South Sudan Referendum: Twelve Months to Go
In less than 12 months’ time, Southern Sudan’s voters will pass judgement on Sudan’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which set out to make attractive the unity of a divided country over a six year interim period. In a burst of activity at the outset of the interim period, the two parties who make up Sudan’s ruling coalition adopted a constitution, restructured the central government and established the Government of Southern Sudan, financed by a share of Southern Sudan’s oil revenues. The two parties are the National Congress Party (NCP, an alliance of Islamist, security and financial interests) and the Southern-based former rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). Both had a military, revolutionary past, and both had the combination of audacity and pragmatism that allowed them to make peace and bring enemy generals into parliaments, cabinets and banks.
But for the political processes that dominate the hectic year ahead, something more than bold pragmatism is required. Just to get to the referendum, the SPLM and the NCP need to reach a deal on the disputed census, conduct general elections and (safely assuming they survive those elections) demarcate the oil-rich and troubled border between north and south; a border that intersects the livelihoods and identities of millions of citizens. Border demarcation and elections require Sudanese elites to persuade and engage millions of people; to give explanations about the present and the future. Neither has invested much in visions or explanations over the past five years.
To get past the referendum, many more deals will be needed. It’s not for me to anticipate the sovereign decision of the Southern Sudanese people – so I’ll set out briefly what’s needed in the case of unity or secession.
The CPA has only one clear requirement in the case of unity, which is the unification of Sudan’s two big armies – the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and the Khartoum-based Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) – within 90 days. This is an impossibly ambitious deadline – the Joint Integrated Units that were established to offer a model of that unification have been implicated in the four serious ceasefire breaches that occurred in the past five years.
As well as being disunited, Sudan’s security forces are not aligned with the rights set out in the Interim National Constitution, based on the CPA. A lot of attention has been given to the failure to adequately reform the National Security and Intelligence Service. It is a key institution of NCP power and its reform was required by the CPA. But there is no agenda for aligning the Popular Defence Forces, or SAF Military Intelligence with constitutional norms – although they play crucial roles in managing security and violence in places like Darfur. Security in most parts of Southern Sudan is handled by the SPLA, although the Southern constitution envisaged a limited and extraordinary role in law enforcement.
Security is not the only issue to be addressed in the case of unity. The CPA was intended to address the causes of conflict in Sudan in order to make unity attractive. To that end, it called for national reconciliation; and investment in Sudan’s vast, diverse and impoverished periphery – mismanaged diversity and unequal development were part of its diagnosis of Sudan’s problems, and that view has become a kind of conventional wisdom for the country. There has been no progress on national reconciliation, and progress on investment in underdeveloped states of both Northern and Southern Sudan has been patchy and lacking in transparency. Statistics show a rapid increase in investment in states after the peace deal – states had been starved of investment since the 1990s. But much of that investment has gone on salaries and other current expenditure. Development expenditure is still concentrated in the cultural heartland of the Khartoum elite. An example is agriculture – funds are overwhelmingly directed at the building of dams in the far North, and investment in subsistence agriculture and pastoralism has been almost non-existent. Roads are built to the Northern provinces, but the metalled road planned for Darfur has been sleeping at Al-Nahud in Kordofan for the past 12 years.
Any peace deal for Darfur will have security reform, reconciliation and investment at its heart. For unity to work, these issues need to be addressed urgently. So unity is not an easy option. Neither is separation. For South and North to split, the two parties need to make deals on sharing oil revenues, water, borders, nationality, currency, international treaties – a clutch of issues that involve the livelihoods and identities of millions of people. They don’t need to look far to see what it means to get this wrong. Introducing a currency priced to disadvantage powerful economic interests contributed to wars in Somaliland and Eritrea – two countries that seceded in the 1990s. Eritrea had a nationality act in place before its referendum – Sudan has not visited the issue, and some elements in the NCP have argued that Southerners living in the north should be stripped of rights if the South secedes. (No doubt this will help the financial elites impose yet more discipline on the Southern labour forces of northern towns – it is otherwise ferocious and short-sighted).
So the two parties need to get to work on what the future holds for their country. They need to listen to the past, to the region – and most importantly of all they need to listen to, persuade and explain to their own people. Not listening, and not engaging, are two of the big risks for the year ahead. As the two parties turn to face each other for a last hectic round of negotiations, they may turn their back on the region’s lessons.
They may neglect the lethal local violence across Southern Sudan, Darfur and Kordofan. They may bargain away the interests of weaker constituencies for their own immediate gain. They may neglect the opportunities presented by elections to turn Sudanese politics into the kind that helps groups of people articulate and attain their own interests, or that helps borderlands people with interdependent economic lives to work together.
Choreographing the coming year
For many international actors now involving themselves in the final act of the CPA, wisdom lies in smoothness. They would like to choreograph the coming year around a set of deals between Sudan’s elites: these deals will deliver the South to the SPLM and the North to the NCP. If they get it right, there won’t be a war between the SAF and the SPLA, and innocent lives will be spared. They can structure the deal around the oil industry, which will doubtless bring more profits in peace than it would in war. An oil deal is not the same as a peace deal, but if it’s the price of peace, good luck to them.
Some people would argue that war is unavoidable because it is already underway across North and South Sudan – lethal local violence that the state says it cannot control. A deal maintaining the dominance of the SPLM and NCP would not bring these wars to an end. To resolve them, the two big parties may need to reinvent themselves, in the case of either unity or separation. They are revolutionary parties: the NCP thwarted all its rivals in rural Sudan, aggravating the contradictions there in the process. In the towns, the NCP created a new, Islamist version of civil society that forced the liberal cosmopolitans and leftists of the old civil society into depoliticised NGOs or exile. The SPLM redefined Sudan’s problems from the margins and demonstrated the centrality of military, not political, action for social change. Both revolutions have weakened the old political systems of the centre, and made Sudan’s politics more ethnic, more regional and more violent. If the two parties want to institutionalise their power, they may do so by ignoring the violence in the periphery, and concentrate on strengthening the centre from outside threats. Or, they might take a longer view, and try to change into organisations that can comprehend and mediate these local conflicts – and this in turn will require the kind of skills in negotiation, persuasion and explanation that the two parties badly need in the year ahead.