South Sudan is heading for secession, with or without a referendum
April’s chaotic elections have widened divisions within the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement (SPLM), according to analysts, who warn of risks to a referendum on southern secession, of future relations between two potentially independent states, and of the very stability of Sudan as a whole.
The January 2011 referendum, which will give southerners the opportunity to form a new independent country, is one of the most important provisions of a 2005 accord (CPA) that ended decades of war between Khartoum and the southern-based SPLM insurgents. The peace deal has entered its final stage, but its southern co-signers could be entering a critical final chapter as well, with wide-ranging implications.
“Southerners have reason to celebrate being able to vote, but the rancour and divisions within the SPLM are growing just as it needs to pull together,” warned the latest Small Arms Survey Report .
“If half the resources and energy – both Sudanese and international – had gone into reconciliation activities as have been devoted to “democratization”, Sudan’s future might seem more promising,” the report from the Geneva-based research group said.
“I think this process has had serious implications for the SPLM at a moment when it really can’t afford to be divided,” said Maggie Fick, a Juba-based Southern Sudan researcher for the Enough project, a US advocacy group critical of Khartoum.
The most visible of the fault lines running through the SPLM, and perhaps most relevant to the future of all Sudanese, lies between its northern and southern wings, or “sectors”. For years, the two have pursued different, but supposedly complementary goals: the northern sector has worked to unite opposition forces against the Khartoum government to forge a so-called “New Sudan”.
The southern sector has been more involved in achieving varying degrees of self-determination for the long-marginalized south, for Abyei (an oil-rich region which straddles the north-south border), and for the states of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, which although lying on the northern side of the border, fall under the aegis of the SPLM’s southern sector.
The two sectors have co-existed since the late SPLM leader John Garang established them in 2005. But as the New Sudan focus dimmed following Garang’s death that same year – and as the prospects of southern secession grew sharper – the party’s twin movements appeared increasingly disjointed.
During the lead-up to the elections – critically important for the northern sector, but seen by some in the south as little more than a bump on the road to the referendum – strong disagreements between the two camps broke into the open.
“This is an ideological difference in the first place,” said one SPLM member in Khartoum. “Some people in the southern sector do not think beyond the borders of Southern Sudan.”
Amid growing complaints that the co-governing National Congress Party (NCP) had rigged the elections in advance, SPLM Secretary-General Pagan Amum, seen as sympathetic to the northern sector, promised in late March that the SPLM would join other opposition parties should they announce a total boycott of all the polls in the north – presidential, legislative and gubernatorial.
But after a meeting chaired by Salva Kiir, the president of Southern Sudan’s autonomous government, the SPLM announced it would only pull out of the national presidential race and from polls in Darfur. Buoyed by protests from SPLM gubernatorial candidates in the north, Amum then later declared that the northern sector was pulling out of the elections altogether. Kiir refused to endorse this move.
“There were strong voices around [Kiir] that thought good relations with [President] Bashir would be good for the referendum,” says Samuel Okomi, director of the South Sudan Youth Participation Agency, a civil society NGO.
“The northern sector is feeling that they are just being used and will be dumped later on.”
For his part, Yasser Arman, head of the party’s northern sector and, until his withdrawal, its presidential nominee, played down talk of an election-related split between him and Kiir. “We go way back, and we have a very strong relationship,” Arman told reporters.
But to Fouad Hikmat, Sudan analyst for the International Crisis Group, a full-on split looks imminent. “The SPLM northern sector will separate from the south,” he said. “They know the south is heading for secession.”
“This is very dangerous for Sudan’s stability,” said Hikmat, who thinks a new rebellion could arise from the ashes of the SPLM’s northern wing and that it would be joined by SPLM elements in Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan.
Many in these states are disgruntled at having been fobbed off – as part of the CPA negotiations – with a vague “popular consultation” instead of also being given the option to secede in a proper referendum.
“Self-determination calls will rise in the rest of Sudan if the south secedes and a new northern movement is created with an alliance of armed groups in the Blue Nile, Southern Kordofan, Darfur and eastern Sudan,” he said.
Fick fears the implications of an SPLM split for the south, where she said any national divisions could weaken the party’s bargaining position.
A range of contentious issues relating to the CPA and the referendum are up for discussion between the SPLM and CPA over the coming months. Some, such as the demarcation of the north-south border, need to be resolved before the referendum can take place.
Others relate to how a future independent south and Khartoum would work together. These include how they would share their oil revenue and other resources, their international debts and their infrastructure.
“This is a time when unity within the SPLM is totally essential if they are going to succeed in negotiations with NCP,” Fick said.
Also up for grabs is political space within the south itself.
“If elections and the referendum are conducted as planned, there will be a new political dispensation in the South, and anything could happen,” said a December 2009 report from the International Crisis Group.
Tensions between the SPLM and former party members who ran as “independent” candidates for state governorships threaten to boil over.