Sudan secession: resolving divisions?

South Sudan celebrates its independence this week, becoming the world's newest nation. But the festering divisions that are likely to haunt the north and South for the foreseeable future beg the question: will secession succeed in providing stability for the long-oppressed citizens of these two countries?

Fatin Abbas
8 July 2011

As South Sudan celebrates its independence on July 9th, becoming the newest African nation, feelings of jubilation are widespread among Southern Sudanese, and understandably so. Secession, which is the outcome of the referendum vote brokered as part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A – the ex-southern rebel movement) and the Khartoum government in 2005, represents a milestone in the country’s history. After decades of oppression and exploitation at the hands of the north, and a north-south civil war fought on southern territory that left millions dead, Southerners at last have the chance to escape the cycle of violence and injustice by taking control of their own destiny. Given the deplorable role that successive northern governments have played in thwarting that destiny, it is no surprise that Southerners have opted overwhelmingly for secession.

While South Sudan’s independence should be celebrated, however, the euphoria surrounding secession also risks overshadowing deeper, unaddressed divisions that may mar prospects for peace in both countries long after secession has been achieved.

These divisions are a consequence of a number of factors, among them Sudan’s history and its complex identity. The arbitrary colonial boundaries imposed by the British, which were inherited by the Sudanese governments that took over power after independence in 1956, created the largest country in Africa. In doing so these borders also lumped together vastly different groups of people, making Sudan one of the most culturally, linguistically and religiously diverse countries even in a continent where cultural heterogeneity is the norm rather than the exception. A further complicating factor was reflected in Sudan’s geographic location: poised between Africa and the Middle East, the country stood at the fault line between the Arab world and Africa, and this division was expressed internally in the split between a predominantly Muslim north and a largely Christian and animist south.

The country’s complex cultural and social identity posed a dilemma for the governments that came to power after independence. Dominated by northerners based in the capital, Khartoum, these governments failed miserably in responding to and addressing the needs and aspirations of different groups of people, particularly those, such as southerners, located far away from the centre of power. Within a few years of independence, southern Sudanese took up arms to protest their lack of representation and exclusion by northern governments. Civil war between the two regions continued on and off for more than forty years. In this regard the current Khartoum regime, which came to power in a military coup led by Omar al-Bashir in 1989, was no different from its predecessors in its marginalization of the south. What was different was the extent of its ideological and physical brutality. From the beginning, it attempted to impose cultural and religious uniformity on a heterogeneous population. Rather than protecting and nurturing the country’s diversity, the source of its greatest strength and richness, the regime systematically repressed it, forcibly imposing its brand of Islam and an Arabized identity on groups of people – both northerners and southerners – with a wide array of cultural and religious practices.

But the regime’s ideological oppression was only a mask for its true agenda: ruthless exploitation of marginalized regions and peoples for its own enrichment. When southern Sudan's vast oil reserves began to be tapped in the late 1990s, the country’s economy boomed, and yet average citizens continued to find their livelihoods shrinking and even disappearing as more and more people slid into dire poverty. In this regard the underlying division that has been at the heart of the country since its independence from the British is not a north-south split but a centre-periphery split, one that pits a self-aggrandizing, corrupt, political elite based in Khartoum against the vast majority of a struggling population located in the resource-rich rural areas.

Within this context, South Sudan’s secession is a mixed blessing. While it gives Southerners their long overdue right to self-determination, in the north it leaves the centre-periphery dichotomy intact. This is indicated in the wars that have erupted or are threatening to erupt in that region. The unresolved conflict in Darfur gives the lie to the notion that the north constitutes a homogeneous, unified entity, one that will be at harmony after secession. Millions of Darfurians remain displaced in camps in Sudan and in Chad, fearful of returning to their homes amidst the genocidal violence that began in 2003. In eastern Sudan, rebel groups continue to mount opposition to the Khartoum government, demanding equal access to development and economic redistribution for their region. This year, one of the eastern rebel groups – the Federal Alliance of Eastern Sudan – joined forces with the Justice and Equality Movement, the largest rebel group in Darfur, to oppose the Khartoum government. Furthermore, the violent clashes that have erupted in recent days between the government and the Nuba people (many of whom sided with the SPLM during the north-south civil war but who, under the new borders, will fall under the jurisdiction of northern Sudan) also suggest that these divisions are set to intensify.

The government is not likely to respond kindly to continuing resistance from these northern groups, especially in the wake of Southern secession. Smarting from the loss of the oil-rich South, and fearful that other marginalized regions such as Darfur or the state of South Kordofan (the Nuba's homeland) will follow suit and demand secession, the regime is consolidating its oppressive hold over the north by violently quelling opposition and further curtailing democratic rights. The atrocities now being committed by the government in South Kordofan, not for the first time, are an ominous indication of the lengths to which it will go to quash resistance.

While the picture in South Sudan seems rosier at the moment, underlying divisions in that country are also likely to surface in the aftermath of secession. The SPLM has done its people a great and historic service in leading them to independence. But the movement is neither a fully democratic nor a representative one. There were reports of vote rigging and intimidation by the SPLM in the southern gubernatorial and parliamentary elections that took place in April of 2010. Allegations of financial corruption are also widespread. Dominated as it is by the Dinka ethnic group – one of the major groups in South Sudan – the SPLM has been accused of marginalizing the numerous other ethnic groups that exist in the South from key decision-making and leadership roles. This has stoked already existing tensions between the various groups in the region as they compete for resources and political power, tensions that have escalated in recent months and which have led to wide-scale violence and displacement. The movement has also been riven by conflict from within, with breakaway factions fighting the SPLM in confrontations that have resulted in deadly violence in the South in recent months. While these tensions have been suppressed amidst the exhilaration of independence, they remain unresolved and may re-emerge in the coming months and years, threatening the stability of a fragile new nation.

The festering divisions that are likely to haunt the north and South for the foreseeable future beg the question: will secession succeed in providing stability for the long-oppressed citizens of these two countries? It may provide a short-term resolution. But only robust democracy, representative government and equity in the distribution of wealth and resources – both in the north and in the newly independent South Sudan – can provide lasting peace.


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