On Jan. 9, after a half-century of violence and strife, the people of southern Sudan voted overwhelmingly to secede from the north. In the joyous aftermath of the historic referendum, formal independence was set for July 9, when, for the first time in nearly 20 years, a new, sovereign, self-governing African nation is scheduled to come into being.
Secession makes sense. The two regions, north and south, had been shoehorned into one nation by the British in 1956 despite their glaring linguistic, cultural, racial and historical contradictions — a colonial mismatch that led to one of the longest civil wars in Africa. More than 2 million people were killed during decades of kidnapping, cross-border raids and all-out fighting before a comprehensive peace agreement was signed in 2005, setting the stage for January’s referendum and July’s formal split.
Now, however, with barely a month to go before the divorce is finalized, there are signs of serious trouble. The first problems emerged in the spring when southerners began fighting among themselves, including raids by the south’s army on renegade commanders and perceived enemies; such rifts were masked during the struggle against the north but are likely to become more pronounced after independence. Then, police waving pistols raided and closed down a local newspaper, reportedly in retaliation for a critical article.
The most recent crisis is not internecine but involves both north and south, and threatens, potentially, to drive the two sides back to war. At issue is the future of Abyei, a city on the border between the two regions that is claimed by both. On May 1, southern forces in Abyei illegally attacked a lawful northern patrol in the city; two weeks later they did it again. The government in Khartoum did not respond at first. Then, on May 21, it invaded and occupied the city with thousands of troops — an entirely disproportionate response to an entirely unnecessary provocation. At least 116 civilians have been killed, as well as a number of soldiers and police officers. The African Union has been working on a deal to demilitarize the Abyei area.
It’s complicated, though. For one thing, it’s unclear whether the southern forces that attacked the northern soldiers in Abyei were acting under orders from their leaders in Juba. For another, the north appears to be playing to a domestic constituency of disgruntled Sudanese nationalists who never wanted to give up the south in the first place. And underlying the Abyei dispute is a long-running battle between two tribes — the Ngok Dinka people, who are the permanent residents of the Abyei area, and the Misseriya, a nomadic tribe that comes down seasonally from the north to graze cattle. A referendum on Abyei’s status was supposed to have been held in January, but it was scuttled over who was eligible to vote.
All these subtexts make it hard for either side to back down easily. And the north may see this as an opportunity to gain leverage on other outstanding issues, including how to draw final borders, how to determine citizenship and how to share oil revenues.
But this much is clear: Independence is too important to jeopardize. Both sides should take their seats at the negotiating table and acknowledge that the provocation was wrong, that the occupation of Abyei was excessive, and that the July 9 date for independence must not be missed.