In January, the United States and much of the international community celebrated as the people of south Sudan voted in a long-awaited referendum on whether to secede from Sudan and form a new country. Ninety-eight percent voted yes. The balloting was considered free and fair; U.S. President Barack Obama congratulated Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for his statesmanlike acceptance of the results and promise of future cooperation with the south when it gains formal independence on July 9.
But as has so often been the case in Sudan’s bloody past, the international community’s relief may have been premature. As Michael Abramowitz and I warned in an essay in the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs, “the centrifugal forces pulling Sudan apart” are accelerating at such a pace that the south’s secession could lead to “the eventual dissolution of the remaining north Sudanese state.”
On Monday, Bashir issued a statement accusing southern troops (the SPLA) of ambushing northern troops (the SAF) in Abyei taking part in a joint convoy with UN forces. (It is not clear how many troops were killed and international observers believe it unlikely that southern leaders ordered the attack.) In retaliation, Sudanese warplanes and artillery began bombing the civilian population in Abyei, long referred to as the Kashmir of Sudan because it sits on the disputed border between the north and the south. The UN has not yet announced civilian casualty figures, but already the bombing has displaced 15,000 Ngok Dinka inhabitants, who are now moving south for protection. Arab tribes appear to be moving in to occupy the area. For centuries, Abyei had been the homeland of the Dinkas, the dominant tribe in southern Sudan. But in the 1980s and 1990s, local Arab tribes drove them from the region in a campaign of brutal ethnic cleansing directed by the government in Khartoum. The Dinkas make up 40 percent of the south’s population and represent a powerful part of both the south’s government and its army. They demand the return of Abyei to the south.
The January 2005 North-South peace agreement, which ended 22 years of civil war, called for a voter referendum to determine whether Abyei would join the north or return to the south (a provision proposed by Washington to break a negotiating deadlock). In the years since, Khartoum has resisted implementing the provisions of the Abyei agreement—indeed, every international and southern Sudanese attempt to negotiate a compromise on the status of Abyei has been rejected by Bashir’s intransigent government. The January secession vote was supposed to be accompanied by a separate vote in Abyei on whether to join the north or the south, a vote that Khartoum blocked. It now appears that Khartoum is trying to settle the matter with bombs.
The simplest explanation for Khartoum’s aggressiveness has to do with the resources needed for Bashir’s regime to survive the reduction in oil revenues when the south becomes independent. Abyei has the only major oil fields that the north would control after the south secedes—that is, of course, if Khartoum prevents it from joining the south.
At the same time, Khartoum is watching as U.S. and NATO forces are increasingly tied up in Libya, which means that the West is especially unlikely to take any sort of unified military action against the land grab in Abyei. (Khartoum may have also made the calculated gamble that it could occupy Abyei without a southern military response because such a response might endanger the south’s becoming independent on July 9.)
One part of the changing political landscape is the political unrest that has swept the Arab world over the past six months. The Arab revolt has simultaneously terrified Bashir’s party and given it hope. Just a year ago, Khartoum was surrounded by secular Arab states—Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen—that were hostile to Bashir’s ideological allies, the Muslim Brotherhood. Now, Khartoum’s Islamists believe that if they can survive in power a few more years, their neighbors may be led by the Brotherhood or similar groups, making for a much friendlier environment. Bashir considered sending military support to Libyan rebels trying to oust his longtime adversary Muammar al-Qaddafi (which would make Bashir an unwelcome ally of the United States and Europe). For years, Tripoli has been the chief source of weapons, equipment, and funding for the Darfur rebellion, particularly to fighters from the Zaghawa tribe, some of whom may have redeployed to northern Libya to fight on behalf of Qaddafi. The virtual collapse of the Qaddafi government, along with the movement of rebel forces into Libya, have led Khartoum to hope that it can eventually dispose of the remaining Darfur rebel militias.
Still, Bashir and his allies face more internal opposition than at any time since 1989, when they seized power in an Islamist coup. In April of this year, the country’s doctors organized demonstrations in Khartoum, echoing the popular protests by professional groups that led to the ouster of two previous Sudanese military dictatorships, in 1964 and 1985. Meanwhile, until very recently, food prices were rising rapidly in Khartoum, and the diet of the country’s middle class and urban poor was deteriorating; a similar rise in food prices was one factor in spurring the Egyptian revolution.
The paranoia and increasing weakness of the Bashir regime are palpable not just in Abyei but in Southern Kordofan, a region bordering Abyei in the center of the country that will remain part of North Sudan. In May, the region held state elections. In a poll compromised by stuffed ballot boxes, Khartoum declared its candidate for governor, Ahmed Haroun, who has been indicted for war crimes in Darfur by the International Criminal Court, the narrow winner. His opponent was Abdel Azziz Alhilu from the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, the political party of the south and now the major opposition party in northern Sudan. During the campaign, Bashir’s party played on ethnic division between the Arab and African tribes and attacked the secular SPLM, which has campaigned and fought for 28 years for a multiethnic and multi-religious state. Taken together, Khartoum’s massive bombing campaign in Abyei and its attempt to steal the election in Southern Kordofan smack of a last desperate effort to reclaim the offensive against growing internal opposition in the north.
The northern economy is in crisis, as most of the foreign currency Khartoum collects in oil revenues will shortly evaporate as oil contracts will be transferred to the south when it becomes independent (80 percent of Sudanese oil is in the South). The north closed the border to the south for all trading in middle of this month, forcing a rise in food prices in southern markets. Hard-liners in Bashir’s party appear to have taken control as the threat to the party’s survival becomes more severe.
The Abyei crisis may also be an attempt by Bashir’s strategists to turn the weapons of the north’s increasingly disaffected military away from Khartoum and toward another threat of their own creation. The best way to prevent the military coup that Khartoum has long feared is to start a war to distract the officer corps, which has long been angry about the incompetence, abuse of power, and corruption of Bashir’s government. After an especially acrimonious meeting in February with the country’s top officers, Bashir purged 13 generals who were most hostile to his party’s rule. A sizable percentage—indeed, as much as half—of the Sudanese officer corps was personally selected because of the officers’ Islamist loyalties in the 1990s by Hassan al-Turabi, a radical Islamist leader once close to Bashir. (Turabi brought his friend Osama bin Laden to Sudan in 1991.) Bashir had been an ally of Turabi, who was the mastermind of the coup that brought Bashir to power in 1989. But in 1999, the two had a falling out, in which Turabi was removed as speaker of the National Assembly. Ever since, Bashir and his party have feared the return of Turabi through a coup led by Islamist officers loyal to him. For years, Bashir has kept most of divisions of the Sudanese Armed Forces as far away from Khartoum as possible to avoid such a fate.
Bashir has been forced to watch as his writ over Sudan’s vast territory has steadily shrunk. Khartoum has decisively lost the south, with Darfur not far behind. The Nuba Mountains, Sennar, and Blue Nile Province have been centers of militant opposition to the regime for 20 years, while the Beja Tribe of the Red Sea Province in the east, which fought against Bashir in the 1990s, is reportedly on the edge of a new revolt against Khartoum. Bashir’s worst fear would be for these pockets of opposition to unite in a grand alliance with civil-society groups in the capital against his rule, a fear that he appears to be trying to stave off by drumming up a war in Abyei and manipulating an election in Southern Kordofan.
How should Washington and its allies respond to Bashir’s latest gambit? Immediately after the outbreak of fighting in Abyei, the international community, led by the United States and the African Union, declared its readiness to act as mediator and walk both parties back from the precipice of a new war. But it should not focus only on the latest crisis caused by Khartoum’s military adventurism. Bashir’s government has mastered the diplomatic art of delay, distraction, and dissembling, tactics that it uses to avoid the real issues behind instability and unrest in Sudan: the brutal and corrupt nature of its rule, the domination of Sudan’s resources by three northern Nile River Arab tribes that make up only five percent of the population, and Khartoum’s attempt to use violence to impose an Arabist and Islamist identity on a diverse population.
The United States must not let Sudan ignore these larger pathologies by diverting the world’s attention to debates about the details of the latest clashes in Abyei. This week, the new and very able U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan, Princeton Lyman, said that the new crisis would make it difficult for the United States to start the process of normalizing relations with Sudan—a carrot promised by the Obama administration if Khartoum allowed the south to secede. The Obama administration may need to take more aggressive initiatives to stop Khartoum’s increasing belligerence. In a speech on Wednesday, Bashir insisted that Abyei belonged to the north and rejected pressure from Washington, saying, “We do not want the U.S. carrot and we are not afraid of its stick.”
The United States should press for international control of all oil revenues from the Abyei oil fields, the conversion of UN peacekeeping troops to a more aggressive Chapter 7 mandate to intervene militarily in the disputed border region, the negotiation of a bilateral security guarantee between the United States and the new Southern Sudanese government to take effect on July 9, and an international investigation into the election abuses in Southern Kordofan. It may be too late to prevent Bashir’s military adventures from igniting a new war, but it is not too late to at least try.