A Glimmer of Hope in Southern Sudan

For now, all's quiet on the north-south front. But President Omar Hassan al-Bashir may still have a few cards to play before January's all-important referendum.

Traub-James-foreign-policy-columnist17
Traub-James-foreign-policy-columnist17
James Traub
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

It is Thanksgiving week, and it behooves those of us who write about the world to find something or other to feel thankful for, or at least hopeful about. That excludes most of my normal subject matter. I am, however, feeling ever so slightly optimistic about events in one of the most desperate places on Earth, south Sudan, where 2 million people died in a 20-year civil war with the north only ended in 2005. It now appears increasingly likely that the long-awaited referendum in which southerners will choose either independence or continued association with the north will in fact take place Jan. 9, as planned -- and even (though this is much less certain) that the government in Khartoum will honor the outcome, which will undoubtedly be a vote for independence. This would be a rare moment of unadulterated joy to the downtrodden and neglected people of the south and offer some hope for the rest of us that seemingly intractable conflicts can have a peaceful and positive end.

Why this uptick in confidence? Because Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir and his henchmen -- though brutal, duplicitous, and cynical -- are not irrational. According to virtually everyone I have spoken to, the regime has concluded that its best chance for survival lies in cutting a deal with the south rather than contesting the referendum. "I'm more optimistic than I was a few weeks ago," a U.S. State Department official, speaking from Sudan, told me. "There's a certain momentum now to the referendum." The central issue, then, is what Khartoum wants out of that deal and whether the government of Southern Sudan and the international community can deliver enough to convince the regime to part with over a third of its territory and virtually all of its oil-production capacity -- a prize which it fought one of the world's most savage civil wars to keep.

Bashir's government is so opaque, so fragmented, and so devoted to eleventh-hour brinkmanship that no one can say for sure what it is it actually wants. U.S. President Barack Obama's administration has been trying very hard to figure out Khartoum's price, and meet it. At present, for example, the two sides share equally in the country's oil wealth -- by far and away the chief source of revenue for each -- but because the south will wind up with almost all the oil, it must agree to share some portion of the proceeds with the north. And yet Scott Gration, the State Department special envoy to Sudan, was mystified during his last visit to find that Sudanese officials seemed almost blithe about this supposedly all-important issue. Did this mean that debt relief, aid, or foreign investment all of a sudden matters more to Khartoum than the oil it has fought so long to keep? Or is Bashir biding his time in favor of some adroit last-minute blackmail?

It is Thanksgiving week, and it behooves those of us who write about the world to find something or other to feel thankful for, or at least hopeful about. That excludes most of my normal subject matter. I am, however, feeling ever so slightly optimistic about events in one of the most desperate places on Earth, south Sudan, where 2 million people died in a 20-year civil war with the north only ended in 2005. It now appears increasingly likely that the long-awaited referendum in which southerners will choose either independence or continued association with the north will in fact take place Jan. 9, as planned — and even (though this is much less certain) that the government in Khartoum will honor the outcome, which will undoubtedly be a vote for independence. This would be a rare moment of unadulterated joy to the downtrodden and neglected people of the south and offer some hope for the rest of us that seemingly intractable conflicts can have a peaceful and positive end.

Why this uptick in confidence? Because Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir and his henchmen — though brutal, duplicitous, and cynical — are not irrational. According to virtually everyone I have spoken to, the regime has concluded that its best chance for survival lies in cutting a deal with the south rather than contesting the referendum. "I’m more optimistic than I was a few weeks ago," a U.S. State Department official, speaking from Sudan, told me. "There’s a certain momentum now to the referendum." The central issue, then, is what Khartoum wants out of that deal and whether the government of Southern Sudan and the international community can deliver enough to convince the regime to part with over a third of its territory and virtually all of its oil-production capacity — a prize which it fought one of the world’s most savage civil wars to keep.

Bashir’s government is so opaque, so fragmented, and so devoted to eleventh-hour brinkmanship that no one can say for sure what it is it actually wants. U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration has been trying very hard to figure out Khartoum’s price, and meet it. At present, for example, the two sides share equally in the country’s oil wealth — by far and away the chief source of revenue for each — but because the south will wind up with almost all the oil, it must agree to share some portion of the proceeds with the north. And yet Scott Gration, the State Department special envoy to Sudan, was mystified during his last visit to find that Sudanese officials seemed almost blithe about this supposedly all-important issue. Did this mean that debt relief, aid, or foreign investment all of a sudden matters more to Khartoum than the oil it has fought so long to keep? Or is Bashir biding his time in favor of some adroit last-minute blackmail?

This month, the White House asked Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to go to Khartoum to convey to senior officials a new offer to remove Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terrorism in exchange for letting the referendum proceed and honoring the outcome. The designation is a major obstacle to foreign investment, and the Sudanese are said to have welcomed the gesture. But a U.N. official who met some of the same figures right after Kerry said that they scoffed at the idea that Obama could deliver on removing the north from the state sponsors of terrorism list, because this would require, as they knew, a vote of Congress.

Money is only one level of this dizzyingly complicated game — which is just the type Khartoum likes to play. The Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA), which both north and south signed in 2005 and which mandates the referendum, requires agreement on borders, security, terms of citizenship, and a range of other issues — virtually none of which have been settled thus far. Neither side has shown much interest in reaching across the table on any of these issues. Khartoum is seeking reassurances that a new government in the south won’t jeopardize its security by harboring insurgents from Darfur or elsewhere; however, the Southern People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the ruling party in Southern Sudan, is reluctant to surrender that leverage, says the State Department official.

The one issue neither can postpone much further is the fate of Abyei, a region that straddles the border and has oil, water, and grazing land for nomadic tribes. The Bashir government has threatened to go to war if the referendum occurs without settling the status of Abyei. The CPA mandated a separate referendum for the region, but Khartoum has been unwilling to let the vote go forward; there is talk of an agreement whereby the south would annex Abyei by decree and pay off the north with oil revenues. But no one knows whether this is something Khartoum will accept. Bashir and Salva Kiir, president of the government of Southern Sudan, met on Wednesday, Nov. 24, in Addis Ababa to discuss the problem, but agreed only that it must be resolved. The two are scheduled to meet again on Saturday in Khartoum.

Or maybe it’s all a charade. While hundreds of thousands of voters have registered in the south, only 9,000 of the half-million or more southerners living in the north have done so. Leaders of the SPLM fear that Khartoum is preventing voters from registering and plans to blame the south. "They’ll say, ‘We’re not going to accept the results of the referendum because people were prevented from registering,’" says Ezekiel Gatkuoth, representative of Southern Sudan in the United States.

Bashir knows that the south would respond with a unilateral declaration of statehood and would be fully prepared to fight to preserve its sovereignty. This month, he moved army units close to the border, perhaps hoping to provoke the south into striking first. But the south has recently bulked up its military with tanks and anti-aircraft capacity, making the military option for Bashir much more costly. Maybe that, too, is a bluff. No one can be sure.

In the end, Bashir is making a straightforward calculation: What do I get for playing ball; what do I lose for breaking up the game? The great imponderable for him is the role of the international community. The systematic atrocities which he committed in Darfur starting in 2003 met with terrible denunciations but modest punishments; with virtually the entire region’s population still cowering in refugee camps, Bashir has tested the resolve of the international community, and come out a winner. (And with the world preoccupied with the north-south drama, he has once again stepped up the clandestine bombardment of Darfur.) The International Criminal Court has indicted him on genocide charges, but in recent months both U.S. and U.N. officials have said little about the subject, apparently fearful of risking Bashir’s cooperation on the referendum. What will happen if in any case he walks away from the referendum? Perhaps the African Union and the Organization of the Islamic Conference will back him up, as they have in the past.

The international community has begun mobilizing, albeit in its own rather diffident way. Thabo Mbeki, the former president of South Africa and now head of what is known as the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel, has pressed the two sides with growing urgency to settle the toughest issues, especially Abyei; he will be presiding over the meetings in Khartoum this weekend. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has appointed a Panel on the Referenda, led by Benjamin Mkapa, the former president of Tanzania, which could play a crucial role in giving legitimacy to the Jan. 9 vote. Both the United States and Britain are signaling their strong, if still implicit, support for a new southern state. On Nov. 18, Britain, which is currently president of the U.N. Security Council, convened a ministerial-level meeting on Sudan and gave the floor to Pagan Amum, Southern Sudan’s chief negotiator. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke, publicly announcing the offer to remove Sudan from the terrorism list.

Ultimately, the Southern Sudanese look to Washington for protection and support. I asked Gatkuoth how he felt about Gration, who has been harshly criticized in the south — and among Sudan activists abroad — for showing Khartoum too much deference and taking its flimsy pledges at face value. "Obama has taken control of the process," said Gatkuoth diplomatically. "I’m so excited because the whole administration is on board now." The United States cannot, in fact, settle the north-south problem on its own; Bashir must feel pressure from his Arab and African neighbors and allies, as well as from the West.

But as is also so often true, both parties are looking to Washington to underwrite an agreement they are reluctant to make. Perhaps Obama will never get much credit for acting in such a way as to prevent a calamity. But if Southern Sudan achieves statehood peacefully after Jan. 9, I would say that’s something to be very thankful for.

James Traub is a columnist at Foreign Policy, nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea. Twitter: @jamestraub1

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