The Middle East Channel

Darfuri rebels, the NCP, and the future of southern Sudan

Sitting in Washington, pundits and politicians tend to overestimate U.S. influence on the Sudanese government. These days, provided the Gulf States and China continue to open the checkbook, the biggest threat to the Islamists in Khartoum comes not from Washington, but from inside Sudan itself. The ruling National Congress Party (NCP) understand that they do ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Sitting in Washington, pundits and politicians tend to overestimate U.S. influence on the Sudanese government. These days, provided the Gulf States and China continue to open the checkbook, the biggest threat to the Islamists in Khartoum comes not from Washington, but from inside Sudan itself.

The ruling National Congress Party (NCP) understand that they do not have the support of the marginalized people that make up the bulk of the Sudanese population; their worst nightmare is that this disenfranchised periphery might one day unite against their elite dictatorship in Khartoum. Hence the significance of a series events that have taken place over the past month inside Sudan, where opponents of the NCP have been putting the ruling party under increasing pressure in advance of the referendum on Jan. 9 in which southern Sudanese are widely expected to vote to become an independent nation.

Last month Minni Minawi, the lone Darfuri rebel leader to have signed a stillborn peace agreement with the Sudanese government in 2006, moved from Khartoum to Juba, home to the semi-autonomous government of southern Sudan (GOSS). His move prompted fears within the NCP that GOSS (whose army consists of former southern rebels) was supporting Darfuri rebels, giving both Minawi’s Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) safe retreat in the southern states that border Darfur.

Zach Vertin, Sudan analyst at the International Crisis Group says that allegations of active or passive support to Darfur rebels by the semi-autonomous southern government remain unclear, "but Juba would be wiser to assuage NCP fears than to contribute to them. Fueling Khartoum’s insecurity is unlikely to yield positive results."

Following his move to Juba, the NCP declared Minawi, formerly an advisor to President Omar al-Bashir, to be a "legitimate target" of the Sudanese army. They raided Minawi’s office in el Fasher, arresting those they found in the building. Next the Sudanese army launched two consecutive days of attacks on Khor Abeche, a village 50 miles from the south Darfur capital of Nyala which is perceived to be supportive of Minawi.

According to UNAMID spokesperson Kemal Saiki, the attacks left at least one dead and 16 wounded. The UN says twelve thousand people were displaced as a result. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon issued a statement of concern that the recent clashes "included attacks on civilians and destruction of property, and have resulted in renewed displacement, and the withdrawal of humanitarian agencies from some areas."

The UN has also confirmed bombing by Sudanese government aircraft in Bahr Al Ghazal, one of the southern states bordering Darfur. The government-controlled media claimed that Darfuri rebels had support from the southern army for training camps in Bahr Al Ghazal (a claim that southern politicians have denied.)

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While the southern capital of Juba has housed a semi-autonomous southern government for the past six years, the prospect of a fully independent south raises new fears for the NCP. "In some sense the NCP feels threatened, uncertain of its own political and economic future" says Vertin.

Negotiations have still not concluded over how to divide Sudan’s vast oil resources if the country splits, or how to apportion its $35 billion in external debt. The better that the NCP fares in these negotiations, the stronger position it will be in to manage those in the north who seek to challenge its rule, and the less troubled it will be about what support the newly independent GOSS might provide to its opponents. But even if NCP opponents are not actively supported by GOSS, the upheaval resulting from the likely split of the nation may be exploited by them.

Just this week the Umma party of former Sudanese prime minister Sadiq al-Mahdi, issued a demand for the NCP to form an interim coalition government to draft a new constitution for what will be a new northern Sudan if southerners vote for independence. And also this week, in a unified effort of the kind not seen since the start of the Darfur conflict in 2003, Minawi’s SLA  joined forces with JEM this week to battle the Sudanese army in North Darfur.

To date, the NCP has handled major challenges from inside Sudan’s sprawling territory by refusing to acknowledge the commonality of concerns raised by its many opponents. The international community has tended to follow Khartoum’s lead, responding to the various challenges to NCP rule in discrete silos. Sudan is the only country in the world that has two UN peacekeeping operations on its territory; UNAMID in Darfur and UNMIS in the south. The so-called Comprehensive Peace Agreement that the troika of the U.S., U.K., and Norway supported dealt only with southern Sudan, while the African Union and the U.S. subsequently pushed for a separate peace agreement for Darfur, and six months later Eritrean-sponsored negotiations led the NCP to sign yet another peace agreement, this time with rebels in the east of Sudan.

Earlier this month the Obama administration appointed Ambassador Dane Smith as an envoy to focus solely on Darfur, following its September appointment of another diplomat, Princeton Lyman, to focus on southern Sudan. Khartoum has actively encouraged this kind of separation, probably because it facilitates its ability to trade off progress in one marginalized area for a reduction in scrutiny of its actions in the other. But in terms of what the Sudanese leadership view as the most serious threat to their survival, Darfuri rebels, northern political opponents, and the future of southern Sudan are all deeply intertwined – never more so than today.

Rebecca Hamilton is author of the forthcoming book, Fighting for Darfur

Rebecca Hamilton, an Australian, is an assistant professor of law at American University, Washington College of Law. She previously worked at the International Criminal Court. @bechamilton

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