Holding out hope for Sudan

Anyone who has traveled to both the desert-like north of Sudan — where the capital city of Khartoum is located — and the flood-prone south cannot help but notice the extraordinary differences between them. The people of the north are mostly lighter-skinned, Muslim Arabs. Those in the south tend to be darker-skinned, Christian and animist rather than Muslim, more recognizably African. The north borders the Arab nations of Egypt and Libya; the south leads to Kenya, Uganda and Congo.

These disparate regions were melded into one country as part of the same blunt imperial exercise that deformed so much of the world: The British, that is, decided it should be so, creating a nearly 1-million-square-mile nation whose linguistic, cultural, racial and historical contradictions were readily apparent long before the country became independent in 1956. As independence neared, the people of the south were increasingly dominated by those in the north, pressured to adopt Arabic as their official language, subjected to increased proselytizing to convert to Islam, and ultimately placed under the political control of the government in Khartoum.

Unsurprisingly, the marriage was an unhappy one from the start, and the result has been a half-century of violence — cross-border raids from the north, kidnappings, slavery, subjugation and war. Before it was settled with a landmark, comprehensive peace agreement in 2005, the south’s struggle to free itself from northern rule was the longest-running civil war in Africa, leaving some 2.5 million people dead.

Now, if you believe the optimists, those long-ago wrongs may finally be righted. As a result of the 2005 peace deal, the people of southern Sudan were granted semiautonomy and are now scheduled to vote in a Jan. 9 referendum on whether to secede entirely and form their own, separate country. The national government in Khartoum has agreed, under some duress, to abide by the results of the referendum. There are some 10 million people in the south, and an overwhelming number of those who vote are expected to opt for secession. If that happens, Africa’s first new nation in nearly 20 years — the Republic of Southern Sudan, it may or may not be called — would be established.


But will it really be that easy? We hope so. It is long past time for the people of southern Sudan to undo this ludicrous geopolitical mistake. Still, the problems ahead are numerous. For one thing, there’s the question of whether the north will allow the referendum to go forward at all. President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir — who is famous for his role in the brutal Darfur campaign and who has been charged by the International Criminal Court with war crimes and crimes against humanity — was dead-set against the referendum but caved under pressure to agree. For months, Western observers have been expecting the north to undermine the elections, by postponing them or by using proxy militias and fake dissident groups to stir up trouble and subvert their legitimacy. So far that has not happened, and the vote is now widely expected to take place.

Even if it does, the likelihood of a happy, prosperous, democratic southern Sudan coming into being is low. According to United Nations statistics released in advance of the election, 85% of the people in southern Sudan can’t read. There is one teacher for every 1,000 primary school students. Southern Sudan has one of the highest maternity and infant mortality rates in the world. More than 4 million people are on “emergency assistance,” meaning that they will need food handouts this year. More than 1.5 million will face “severe food insecurity.”

The United States, the United Nations and former South African President Thabo Mbeki have, to their credit, been pushing for a free and fair referendum and feverishly working with both sides to ensure that it goes forward peacefully. Now the world needs to begin to figure out what happens next if it passes. What, for instance, will become of the 2.5 million southern refugees still living in the north and dependent on the northern economy for their livelihoods? Will they be expelled? Will they be automatic citizens of the south or will they be stateless? How are borders to be drawn, and will they be hard borders or soft ones? There is currently a population of several hundred thousand people — many of them pastoralists, herding cattle and other livestock across the land — who move easily on a seasonal basis from north to south, as they have for hundreds of years. Will they require visas and travel papers?

Then there’s the fact that some 80% of the country’s lucrative oil reserves are in the south, and the north, as might be expected, is not eager to give up the revenue they bring in. At the moment, all the oil is exported via pipelines that run through the north, and revenue is split between north and south. It’s time to negotiate a post-referendum arrangement that will divide revenue fairly and in a manner that avoids triggering renewed conflict.

There’s also the question of how the south will be governed. Though it is culturally and ethnically distinct from the north, southern Sudan is itself a land of dozens of tribes and scores of languages; it has been unified in recent decades only by hatred of the government in Khartoum and the common quest for independence. No one would describe the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement as a particularly democratic organization; it is, rather, a former guerrilla army built on a “big tent” model in which many competing groups, each with its own agenda, came together to fight. When a new government emerges, however, the impoverished people of the new country will begin demanding services, democratic governance and the rule of law — and being “anti-Khartoum” will no longer be sufficient. It is unclear how or whether the SPLM will rise to the occasion.

Finally, there are Sudan’s neighbors, which are understandably nervous about the emergence of a weak and fragile new state on their borders; no one wants to live next door to the next Somalia.

All in all, there’s reason for excitement and reason for concern. Six months ago, few would have expected the referendum to be proceeding as smoothly as it is. Then again, although further violence is not a certainty, it is far from unlikely. As exhilarating as election day will be, it is increasingly clear that the hard work will begin Jan. 10.