Special Reports



Alessandro Bruno


The South Sudanese Independence Referendum & the Regional Implications
In September US secretary of State Hillary Clinton described as a “ticking time bomb’. the prospects for the January 9, 2011 referendum for the independence of South Sudan - and one to determine if the contested oil rich Abyei region should join the North or the South. While there are reasons, and circumstances, to suggest that the Referendum will be held on time and that the Sudanese leadership may respect the voters’ likely decision to split from Khartoum, the prospect of renewed tensions, and possibly war, between North and South Sudan still remains high. Even if the split between South and North occurs peacefully, the emergence of a new nation state in east-central Africa will carry important implications for the region and beyond, which carry their own special risks. The outcome of the referendum will also affect the way the Sudanese government will manage the persisting tensions in the Darfur region.

Since independence from Britain in 1956, North and South Sudan have fought two civil wars; Sudan has known very few years since it became an independent state without war. The areas of conflict have always concerned South Kordofan, the Blue Nile region and the Abyei. In 2003, the Darfur issue precipitated into a wider conflict, which resulted, directly and indirectly, in some 400,000 deaths and over two million refugees. This present report intends to highlight some of the main issues of contention in view of the South Sudan independence referendum. There is little doubt that South Sudan will emerge as an independent state; the question remains as to whether or not the referendum will go as planned in January 2011 and how this new state will affect the regional balance. Overall, the prospects for a peaceful separation are greater than a breakout of war.

Yet at the time of writing, the chances of a peaceful transition appear pessimistic. The South has accused the Sudanese air force of bombarding the Bahr Gazal region, close to the state of South Kordofan, wounding civilians. The Sudanese government claims it was pursuing Darfur, but the incident gives credibility to UN claims that the former Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM now SPLA), the former rebel group now the political party governing South Sudan (The Government of South Sudan – GOSS), may rekindle alliances with some Darfur rebels. As the referendum date approaches, it is likely that the Darfur region and other areas of tension (all along the South-North border areas, which have still not been formally delineated) will witness a military build up and clashes. The sustained tensions are imbuing the historic referendum, which will likely grant independence to South Sudan, with considerable drama as the significant interests that exist in Sudan, the largest African country by area, could lead to a resumption of the civil war that ended in 2005 with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA).

The CPA closed an almost twenty year-long war, estimated to have killed two million people. The mostly Christian and animist South gained partial autonomy and a separate administration in the capital of Juba through the CPA and has had time to re-arm. A resumption of hostilities now could therefore be characterized by even more intense fighting.

While the referendum date approaches, the United States, which has generally backed the South, has urged Sudanese leaders and international organizations to ensure better preparations for the vote. More importantly, recognizing that Khartoum is not at all willing to renounce the revenues from the oil deposits (oil accounts for 98% of national revenue), most of which are located in the South and Abyei, the United States have suggested that authorities in Juba be ready to make some concessions to Khartoum, if they wish to avoid war.

At the international level, China is especially worried by the prospect of war because it derives some 7% of its oil imports from Sudan. Regionally, Egypt, which along with China is one of the main backers of president Hassan el-Bashir and a united Sudan, is concerned by disputes over the flow of the Nile waters, while Kenya and Ethiopia look to the South’s independence as an opportunity to extend their influence and investment. Kenya, in particular, has much to gain from South Sudanese independence. Kenya now leads in foreign direct investment and its companies are already involved in building infrastructure. South Sudan also relies on Kenya for transportation links, airports, seaports, and most of its imports.

The referendum itself is already wrought with technical problems. The voter registration process has not yet begun and it is still unclear as to who will be eligible to vote, even as the residents of Abyei, who will vote whether to stay with the North or join South Sudan, have already started to compose a new national anthem and started planning a rhinoceros-shaped piece of architecture for the new capital.

France, the United States and Britain are very concerned by the Abyei issue, blaming the Sudanese government for accepting and then rejecting the region’s border delineations imposed by the International Court in The Hague. President al-Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP) is therefore being seen as attempting to stall the referendum, hoping to postpone it. The NCP wants Arab tribes, the Misseriya, which are loyal to it, to be able to vote in the Abyei referendum, an aspect that has been rejected by South Sudan’s negotiator. The NCP is very concerned about the oil deposits in Abyei and is already setting up a situation that could resemble Darfur, as it has armed friendly Arab nomadic tribes, the Baggara, to control the oil deposits and force tribes friendly to the South (The Nuer and Dinka) to leave. The SPLA says that it will not declare independence unilaterally should Khartoum manage to stall the referendum; however, South Sudan has also asked the UN to deploy more peacekeepers along the North-South border to increase the buffer, which suggests that unilateral declarations cannot be ruled out. In addition, the SPLA claims that Khartoum has been amassing as many as 70,000 well-armed troops along the North-South border, including helicopters and tanks in order to launch an invasion, before or after the referendum. Khartoum claims that the South has failed to move back its own troops from the border area as demanded by the CPA.

China vs. USA and Regional Games in Referendum Talks
The United States are clearly backing South Sudan in ensuring that the referendum takes place as planned; the US is also training the South Sudanese army, the SPLM/A to transform it from the guerrilla style armed force it was until 2005 to a proper national army. Ethiopia and Kenya, allies of Washington and the GOSS in Juba, have sent weapons to the SPLM. Nevertheless, Khartoum has allowed the originally Ugandan based rebel/bandit group of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) – now classified as a terrorist group – to train in the area of Bhar el-Ghazal, which they use as a base for raids within and beyond the current Sudanese borders. Apart from the fact that the arming of all parties in the Sudanese conflict was specifically banned by the UN Security Council shortly after the CPA was signed in 2005, the LRA represents a very real threat to South Sudan. Should no agreement be reached over the South’s oil deposits, Khartoum can use the LRA as a proxy army to disrupt South Sudan and its regional allies after separation, or, in the weeks leading to the referendum.

China, meanwhile, opposes the secession of South Sudan and Chinese diplomats have formally asked for the referendum date to be pushed back, or to reach an accord for a transition period between the vote and the actual secession, in talks at the UN and in Addis Abeba. Beijing is afraid that the immediate secession of South Sudan could lead to a crisis in Sudan and an eventual blown out civil war, which would damage Chinese energy and economic interests along with its relations with Khartoum itself, raising tensions with the United States, which has clearly been backing South Sudan. The GOSS has reassured Beijing that it would safeguard Chinese investments in South Sudan, and oil in particular, beyond the January 9, 2011 referendum. China imports a significant amount of its oil from Sudan and many Chinese technicians and engineers work in the Sudanese oil sector. China, for its part, is Sudan’s main arms supplier. This would necessarily remain a cause of contention between Beijing and Juba, and South Sudan could alter its promise to China in the event of war.

The Nile Issue and Regional Hydro-Politics
South Sudan - and Ethiopia, one of South Sudan’s main backers - has long been regarded as a potential source of conflict over control of the Nile waters. Egypt, Khartoum’s main regional ally, is especially concerned that conflict in South Sudan could threaten its own water supply. During the protracted civil war that ended in 2005, Egypt was less concerned by the conflict because of the limited prospects for southern independence. However, a sovereign South Sudanese state, acting in conjunction with its ally Ethiopia, represents a threat to the water supply. Egypt and Ethiopia have already been bickering over the Nile. Ethiopia, wants to use Nile waters to supply a newly built hydroelectricity station in order to produce and export energy. Cairo is concerned that the project would disrupt the flow of the Nile, 85% of which stems from Ethiopia, which it considers a matter of national survival. Egypt claims colonial era treaties to support its demands. Ethiopia has led calls to revise the international treaties and an independent South Sudan would probably back Ethiopia on this issue, while placing an additional obstacle in Egypt’s Nile flow control policy – Egypt and North Sudan will have one more state to deal with.

Egypt has been keen to develop ties to South Sudan, but it fears that the new state will be drawn into an Arab vs. African dispute that will push the new South Sudanese state inevitably closer to its non-Arab neighbors. More specifically, Egypt is worried about the fate of the Jonglei Canal, construction of which started in 1980, in the Upper Nile province of South Sudan. The canal is intended to divert the course of the White Nile, while it flows through the Sudd swamp in South Sudan. The canal’s construction ended in 1983 due to the breakout of civil war between North and South Sudan. Egypt intends to proceed with the project, while South Sudan has already voiced its reservations. It is difficult to see that a fully sovereign South Sudan would allow Egypt to proceed with the project as it stands. Considerable re-negotiations will be needed. In addition, in May 2010, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda signed the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework challenging the 1959 accord between Egypt and Sudan that gave them control of more than 90% of the Nile waters.

Proxy wars
It is likely that the independent state of South Sudan would also join this agreement, which Cairo and Khartoum oppose. Egypt has been known to put overt and covert pressure on Ethiopia to secure the Nile river flow, in what has been a long-standing policy of securing the Nile River flow by destabilizing Ethiopia. Egypt ensures that Ethiopia is distracted in wars in neighboring areas such as Somalia. Ethiopia has long accused Egypt of offering training and intelligence to separatists during the civil war period (leading to the separation of Ethiopia and Eritrea). A 2006 UN report suggested of the Islamic Courts militia (part of which morphed into the current al-Shabab militia in Somalia, which fought against the Ethiopian army until 2008), that there are Egyptian elements within the al-Shabab militia itself. An unresolved Nile dispute, and the rise of a new State with an important stake in revising all the treaties that have given Cairo and Khartoum most of the control over the river flow until now, will only serve to exacerbate existing regional tensions. Egypt has not hidden its preference for the referendum to be postponed, fearing violence and the flight of thousands of Sudanese refugees across its border; nevertheless, the post referendum scenario is not entirely gloomy.

It is in Both Sides’ Interest to Avoid War
The important oil resources that are almost entirely extracted in the South are exported via a series of pipelines that lead to North Sudan. North and South will necessarily have to cooperate in order to ensure that oil and oil revenues keep flowing. China, where Sudan exports some 60% of its oil, has made important diplomatic overtures to South Sudan, while Chinese companies have talked to the Kenyan government about building an oil pipeline leading from the South Sudanese wells to the Kenyan port of Lamu, obviating the need to ship oil through Port Sudan.

Washington is using carrot and stick diplomacy to mitigate the potential for the resumption of civil war and certainly before the South-North divide becomes an international crisis. The US has promised Khartoum to lift its status as a terrorism-sponsoring nation by May 2011, remove sanctions, lift a ban on non-oil sector investment, and presumably release pressure on its handing of the Darfur rebellion in exchange for Khartoum’s observance of the current referendum schedule and outcome.

Sudan has an almost USD 40 billion dollar debt, which Washington can help reduce by helping to broker a plan with other countries and international financial institutions. In addition, Washington, the South’s principal international political and financial aid backer, can put pressure on Juba to secure an equitable split in oil revenues between the North and the South for a number of years. If the United States will go to such lengths to secure a peaceful separation, China is adamant in avoiding any conflict in order to ensure that Sudan keeps exporting close to 500,000 barrels a day of crude oil. The US can also use its incentives for North Sudan to help bring about a solution in Darfur in the longer term. It is crucial that the referendum proceed, nonetheless. The six month transition period between the referendum and the formal declaration of South Sudan (whose name will likely change) as an independent state, will also be a crucial time to test the ‘carrots’ offered by the foreign player with a stake in stability in North and South Sudan. The main risk is lurking in the period immediately preceding the referendum. If Khartoum continues to adopt an aggressive stance, the South could declare independence unilaterally, prompting a likely military response from Khartoum – with diplomatic backing from Egypt. North Sudan could also try to seize the oil fields in Abyei and the South, knowing this would trigger a military response and Washington’s cancellation of any of the incentives it has offered.

The most important issue, symbolically and logistically, now remains the demarcation of the borders; this should be concluded before the referendum takes place. Should this not be completed in time, Washington should urge a delay in the vote; the alternative would be a situation not unlike that which exists between Eritrea and Ethiopia, which even now maintain a state of war over a badly resolved border dispute after a similar self-determination referendum in 1993. Eritrea and Ethiopia continue to pursue their dispute by proxy and largely at the expense of Somalia. North Sudan can count on a number of destabilizing forces to deploy against Juba, should crucial aspects such as borders fail to be settled before the vote.

In 2011, South Sudan will one way or another, gain independence. Whilst there is a strong potential for the resumption of civil war, there are significant international incentives and interests that would be better served by a peaceful outcome. That said, while war may be averted on a larger scale, the scope of vital regional resource interest, and water in particular, will prompt continued proxy war activity, making it difficult to eliminate such regional menaces as the LRA and other militias, which continue to destabilize the East African area.