This commentary was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 27/05/2011
Is Sudan heading towards a new war between the North and the newly formed state in the South?
This question sprang to the minds of many after confrontations arose in the disputed region of Abyei between the North and the South, as the Sudanese armed forces dispatched tanks to the area to gain control. The Defense Minister announced that the troops would remain in the area "until a decision dictating otherwise is issued by the government." These developments came after months of tensions and skirmishes in the area, and only hours following an ambush targeting the Sudanese army and an accompanying UN patrol. What fuels the fears of many is that tensions in Abyei are growing at a time when southern secession is actually being implemented, with the official declaration of the "Republic of Southern Sudan" expected on 9 July, 2011. This might herald a new period of turmoil, and lead to the renewal of Sudanese civil war.
In February, Dr. Nafie Ali Nafie, an aide and advisor to the Sudanese President who is counted among the "hawks" in the ruling National Congress Party (NCP), addressed an NCP audience and was quoted as saying "The secession of the South is a good thing … [it includes] every good [thing]." Nafie scoffed at those who have suggested that the pre-secession and post-secession periods as being sensitive stages, and maintained that the coming period will be a point of "progress and takeoff", by which he means a period of single-party rule, following the secession of the south. This is because, until now, all indications suggest that al-Bashir's regime has abandoned the unity of Sudan, without guaranteeing peace or stability in return. Certainly, some Islamists from the ruling regime in Khartoum had considered the South an obstacle standing in the way of an "Islamic Republic". Thus they proceeded to bolster the secessionist project, and refrained from exerting any effort to make the unity of Sudan an attractive option to the people of the South. At the same time, a large section of Southerners viewed the al-Bashir government as the "Trojan Horse" through which they could fulfill their dream of secession.
In a more recent speech, Nafie himself returned to acknowledge the gravity of the unresolved problems between the North and the South, and hinted at the possibility of the renewal of war. Of course nothing good could come of this, let alone "every good". Whilst campaigning in support of the NCP electoral candidate for South Kordofan, Nafie asserted that the government would not compromise on Abyei, stating "we will not leave, even if we have to shed blood." No one bothered to correct Nafie's statement; the government did not reject more bloodshed, nor did it explain to the people why it had sacrificed the country's unity, when it couldn't guarantee peace in return. On the contrary, President al-Bashir affirmed that matters were unmistakably heading toward escalation and a possible renewal of war, when he recently stated that Abyei would remain a northern region, and that if this could not be achieved through ballot boxes, it would be achieved via boxes of ammunition. Earlier, President al-Bashir threatened that the North would refuse to recognize the South's independence, if Juba persisted in staking claim to Abyei.
The question now is: If the government knew that Abyei was a serious problem that could lead to war, then why did it leave it amongst the other unsettled issues? Why did it not insist on resolving this issue before the southern self-determination referendum? Furthermore, why did the government agree to hold the referendum before all outstanding issues were settled, so that nothing would be left to strain relations, or cause such dangerous problems, which could bring about a return to war?
The reality of the situation is that the government failed in organizing the secession, just as it failed in making unity an attractive option to the Southerners, or to all Sudanese citizens. There is a current in the North that sees "every good" in the secession process, without providing any evidence of this promised "good". Everyone knows that once the secession is implemented, Sudan will lose more than a quarter of its land mass, including agricultural and water resources, over 80 percent of the country's overall oil wealth, and more than 5 million of its citizens. There are also fears that the southern secession will whet the appetite of other parts of the country to demand special status, particularly as the war in Darfur rages on, and tensions continue in other areas along the border with the South.
The majority of the Sudanese people might have accepted the South's secession, whether happily or reluctantly, if they were convinced that matters would move toward stability, that the chapter of war in Sudan would draw to a close, and that the loss of part of the country and a portion of its wealth would be compensated by steering Sudan towards construction and development, and an opening up towards democracy and a peaceful transfer of power. But unfortunately, none of this happened. The government wasted 6 years after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in procrastinations and political wrangling, reinforcing its iron-fisted grip on power, and dividing up and spending oil revenues. This led to a variety of beneficiaries and corrupt figures affiliated with the regime. As tensions heighten in Abyei, and with the return of the language of war between both sides, as well as the exportation of problems across the tense new border, people are beginning to wonder about what "gains" secession will bring, and how the government handed this issue and whether it had any ulterior motives. The Sudanese government, in addition to the escalatory language it is now using to cover up for its failure in managing matters prior to secession, has resorted to the Islamic Sharia Law issue, and proposed the idea of an "Islamic Republic", or as al-Bashir described it: "a second republic, or a new form of salvation government."
The current "salvation" government has been ruling Sudan with an iron fist for nearly 22 years, which was long enough for multiple aspects of the state structure to erode. Today, as the Sudanese leadership watches other Arab citizens' stage revolutions and uprisings against subjugation and suppression, they resort to security arrests, and escaping to war in order to divert people's attention away from a reality that warns of a host of forthcoming crises, which is something that certain does not bode well [for Sudan].