Sudan on the Brink

Eric Reeves
Professor of English, Smith College

In the wake of Sudan's massively fraudulent elections this past April, the country faces enormous difficulties and dangers.  Far from encouraging the "process of democratization"-the phrase of choice for international actors accepting the election results-this travesty has convinced the regime of "re-elected" President Omar al-Bashir that going through the electoral motions is sufficient.  Such conviction only highlights the immense challenges facing a world community that has no coherent plan for securing peace in Darfur, or for supporting key elections in southern Sudan and the contested border regions.  Tragically, the voting gives some semblance of legitimacy to al-Bashir's regime, and helps to ensure that it will remain in full control of the army and security forces, as well as maintaining a stranglehold on Sudanese national wealth and power. 

Such power presents Khartoum with a range of options in responding to Darfur's ongoing catastrophe and the southern self-determination referendum scheduled for January 9, 2011.  In Darfur the military option seems to have been reinforced, and recent reports of military activity, ground assaults on non-combatants, and indiscriminate aerial bombardment of civilian targets are accompanied by other reports indicating a large military buildup by Khartoum; a corresponding build-up by the rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) suggests that large-scale fighting is imminent.  But while JEM remains militarily the most potent rebel group on the ground in Darfur, the recent rapprochement between Khartoum and N'Djamena suggests that Chad's President Idriss Déby has decided to end most support for JEM.  He has been their mainstay for military and logistical support over the past five years, and has offered safe haven in Eastern Chad; his withholding of further aid may collapse JEM's military power.  As a consequence, Khartoum has come to believe that a final military solution is in prospect.

This impending increase in fighting will almost certainly reduce yet further humanitarian reach and capacity in Darfur, even as the region enters the meanest part of the "hunger gap" (June through September).  The Famine Early Warning System (FEWS) has recently offered extremely grim assessments of food security in both Darfur and southern Sudan.  Conditions in many of the camps for Darfuri displaced persons have deteriorated badly following Khartoum's March 2009 expulsion of thirteen international humanitarian organizations, with water, food, sanitation, and primary medical care deteriorating significantly.  There is virtually no remaining capacity to treat women and girls who have experienced sexual violence.

The Doha peace process, deeply flawed from its inception, is collapsing.  JEM has suspended participation in the talks, and the key Sudan Liberation Movement faction of Abdel Wahid el-Nur will have no part of the negotiations.  A recently formed rebel coalition-the Liberation and Justice Movement-has yet to prove itself, either diplomatically or on the ground in Darfur.  It is a thin reed on which to place any hopes for a negotiated breakthrough.  Moreover, international attention has swung to the recent national elections and the January 2011 southern self-determination referendum.

Khartoum faces a key strategic decision in responding to the prospect of an election that will certainly result in a southern vote for secession (including the Abyei area, which will vote in a separate referendum to join the south).  The regime can accede to secession, in which case there are enormously complicated issues that must be negotiated in the intervening eight months: sharing of oil wealth (80 percent of oil reserves are in the south, but all present oil infrastructure and the only export pipeline are in the north); finalizing border demarcation; determining citizenship (perhaps 2 million southerners reside in northern Sudan); fashioning commerce and transport agreements; establishing security and governance in the border regions, especially in South Kordofan and southern Blue Nile States.  To date, Khartoum has shown no willingness to engage on any of these issues in serious and expeditious fashion; in the absence of substantial resolution and agreement, conflict becomes much more likely.

It is probable that Khartoum will decide not to allow the self-determination exercise to proceed.  In aborting the referendum it has many options, both military and political.  But the southern leadership-the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) dominates the Government of South Sudan (GOSS)-has made it abundantly clear that any move to delay or prevent the referendum will result in resumed war.  Nothing unifies southerners more than their passionate resolve to exercise what they see as their right to self-determination.

A third strategy, one that is already in evidence, is to de-stabilize southern Sudan to the point where it seems incapable of self-governance.  Certainly there are good reasons to be concerned about the ways in which ethnic tensions and violence have been handled by the Government of South Sudan.  Some disarmament efforts have been poorly handled, and a sheer lack of capacity ensures that there are not enough trained police or a sufficiently disciplined deployment of army resources.  Government corruption has sparked considerable resentment, and this also has fueled ethnic tensions.  But the simple fact is that as an administrative entity the GOSS was starting virtually from scratch in January 2005 when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed (it is the CPA that guarantees the right to a southern self-determination referendum).  Efforts at "nation building" must be judged accordingly, particularly in light of the GOSS's conviction that they are the only military guarantors of the referendum and must prepare accordingly.  Such preparations have commandeered a huge part of the annual budget and greatly reduced expenditures in key areas of development and human security.

But Khartoum has also deliberately inflamed ethnic tensions in the south, particularly among the Nuer, Murle, and Dinka tribal groups (the latter dominate the SPLM and GOSS).  The regime has twice deliberately instigated large-scale violence in the town of Malakal using the leader of an ethnically-based militia; it engineered the destruction of Abyei town in May 2008, displacing some 100,000 Ngok Dinkas; there is strong circumstantial evidence that Khartoum continues to funnel weapons to its former militia allies in the south and the ethnic groups from which these militias were drawn; and there is also strong circumstantial evidence that the regime continues to support the maniacal Lord's Resistance Army, support that had been well-established prior to the 2005 CPA.  The potential for large-scale ethnic targeting of civilians and the commission of atrocity crimes on a massive scale is clearly present.

The policy upshot is that the US and its European and regional allies must make clear to Khartoum that there will be punishing consequences if the regime chooses to abrogate the CPA or seeks to abort the referendum.  The African Union has proved hopeless, especially on Darfur; but there are some nations (Kenya and Uganda are good examples) that will support south Sudan, however anxiously.  Moreover, African civil society and human rights advocates have been much more critical of Khartoum, and supportive of the south, than the arrogant and callous leadership of the AU.  No help can be expected from the Arab League; indeed, Egypt-Arab League heavyweight on the Sudan file-has long opposed southern self-determination, and will do much to ensure that a new nation along the Nile River does not come into being.  The Organization of Islamic Conference has sided with Khartoum, even in the face of a Muslim holocaust in Darfur. UN Security Council permanent members China and Russia have relentlessly supported Khartoum diplomatically.

It falls, then, primarily to the US to take the lead in making clear what consequences the al-Bashir regime will face if it chooses to abort the self-determination referendum.  So far, President Obama's special envoy Scott Gration has proved a dismaying disappointment, accommodating Khartoum even as he has alienated Darfuri civil society, much of the rebel leadership, as well as the southern political leadership.  Some of his public commentary has been truly outrageous (declaring, for example, that the elections in Sudan would be "as free and fair as possible").  Behind the scenes last August, he sought to have GOSS President Salva Kiir acquiesce in a delay of the self-determination referendum.  This infuriated many in the SPLM, and Gration's motives and ambitions remain suspect.  Gration has proved himself as stubborn as he is out of his depth in handling the Sudan file, and his continuing tenure as special envoy of President Obama sends precisely the wrong signal to Khartoum.

At this historic moment of truth, Sudan deserves much more thoughtful and forceful US engagement.  The stakes are enormous.  Renewed north/south conflict has the potential to engulf all of Sudan in violence, much of it with an ethnic or tribal character.

May 13, 2010


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