Africa’s New Horror

South Sudan's declaration of independence could thrust the country back into a bloody civil war.

STUART PRICE/AFP/Getty Images
STUART PRICE/AFP/Getty Images
STUART PRICE/AFP/Getty Images

Think the only Sudan crisis is in Darfur, or that the horror there is winding down? You're wrong.

There's a new Sudan calamity in the making, and it may well come in 2010 with a unilateral declaration of independence by the enclave of South Sudan. If it does, the resulting conflict stands to be more painful, militarized, and devastating than Sudan has ever known. Imagine Darfur with a lot more guns, not to mention Chinese fighter jets.

Think the only Sudan crisis is in Darfur, or that the horror there is winding down? You’re wrong.

There’s a new Sudan calamity in the making, and it may well come in 2010 with a unilateral declaration of independence by the enclave of South Sudan. If it does, the resulting conflict stands to be more painful, militarized, and devastating than Sudan has ever known. Imagine Darfur with a lot more guns, not to mention Chinese fighter jets.

The clock for this latest crisis started ticking ominously in 2005. A North-South civil war that left some 2 million dead and millions more displaced had finally ended. But that year’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement pushed the touchiest issue of all — the independence of the South, a France-sized area of just under 10 million people that won its autonomy in that 2005 deal — six years into the future. The clock runs out in January 2011, but the crisis will likely come sooner.

Unfortunately, the "comprehensive strategy" on Sudan unveiled by U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration in October depends almost entirely on the deluded notion that implementation of the 2005 peace agreement will go as planned. Obama’s team said it hopes South Sudan’s likely secession will be an "orderly transition to two separate and viable states at peace with each other."

But this is Sudan we’re talking about, not Belgium. The actual scenario — if Sudan’s recent history is any guide — is likely to be anything but orderly. A national census slated to happen before July 2007 was repeatedly delayed until finally taking place amid violence and gaping errors. Nonetheless, Khartoum has insisted that the count’s doctored results be used to draw up parliamentary districts that favor the North. Voter registration, which also depends on the flawed census data, has just barely begun. So any expectation that April’s general elections, a key test ahead of the January 2011 deadline, will be legitimate is surreal at best. The vote is likely to be marred by bloodshed, as most of the contenders will either be backed or opposed — and usually both — by heavily armed groups.

If the elections proceed but their results lack legitimacy, South Sudan’s rulers will be under tremendous public pressure to unilaterally declare independence without a referendum. After all, the outcome of such a vote is not in doubt; you would be hard-pressed to find many southerners who prefer to remain under Khartoum’s thumb.

There’s also a tactical reason why South Sudan might go for broke: The North is acquiring an insuperable military advantage, and Khartoum is unlikely to relinquish its hold on the oil-rich South without a fight. In fact, for the last decade, Khartoum has been busy using revenue from that same oil to modernize its armed forces in preparation for conflict. In Darfur, the northern regime has used its primitive air force to deadly effect. When the Shenyang J-8 and Chengdu F-7 supersonic fighter-bombers recently acquired from China, the largest customer for Sudanese oil, are put to use, the results will be devastating. Chinese companies have also helped establish at least three weapons factories outside the Sudanese capital, including one that manufactures ammunition, effectively immunizing the regime against the effects of any future arms embargo.

Even if the South moves to secede before Khartoum’s military might grows, the ensuing conflict will be messy. Skirmishes along the North-South border left at least 2,000 people dead and more than 250,000 displaced in 2009. The South’s coming declaration of independence will undoubtedly provoke not only large-scale violence in the country formerly known as Sudan, but also the destabilization of the entire region as neighboring countries find themselves drawn in. Will Obama let it happen on his watch?

J. Peter Pham is the vice president of research and regional initiatives at the Atlantic Council and director of its Africa Center.

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