What We Don’t See in Sudan
With Sudan’s elections completed, the referendum takes center stage. Questions about whether the referendum will happen, in a transparent and timely fashion, are asked with increasing frequency, with some commentators expressing doubts that the NCP will allow the referendum to proceed unfettered. These doubts seem to be based on the NCP’s track record of implementing agreements and assumptions that the party instinctively seeks to undermine any agreement it signs.
But these assumptions overlook a quiet drama in Sudan that is central to whether the referendum process is peaceful or leads to violence: the fundamental decision within the NCP on whether to allow the referendum to proceed and secession to happen (assuming that is the preference of southern voters), or attempt to obstruct or discredit the process. Some commentators predict that the NCP won’t allow the referendum to happen; President Bashir insists that he will ensure that it does. The conviction expressed by both sides is exaggerated.
Analysis of Sudan often displays a common weakness, especially when it originates from outside the country: limited understanding of dynamics within the NCP. The party is, often justifiably, portrayed as the source of much of Sudan’s suffering. But it is also portrayed as a single-minded monolith, rather than a party that struggles with internal divisions and consensus building, as any political party does. One trait that distinguishes the NCP – especially compared to the SPLM of late – is how effectively it keeps those internal divisions from public view. But that shouldn’t be confused with an absence of internal divisions or uniform thinking on key issues.
Inevitably, factions within the NCP disagree on whether to proceed with the referendum. Contrary to conventional wisdom, in all likelihood there are NCP factions that are actively pro-secession, with the critical caveat that they support secession only if a favorable post-referendum wealth sharing agreement is reached (and agreed to prior to the referendum). For them, secession offers an opportunity to consolidate authority in the north and move towards the vision of the “Hamdi Triangle.” Surely there are also factions that are resolutely opposed to secession and refuse to let the NCP preside over the division of Sudan (though the recent elections, in which President Bashir received only approximately 10% of the vote in the south, suggest that a unity outcome of the referendum is a tall order), with some opposed to allowing the referendum to proceed at all. And, as in any debate, there are those who are undecided and are probably being courted by either side.
This is, of course, a vastly oversimplified snapshot of internal NCP dynamics. There are likely many gradations of pro- and anti-secession views. But the point is that these inter-NCP dynamics that are so consequential to the referendum are consistently overlooked because they are so opaque and difficult to decipher. So the default assumption becomes that the NCP will block the referendum, but that assumption ignores the debate within the NCP and the factions within the party. Ultimately, the NCP will follow what its leaders determine to be the party’s interests. How those interests relate to the referendum likely remains unsettled because little progress has been made in negotiating post-referendum arrangements.
Analysis is, quite reasonably, based on things we can read, see and hear. But in Sudan, where opacity and elite bargaining often prevail over transparency and public discourse, those debates that happen well removed from public view are often the most important debates of all. And no debate in Sudan is more important to the country’s trajectory than the quiet debate within the NCP on how the referendum and the party’s interests may or may not align.
Jon Temin is a Senior Program Officer at the United States Institute of Peace.