Why a Free Southern Sudan Is Bad News for Darfur

While the world watches the upcoming referendum between north and south, Khartoum is quietly meddling in an old war zone -- Darfur.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

MALAKAL, Sudan—For all intents and purposes, it looked like an act of war. Just over two months before Southern Sudan votes whether to secede, on Nov. 12, the central government in Khartoum flew two Antonov aircraft over the contested north-south border and began an aerial bombardment campaign. The bombs landed in disputed territory occupied by the Southern army, marking the first overt provocation since the 2005 Sudanese peace agreement. With an unidentified number of Southern Sudanese soldiers killed, this looked like the start of a new phase of the decades-old conflict between north and south — a looming war that many in the international community dread.

Just a day after the attack, however, both north and south seemed willing to write off the attack as an accident, an unexpectedly hopeful sign. Unfortunately, though, the bombing has more to do with the fact that Sudan’s north is once again taking the fight to Darfuri rebels, the latest chapter in one of the ugliest and most lopsided conflicts the world has seen.

The exact details of what happened are still fuzzy. The Sudanese armed forces say they were trying to hit the Justice and Equality Movement, one of the main Darfur rebel groups, nestled in a murky border area. A U.N. internal report confirmed that explanation, noting that the "Incident [is] unlikely to lead to clash between SPLA [the Southern Sudan army] and SAF [the northern army]. SAF has apologized for the incident."

The bombardment of Sudan’s militarized borderlands certainly looked like a show of force by Khartoum, a sign to the south of what might await should it incur the north’s wrath. This is something Southern diplomats surely won’t forget in the negotiations that are bound to follow the referendum. Khartoum’s strike was also embarrassing for the Southern army, which was deployed beyond its side of the border.

Given the situation, it’s intriguing that the bombardments — accidental or not — were so easily glossed over. Practically on the eve of the referendum that could yield "Africa’s big divorce," as New York Times correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman aptly called it, tensions were high. Southerners turned up last week in droves to register for the Jan. 9 self-determination vote, while African Union-brokered negotiations between Khartoum and the semiautonomous Southern government in Juba over a potential border had just drawn to a close in a stalemate over the Abyei region. They are set to resume shortly at the presidential level.

But in fact, now is the moment when north and south are least likely to want to spat. Both sides are walking a diplomatic tightrope until the referendum. Political accommodation and behind-closed-doors deals may well be in the best interests of both sides, and leaders in Khartoum and Juba may be seeing the wisdom in keeping quiet for now in order to increase their leverage at the bargaining table when it counts.

Meanwhile, the message from the United States is that getting to January’s referendum is the only thing that matters. Sen. John Kerry’s recent visit to Khartoum underlined this point. He offered to take the government off the state sponsors of terrorism list on the sole condition that north Sudan cooperate with the referendum vote, instead of making it conditional on cooperation in Darfur as it has been in the past.

So it’s perhaps no surprise that the real impact of the airstrikes has less to do with north and south and far more to do with the other Sudanese conflict — Darfur, the country’s western region, where an internal conflict between rebels and government forces has been ongoing for nearly a decade. These airstrikes were meant for the Darfur rebels.

When it comes to Darfur, Khartoum has less reason to behave than it does vis-à-vis the south. Kerry’s message has the effect of essentially decoupling north-south issues from Darfur in U.S. diplomatic brokering with the central government. That’s good news for Khartoum, and terrible news for the people of Darfur. Although Human Rights Watch reports that "Sudanese government forces have carried out a series of attacks on civilians since August 2010" in central Sudan, including past airstrikes, U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration is giving a subtle green light for Khartoum to wage war in Darfur as long as it allows the Southern referendum to occur.  

Unfortunately, it makes sense that Khartoum would escalate in one region while settling with another. Indeed, this has been its strategy for decades. Successive regimes in Khartoum have managed to function and even thrive by exploiting Sudan’s vast peripheral regions, using proxy groups like the Arab janjaweed to fight their war against the south. The current ruling party in particular has grown fat by making money off the business it knows best: war, and the oil-industry profits that come with it. When the southern half of Sudan breaks away, Khartoum will suddenly find itself with a handful of discontented and armed constituencies to manage and no one to play them off against, with meanwhile a good deal less oil wealth to sustain itself. 

In the short term, we can expect more provocations, veiled threats, and tense moments like last the Nov. 12 bombardment, perhaps with less peaceful conclusions. In the long term, if Khartoum continues to exploit the world’s distraction during the referendum to continue its quiet war in Darfur, there could be some ugly consequences come January — not just for Darfur, but for the whole country.

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