By Edward Thomas

Sudan has seen some of the most violent conflicts in Africa with mass displacement and charges of genocide. Now a referendum is likely to see the state divided between north and south in a rare redrawing of boundaries. Still economically interdependent, the two may not be able to afford more war.

Sudan's Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed five years ago. It set out a path to sustainable peace in Sudan, giving its southern citizens the right to a vote on self determination within six years. The Agreement was a deal between the Khartoum government, led by the National Congress Party (NCP), an adaptable and long-lasting alliance of Islamists, security men and financiers, and the southern-based rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM). These adversaries from one of post-colonial Africa's longest wars saw in each other a means to perpetuate their hold on power.

The Agreement also dealt with the causes of Sudan's many long conflicts: a ceasefire that allowed the south to keep its own army, under the command of an autonomous southern government, financed from a share of southern oil revenues; the democratic transformation of the country's centre; investment in its vast, diverse and impoverished peripheries that had long been plundered by a powerful economic centre; and national reconciliation.

Many of the Agreement's more ambitious aims have been discarded, but the two former adversaries remain in control of north and south as the interim period draws to a close: a referendum on Sudan's unity is scheduled for January.

Security Men

Both sides publicly acknowledge that southern voters will probably choose independence, a conclusion borne out by the rudimentary polling evidence. But the two parties to the Agreement committed to promoting the unity of the country, which complicates planning for the future.

Southern leaders code their calls for secession in lists of disappointments; northern leaders go slow on discussions of post-referendum arrangements, which cover economic issues such as currency and oil revenues; security questions like the future of themultiple armies; and constitutional matters of borders and citizenship.

Both sides are led by security men who share traditions of political brinkmanship which can bewilder outsiders. But both understand that there is a structural reason to keep peace between themselves: revenue from Sudan's oil.

Most oil reserves lies in the south, and most oil infrastructure is in the north. The Agreement gives half of southern revenues to the north and half to the south, keeping the peace between northern and southern armies. Both northern and southern regimes need the revenue to pay for pricey patronage systems that are the basis of their power.

This prickly interdependence is Sudan's alternative to national reconciliation; there was no progress whatsoever on the reconciliation required by the Agreement. At least the prickliness will not last forever: in the view of the south's many proponents of unity the referendum gives southerners an opt-out that makes reconciliation between north and south unnecessary.

However, each side has taken steps towards reconciliation in its own sphere. The south was deeply fragmented during the war. Khartoum's army created militias from disaffected or desperate tribal elements, and the SPLM's actions sometimes created those desperate disaffections. In 2006, the SPLM concluded a deal with many of the Khartoum-aligned southern militias: the deal is the basis for Sudan's most durable ceasefire.

It incorporated former adversaries into the southern Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), forming ethnically mixed units where former adversaries share command. This is costly reconciliation: most of the south's budget goes on the SPLA. Costs increased this month: a southern militia leader who rejected the 2006 deal is returning to the SPLA on a major-general's salary.

A less tangible cost of southern reconciliation relates to the SPLA's burgeoning social role. Its mixed ethnic units are giving the south a military template for national identity - as a liberation army, the SPLA can contribute to complex social and political tasks, but the risks of delegating national identity to the armed forces are heavy. Senior SPLA officers acknowledge that military leadership of society has costs: 'We're aware of that. We are forced by the north to do that. The north has decided to form militias. They are depleting our resources through those militias, whether fighting the more integrating them.'

At least the south has a template for national identity, and measures for reconciliation, its president, Salva Kiir, has asked people for forgiveness for SPLA's excesses. No northern leader has made such a request, even though northern society has always been remarkably merciful towards its rulers.


Unlike the south, the north is still in a situation of armed conflict: a war in Darfur which began in 2003 has not yet been resolved, and it aggravates a different but related group of crises in the neighbouring state of South Kordofan. There are separate tensions in Blue Nile state, which borders Ethiopia and the south. Like South Kordofan, Blue Nile has special rights to representation under the Agreement which may not be fulfilled. And the government has been conducting disarmament exercises in the national capital, once the peppery centre of opposition politics, now a centre of displacement for millions of people fleeing war or seeking economic possibilities.

Khartoum announced a new strategy for peace in September. Like the 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) between the government and a handful of rebel factions, and unlike the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, the new strategy makes reconciliation a central goal: an acknowledgement that Darfurians do not have the alternative of political separation southerners have.

But at the same time that Khartoumis calling for reconciliation, it is pursuing the type of counter-insurgency that once caused so much damage in the south. In 2003, the government persuaded some of the poorest and ecologically beleaguered Darfur tribes that they were its ethnic allies, and used them to carry out a scorched-earth policy against the ethnic constituencies of Darfurian rebels: Arabs versus Africans, in the clumsy ethnological shorthand of international human rights advocacy.

Millions were displaced from farms to urban shanties, and the government's ethnic allies then began to fight over the emptied rural land. The government has encouraged this competition, giving some sub-groups amongst its allies weapons and pensionable posts in new, poorly-disciplined security forces; and disarming other sub-groups.

One conflict between these former allies in the eastern foothills of the Jebel Marra, the massif at the centre of Darfur, has probably led to hundreds of deaths since January; tribal leaders failed to reach a peace deal in September.

Khartoum, which thoroughly distorted tribal structures by incorporating them into counterinsurgency strategies, now optimistically expects to reconstruct them as brokers of reconciliation and repositories of forgiveness. Tribal authorities are the cornerstone of its reconciliation policy in Darfur, but they may not have the political weight to deliver it.

The NCP's leadership always represented the interests of a few ambitious minorities. It took control of the country in 1989, during a long economic crisis deeply aggravated by international financial institutions. Without support, or resources to buy it, they embarked on a policy of factionalising political rivals. They foisted multiple rival leaders on the tribal authorities that run much of the rural north. In the cities the NCP divided political parties into competing factions with names that even political scientists scarcely remember - Umma Reform and Renewal, Umma Collective Leadership, Federal Umma - just a few of the variants on what was once the biggest parliamentary party. Factionalisation was achieved through patronage that offered clients small tailored rewards and maintained the economic dominance at the centre of the state of the Islamists, financiers and securitymen.

The NCP system was resilient enough to deal with a major split in the Islamist movement in the late 1990s - Islamists are now on different sides of the war in Darfur - but the NCP does not appear to have thought up an alternative. This means that, unlike the SPLM and its army, the NCP may not have a template for national identity if the south separates.

Islam could have been such a template - southerners are mostly non-Muslim, while northerners are mostly Muslim. And the Islamist NCP was the first northern government to accept the southern right to self-determination, in part because it saw the non-Muslim south as an obstacle to its religious project. But even otherwise cautious NCP leaders reject the possibility of rallying the Islamist movement with unhesitating firmness. What other routes to reconciliation exist?

Divided and Unequal

Reconciliation is not just therapeutic. Sudan is one of the most divided and unequal countries in the world - differences in maternal mortality at the centre of the state and its periphery starkly illustrate that inequality. A 2006 household survey showed that 94 women died for every hundred thousand pregnancies in Northern State - part of the cultural and economic heartland - a figure comparable with Egypt or Nicaragua. In South Darfur, 1581 women died, a figure comparable with Afghanistan, which has the second-worst rate in the world. But Western Equatoria, with a maternal mortality rate of 2327, has the world's worst record.

The government's latest strategy for peace in Darfur comes with the promise of nearly two billion dollars of investment over four years, but it failed to invest much more modest figures promised in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Both northern and southern governments will probably not be able to afford to change their patronage systems to address the tragedies of inequality; they will postpone changes until the oil runs out. But they cannot afford a war between themselves either.


Edward Thomas, analyst on the Horn of Africa, author of a Chatham House Briefing Paper 'Decisions and Deadlines: a Critical Year for Sudan', January 2010


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