Trouble in Khartoum

Everyone’s rightly worried about the future of Southern Sudan. But what if it’s the north that’s actually in the most danger?


The news coming out of Sudan grows bleaker by the hour. Prospects for peace look less likely now than at any point since the north-south civil war, Africa’s longest-running conflict, ended in 2005.

The Sudanese government is presently bombing the northern border state of Southern Kordofan, and the United Nations estimates that more than 100,000 people have been displaced as a consequence of Khartoum’s seizure of the contested Abyei region last month. The emerging picture stands in stark contrast to what appeared to be President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s surprising commitment to the peaceful separation of northern and southern Sudan just a few months ago.

Since then, much analysis and media commentary has focused on whether the soon-to-be country of Southern Sudan, which attains formal nationhood on July 9, will be viable. Observers have raised valid concerns about the south’s myriad inter-ethnic tensions, internal insurgents, fledgling governance structure, and poor set of development indicators.

But what about the north? In the focus on all the coming problems of Southern Sudan, the full implications of partition creating not one new nation, but two, have gone largely unexamined –with potential repercussions that could derail peace for north and south alike.

Northern Sudan will be a different country in geographic, ethnic, religious, political, cultural, and economic terms once the south separates. And the viability of the new northern nation is also in question, as is the survival of Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party.

"The NCP are being weakened day by day. They know they don’t have acceptance in the north," says International Crisis Group analyst Fouad Hikmat.

Northern opposition parties blame NCP policies for the loss of the south, which is where most of Sudan’s oil lies. Moreover, well-connected Sudanese say there is dissatisfaction within the army, in addition to the armed insurgencies and political discontent in peripheral areas across northern Sudan.

Much of the current fighting may be strategic posturing as final deals are being hashed out over the division of wealth and territory between north and south in advance of July 9. But the ominous developments over the past three weeks are perhaps best understood as being driven by the NCP playing to its fiercely nationalistic domestic audience inside northern Sudan.

The most obvious danger to the NCP is economic. On Tuesday, Sudanese Finance Minister Ali Mahmoud told reporters in Khartoum that as a result of the secession of the south "the national budget will lose 36.5 percent of its revenues." Sudan’s external debt already stands at $38 billion. It has been barred from further World Bank loans because of a failure to pay its arrears, and the United States has fiercely opposed Sudan receiving support from any international banking institution because of its listing as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Of course, Khartoum has weathered exclusion from the international financial system for years thanks to its economic allies in the Gulf and Asia, as well as a booming oil industry. But the latter piece of that equation is about to change.

Roughly three-quarters of Sudan’s oil wealth lies in the south of the country. Since the 2005 peace agreement was signed, the Sudanese government and the semi-autonomous government of Southern Sudan have been splitting revenues from the southern oil fields roughly 50-50; these revenues have accounted for more than half of the Sudanese government’s budget.

Khartoum stands to lose this oil revenue once Southern Sudan secedes. This is a problem for the NCP, whose petro-funded patronage network has long been responsible for keeping a segment of northerners comfortable enough to ensure that fledging civil society efforts against the ruling party have not gained traction.

The economic bad tidings spurred a deeply unpopular decision by Khartoum earlier this year to remove government subsidies on fuel, wheat flour, and sugar. "The sharp increase of prices might trigger pockets of civil unrest in the main urban areas," cautioned USAID’s Famine Early Warning Systems Network at the time. Since then, sporadic protests have arisen in different parts of the north, though nothing so far that the Sudanese state has not been able to quash.

The current U.S. administration’s strategy on Sudan has been underpinned by an appreciation for these economic realities. The United States designated Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism in 1993 and imposed comprehensive economic sanctions in 1997. President Barack Obama has dangled the carrot of normalizing relations and supporting Khartoum in obtaining debt relief. But as the State Department warned this week, Khartoum’s recent military activities now diminish the likelihood that Washington will follow through with normalization.

If dissent stemming from the economic downturn was the only threat to the NCP’s rule, the U.S. administration’s approach may have had better success, despite Khartoum’s skepticism of U.S. promises. But the long-term marginalization, often coupled with religious and/or ethnic persecution of people in peripheral areas across northern Sudan, has spurred armed insurgencies that money alone cannot defuse.

Darfur, Sudan’s vast western region, hosts the best-known of these conflicts. The Sudanese government has progressively squeezed international actors out of the area, and no foreign journalists have been granted permission to enter it for many months. As a result, information on what is happening there is scarce. But according to Human Rights Watch, the Sudanese government has increased aerial bombardments in the region since December last year, leading to the displacement of a further 70,000 people.

Southern Kordofan, just to the east of Darfur and home to more than 30,000 northern fighters who sided with the south in the north-south civil war, is less well-known. The region is currently northern Sudan’s only oil-producing state and is indisputably northern territory. But it is also a stronghold of resistance against the northern government by many of the Nuba people.

The Nuba are religiously diverse, non-Arab, and culturally distinct. Faced with what many have termed genocide against them in the 1990s, they fought with the southern rebels in the north-south civil war. But they are not simply southern proxies. As veteran Sudan researcher Julie Flint notes, Nuba resistance has strong local roots "motivated in large part by the suppression of indigenous cultures, languages and religious observances." The north-south peace agreement was not implemented in a way that addressed their concerns, or those of the nomadic Arabs who co-habit the area, and the imminent secession of Southern Sudan is only increasing the anxiety of all concerned.

In late May, the Sudanese Army demanded the disarmament of all the historically pro-southern forces in Southern Kordofan and neighboring Blue Nile state. Darfuri rebels from the Justice and Equality Movement have also been reportedly recruiting in Southern Kordofan, and experts say Khartoum’s greatest fear is the unification of these disaffected groups against them. On June 5, Bashir launched a military campaign in the area aimed, he said, at "clearing the state of the remaining rebels." But as in Darfur, civilians seem to be bearing the brunt of the government operation.

Sudan Democracy First Group, a Sudanese civil society organization, has released the names of 21 civilians killed so far in the bombing campaign that Khartoum is conducting in Southern Kordofan, and reported a further 72 unidentified corpses. The U.N. says the Sudanese government is obstructing humanitarian access and estimates that 60,000 people have so far been displaced. A witness I spoke to by phone in the Nuba Mountains on Wednesday, who cannot be named for his safety, says the Nuba are being "targeted by government forces on the basis of their ethnicity because Khartoum assumes that all Nuba people are in political opposition to them."

Invoking parallels to Darfur, the Archbishop of Sudan, Rev. Dr. Daniel Deng Bul Yak, has accused the Sudanese government of implementing "a policy of ethnic cleansing" in the region.

The Sudanese Army’s move into Southern Kordofan comes just weeks after it seized control of Abyei, a border region that, unlike Southern Kordofan, is disputed territory between north and south. Khartoum says its actions were provoked by an ambush on its forces by the south, a claim southern officials deny. Southern Sudan’s Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. James Hoth Moi, told me he sees the seizure of Abyei as an effort by Bashir to boost the morale of the northern army. "What better way to distract the army from the complaints they have against you than by engaging them?" asks Moi.

According to analyst Fouad Hikmat, the Sudanese government’s increasingly belligerent actions are best understood as an effort by Bashir to create a threat that northerners can be convinced to unify against — thereby detracting from the economic and political grievances that might otherwise be voiced against the NCP. The rhetoric put out on Sudan’s state-controlled media seems to support this. Earlier this week, NCP Secretary of Political Mobilization Haj Majid Swar said Khartoum had uncovered a plot by a Nuba-backed politician in Southern Kordofan, Abdulaziz al-Hilu, to overthrow the government.

In his bid to shore up his domestic legitimacy through warfare in Abyei and Southern Kordofan, Bashir is playing with fire. Insecurity in the border areas and along the pipeline route that runs from South Sudan up to the Red Sea risks disrupting the flow of oil from fields in the south to refineries in the north and onto the export market. Already, cross-border trade has been shut down, harming northern traders and creating a food and fuel crisis in the south and border regions.

"It is in our interest to see that the North remains a viable state," Southern Sudanese President Salva Kiir Mayardit told me when I interviewed him in Juba late last year. He was right. Whether such viability can come through the NCP, however, is something that only those in the new northern state can decide.

Rebecca Hamilton is an Associate Professor of Law at American University, Washington College of Law. She is the author of Fighting for Darfur.