Wednesday, 13 October 2010

The Sudanese Referendum: Secession and the Challenges to Peace

The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) ended the war between the Government of Sudan, based in the northern capital of Khartoum, and the rebel forces that had coalesced in southern Sudan around the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM). The CPA afforded the South the right to an exercise of self-determination and set up the semi-autonomous South Sudan, the entity that, pursuant to the referendum scheduled for 9 January 2011, may emerge as the first new independent state in Africa since Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia in 1993. Despite the supposed intention of the government of national unity—formed in Khartoum, led by Omar al-Bashir, and including elements of the SPLM—to work for Sudanese unity on the basis of federation, in all likelihood a vote for southern independence will be made next year.

However, that this outcome will not be thwarted through the efforts of the North, or through the shortcomings and corruption of southern authorities, cannot be taken for granted. With four months before the referendum, an overseeing commission has only recently been established. Moreover, that the vote might not go ahead as planned remains, seemingly, a possibility.

It seems that the North would be loath to permit any secession above all, perhaps, because 75 per cent of Sudanese oil resources are located in the South. In a move that can only serve to heighten the potential for confrontation, both sides have sent forces to Abyei, a border region between the entities that is rich in oil. But, deposits of natural resources aside, it is far from certain that the regime in the North will allow the referendum to pass undisrupted. Few can readily accept the idea that Sudan faces dismemberment in 2011; few Northern politicians can have approved of the granting of the referendum in the first place, a consequence of the provisions of the CPA, themselves implemented under US and Western pressure.

Yet if the vote does not go ahead as planned then the sense will grow in the South that the only viable course is a unilateral declaration of independence, a path that would very likely heighten the potential for war between the North and the South. Indeed, Daniel Deng, the Anglican archbishop of Sudan, has warned that a civil war—with broader, potentially dire consequences for East Africa—may be provoked in the event that the referendum is delayed or otherwise thwarted. In view of this, it is imperative that the referendum goes ahead on the basis that, given the status quo between the Sudans, the CPA and its provisions are the measures essential for regional peace and stability. To forces in the North, however, it would seem that the CPA, and what stems from it, can only be inequitable. As a result, after the war the North has continued its longstanding practice of using proxy militias to destabilise the SPLM and the South. In more recent times it has done so in order to discredit the referendum by questioning the viability of the southern polity.

Most notably, it has used the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), which originated in Uganda, and it has been through the LRA's activities, so the UN estimates, that 25,000 people have been forced from their homes in the South in 2010 alone. Southern elements have begun to arm their own vigilante groups, including the Arrow Boys, in order to fend off LRA's increasing attacks. The LRA exercises considerable control and power in the neighbouring states of Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo and this, amongst other things, highlights the importance of Sudan's neighbouring states and, more broadly, sub-regional geopolitics within these processes.

But regional voices are critical when it comes to the issue of southern secession. The Libyan leader, Mu'ammar Qadhafi , has warned (10th October) that a vote for southern independence would set a dangerous precedent for territorial revision in Africa, a continent in which, of course, many ethnic and linguistic groups remain frustrated in their aspirations to of independent statehood. Several reasons could be employed to explain Qadhafi's support of the North, none perhaps more obvious than the ties of ethnic kinship. Certainly, his recent remarks contrast with those he made in March 2010 in which he advocated the dismemberment of Nigeria, a state to which Libya is no near neighbour. Nonetheless, and Qadhafi's inconsistency set aside, it is hard to imagine that the independence of South Sudan could not bolster—if not outright engender—a precedent. This could only prompt considerable unease among AU members who, since decolonisation, have represented the most vocal proponents of states' rights—to territorial integrity and of non-intervention—at the UN General Assembly, the resolutions of which may be regarded as authentic interpretations of the evolutions of the international law doctrine.

For more news and expert analysis about the Sahara region, please see Sahara Focus.

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