November 09, 2010
Juba, the dusty capital of southern Sudan has enjoyed an economic boom over the past five years, with population surging, newly paved roads crowded with traffic, new government ministries, new hotels, and new electric lines rising up amid continuing poverty and underdevelopment in rural areas. But all this would be in danger if the Sudanese government in Khartoum does not allow this region to secede peacefully and become the world’s newest nation next year.
Armed conflict would be very bloody for massive numbers of people, especially those members of ethnic groups, the Dinka, Nuer, Nuba, and Funj, that have been previously targeted by the regime. War in Sudan has always been fought on the backs of civilians. More than 2 million Southerners died during the long civil war that ended in 2005. At least another 200,000 Darfuris were casualties of the scorched-earth tactics employed by the government to put down the rebellion in western Sudan. The leaders here fear the approach of the North and its allied militias would be brutal if war resumes.
We came away from two weeks in the South convinced that large-scale violence and atrocities are not inevitable following a January referendum that could give independence to the South — but only if the international community sets clear lines of acceptable behavior as the two sides manage an acrimonious and potentially violent divorce.
The two sides are engaged in talks in Ethiopia to address the final contentious issues, such as the sharing of oil revenues and demarcation of the new border. Internationally supported negotiations helped produce this moment: in 2003 and 2004, under pressure from the United States and in the wake of military defeats at the hands of Southern rebels, Khartoum reluctantly agreed to grant the South semi-autonomous status, half of the country’s sizeable oil revenues, and the right to a referendum on unity or independence in 2011. Southerners, who see themselves as marginalized by the North, will almost certainly opt for independence.
Some in the Southern leadership told us they are convinced that the North will never allow the South to secede, and will eventually invade and seize the oil fields in the border regions. Others believe that Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir has decided, reluctantly, not to oppose Southern secession because he believes it is inevitable and wants a peaceful division that can benefit both sides economically.
Bashir, under indictment by the International Criminal Court, has plenty of other problems, like continued conflict in Darfur and potential separatist movements in other regions of the North. But it is also possible that Bashir could be deposed in a coup by strident opponents of the peace agreement, who would rather fight than dismember the country.
War could cost the regime billions of dollars in revenues — the South has threatened to destroy the oil infrastructure if the North invades — while opening a dangerous new front and causing instability that Khartoum can ill afford. Both sides have been massing troops and acquiring new weapons in advance of the referendum date.
The international community has begun to wake up to the dangers and is accelerating its efforts to broker a political deal that might defuse violence. Just this past week, the United States offered to take Sudan off its list of state sponsors of terrrorism if it permits the referendum to go ahead and respects the results.
But outside leverage has its limits in a country where both sides aggressively pursue what they see as their vital interests and survival. Most important, the outside world must make clear to the parties that it is watching carefully the fate of endangered civilians, particularly the million or so displaced Southerners who live around Khartoum.
Southerners are weary of conflict. They have survived decades of brutal war which has been the norm, while peace, until now, has been an aberration. Near the end of our visit, we spoke to Ring Banggol, who spent most of his youth in virtual captivity in the North after having been kidnapped during the civil war. Now he’s finished high school and plans to go to university to study economics. Asked whether he was worried about war, he replied sadly: “If there is war, I will be used to it.”
But there is nothing inevitable about war or atrocities. While the hour is late, the goal of peaceful separation is plainly within reach, with hard bargaining and sustained vigilance by the outside world. It would be another outrage if Banggol’s fellow Sudanese once again became accustomed to war.
Michael Abramowitz is director of the genocide prevention program at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Andrew Natsios, a former US envoy for Sudan, teaches at Georgetown University and is the author of the forthcoming “What Everyone Needs to Know about Sudan and Darfur.”