Southern Sudan will hold a referendum on whether or not it should remain as a part of Sudan in January 2011. This is part of the 2005 Naivasha Agreement between the central government and the Sudan People`s Liberation Army (SPLA). The prerequisites for the referendum include a census, which will define how wealth and political power will be apportioned between regions. However, problems include disagreements between the North and South over what they are obliged under the Naivasha Agreement, funding difficulties and an enormous logistical challenge.
Recently the United Nations warned that drought and food insecurity in South Sudan could spark further clashes, with tensions rising as pastoralists seek grazing land for their cattle in areas settled and controlled by agrarian societies. The situation currently remains fragile, with an upsurge in violence and a dire humanitarian situation. Basic post-conflict reconstruction and development has largely been absent.
Conflict escalation between southern groups has increased dramatically and could undermine the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA).
The advent of elections in April this year and a referendum next year could potentially fuel additional violence unless there is urgent international engagement. On 14 January 2010, the SPLM nominated Yasir Arman to contest the presidency of Sudan in the upcoming election - the first transparent polls since the coup d'état that brought President Omar Al Bashir to power on 30 June 1989. Arman is a senior figure in the party and served as the Deputy Secretary-General for Northern Sudan and the Head of the SPLM grouping in the National Assembly. He will be pitted against Al Bashir, who stepped down from his position as the commander-in-chief, on 11 January 2010, to campaign for the presidency in a move that would extend his 20-year rule through the National Congress Party (NCP). SPLM is dominated by entrenched irredentist sentiments and only nominated a candidate one week before the proscribed deadline. The SPLM's leader Salva Kiir Mayardit declined to contest the national presidency at a recent meeting of the party's Political Bureau, citing his preference to focus on heading the Government of Southern Sudan (GoSS).
A week earlier, on 9 January 2010, the CPA entered its fifth year in the face of continued security challenges particularly in the South. The 2010 elections will be a crucial political test with the simultaneous convening of presidential, parliamentary and regional ballots, ahead of a referendum on southern independence in 2011. It is evident that the CPA signatories have not succeeded, thus far, in making national unity ‘attractive'. A significant section of the South is looking forward to secession, but it is still unclear what proportion of Northerners will accept such a separation. President Bashir, on 19 January, said that Sudan would accept the South`s secession if southerners were to vote for independence in a referendum. Analysts say Mr Bashir has struck an unusually conciliatory tone in the speech but many in the South remain sceptical and prefer to wait and see if he will honour his promises.
The tensions in the North-South unity government are increasingly being matched by discord between groups in the South. Some southern politicians, including President Kiir, have stated that the northern government is fomenting southern divisions and supplying arms to ethnic groups in the South to destabilise the region, and undermine a potential southern vote for independence in 2011. In reply, northern politicians claim that the southern government has not distributed the resources from its share of the oil wealth and is unable to establish peace in the region. The true source of the small arms and violence has not yet been independently verified and the situation, as far as the continued viability of the CPA, is critical. President Al Bashir and his loyalists within the NCP and the Southern leadership can simply withdraw from the CPA. A breakdown in the Agreement would have devastating effects for Sudan and the region.
Against this background, violence in the South continues to afflict pastoral communities, and is now increasingly assuming potentially destructive political dimensions. The violence has multiple sources mainly due to competition over grazing land to the influx of small arms. According to the United Nations Secretary-General's Special Representative to Sudan, Ashraf Qazi, the death rate in South Sudan, in recent months, has been higher than the rate in western Darfur during the worst stages of the crisis there. Clashes between ethnic groups in South Sudan has become an increasingly recurring phenomenon - often sparked by livestock theft and disputes over natural resources and a retaliation of past attacks. The GoSS alleges that the NCP-dominated Government of National Unity is surreptitiously intervening in the affairs of the South, while the later counters these simply as attempts by the southern leadership to deflect attention from its own shortcomings and inability to effectively administer and distribute its resources and resolve disparate ethnic groups.
As Sudan enters one of the most critical phases of its history, its Southern part has now been left hanging between caution and optimism. The country is poised for separation following the aftermath of the 2011 referendum. The potential destabilisation of Sudan that could be unleashed by a contested separation could have debilitating consequences and a renewed national crisis would have serious ramifications for the Horn of Africa and Central African regions. As clashes between ethnic groups and communities in the South could further escalate as neither GoSS nor the GNU (Government of National Unity) seem capable of containing the violence in the short-term. The mutual recrimination between Khartoum and Juba could further undermine the implementation of the CPA and increase the vulnerability of Sudanese citizens to future crisis. This would seriously undermine the conditions for convening the 2011 referendum and contribute to increasing tension.
It is time both for the African Union and the international community to push the GNU and the GoSS to establish a modus operandi to address the outstanding issues in the implementation of the CPA. Only such gradual confidence building could lead to genuine power sharing, wealth-sharing and a resolution of outstanding issues in line with the agreement - paving the way for a reasonably peaceful referendum in 2011.
Written by: Alemayehu Behabtu, Researcher, PSC Report Programmee, ISS Addis Ababa Office