country, the South will need to adopt a new constitution and hold new national elections, while the North will need to similarly adjust to the change in its territorial sovereignty.

Southern leaders have had some six years to prepare for possible independence in July when the six-month transition period ends. They have succeeded in converting their militia into an army with foreign training, but they still need help with education, agriculture, and the training of an adequate corps of public administrators and police. Political and ethnic rivalries within the SPLM leadership and among the South’s 50 tribes could also remain a problem. Their independent militias fought among themselves in 2009, leading to an upsurge in violence.

Meanwhile, in the North, many opponents of the Bashir government fear that it will impose even more repressive measures after the referendum.

Security in both states would decrease should the two governments resort to their previous tactics of encouraging local opponents to take up arms against their opposite number. In the past, the Khartoum government supported several armed groups in the South that opposed the SPLM, including elements of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which had been active in South Sudan as well as elsewhere in Africa. A renewal of such subversive policies would worsen border-security problems and encourage the South to retaliate. An obvious area for such retaliation would be in Darfur, in western Sudan, where some of the rebels would welcome Juba’s assistance.

International actors will have an important role to play in averting such behavior. Both states will be members of the United Nations, and may want the U.N. to maintain some kind of peacekeeping presence on their territory.

At some point, the two parties will need to identify and distribute their share of Sudan’s assets—such as water and state-owned companies—and liabilities, including the country’s enormous international debt, estimated at more than $30 billion. SPLM representatives have rejected accepting much of this debt obligation on the grounds that Khartoum used some of the borrowed money to finance its war in the South.

In his New York Times commentary that appeared the day before the vote, U.S. President Barack Obama addressed Sudan’s leaders, reaffirming his earlier offer that “if you fulfill your obligations and choose peace, there is a path to normal relations with the United States, including the lifting of economic sanctions and beginning the process, in accordance with United States law, of removing Sudan from the list of states that sponsor terrorism. In contrast, those who flout their international obligations will face more pressure and isolation.” Yet, Obama and his aides have made clear that, among the North’s obligations, regularizing the situation in Darfur remains an issue of concern.

If the referendum continues to be carried out peacefully, the Obama administration should follow through on this offer and remove Sudan from the list of states that sponsor terrorism as well as normalize diplomatic relations with both new states. It should also contribute to the international effort to promote post-conflict reconstruction in the South. But the White House should not ask Congress to relax unilateral economic sanctions on Sudan until the North’s acceptance of an independent South Sudan is firmly established, until the situation in Darfur improves, and until the future domestic policies of the Bashir regime regarding democracy and civil liberties becomes clearer.

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