Splitting Sudan: High Hurdles For A New Nation

Women from southern Sudan wave goodbye to northern Sudan as they wait to vote at a polling station in the town of Bentiu on Jan. 9.

Women from southern Sudan wave as they wait to vote at a polling station in the town of Bentiu on Jan. 9. Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images

They've picked a name, but that's about all that's been decided.

The final tally of a weeklong referendum on secession held in south Sudan that began Jan. 9 won't be known until next month. But preliminary results indicate that nearly 99 percent of voters supported the plan to break away from the national government based in Khartoum.

The new Republic of South Sudan is set to formally become independent in July. But the practical issues involved in dividing Sudan, which is Africa's largest nation in terms of land mass, have hardly been addressed at all. And the possibility of violence or war remains uncomfortably high.

Questions about how the north and south will split repayments of Sudan's international debts or share resources such as oil and water — or even where the new border will be drawn — have not been resolved. South Sudan also faces enormous challenges in trying to build a modern nation in an area that has barely been developed.

"It would have been preferable if some of these things would have been clarified earlier," says Daniel Serwer, a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. "It would have been nice if southerners knew what independence would mean before voting."

Roots Of The Conflict

The referendum was the result of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005, which brought an end to two decades of civil war — just one of the bouts of conflict that have intermittently but persistently plagued Sudan since it gained independence from Britain and Egypt in 1956.

The largely Muslim and Arab north had long discriminated against the south, which is home primarily to Christians and animists. One of the worrisome unknowns is the question of how the million southerners who remain internally displaced in the north will be treated following the split.

Last fall, two Sudanese Cabinet ministers announced that if the south were to secede, southerners living in Khartoum would lose such rights as the ability to hold a job or even buy food. Their comments were quickly rebutted by President Omar al-Bashir.

Bashir said he will accept the results of the referendum, but his is not a universally held position in the north. Bashir's party may come under siege from more fundamentalist factions. A coup attempt was turned back in 2008, but not before reaching a bridge near the presidential palace.

"The umbrella organization of opposition parties in Khartoum is already making statements to the effect that Bashir has failed to preserve a unified country," says John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria who is now a senior fellow for Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Dividing The Spoils

Khartoum in the north and Juba in the south will be capitals of fragile states facing huge difficulties. Aside from the potential for political and tribal factionalism, each half of the current Sudan will have difficulty developing its economy.

Divvying up the resources that do exist will not be easy. The bulk of the oil is in the South, but infrastructure such as pipelines and a port are in the north. The Nile River also flows north, but shared water rights have yet to be determined.

The boundary between the two prospective countries has not been set — and the status of the Abyei territory, which straddles the likely boundary area, is still up in the air.

A polling official carries a ballot box in Juba on Jan. 15 as polls closed in south Sudan's landmark independence vote.

A polling official carries a ballot box in Juba as polls closed Jan. 15 in south Sudan's landmark independence vote. ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

Abyei is home to mostly Christian or animist farmers who identify with the South. But it is also territory where northern Muslim herders bring their flocks for part of the year. Despite southern assurances that the herders will still be allowed to come into the territory, this is not a firm guarantee — especially if violence breaks out.

A separate referendum to determine in which country the Abyei territory would fall was supposed to take place simultaneously in Abyei — but has been put on hold.

"The referendum may solve the north-south problem — this is questionable, but it might," says Eiman O. Zein-Elabdin, an economist at Franklin & Marshall College who directs the independent Sudan Institute for Research and Policy. "But the fear is that this will be only the first step of the disintegration of Sudan into several smaller countries."

Zein-Elabdin also suggests stability is uncertain.

"The entire northeast corner of Africa could be destabilized," he says, "because Sudan borders on nine different countries."

No Border, No Peace

When two countries do not have a clearly demarcated border, notes Serwer, the SAIS senior fellow, this is bound to be a continuing source of instability.

Some of the recent tensions between North and South Korea revolved around disputed maritime borders. Since Pakistan's partition from India in 1947, the two nations have fought wars and continue to devote much of their military energy to the question of Kashmir, territory that both nations claim.

A future Sudanese border war is certainly possible. Optimists hope that, after Sudan is divided into two nations, each will come to respect the other's borders and resources, if only out of mutual need.

The two countries would remain so intertwined economically, Serwer says, that recognition of the importance of cooperation may provide the best defense against renewed violence.

"There are a whole lot of things that need to be settled in the aftermath of the referendum," he says. "Peace isn't something that happens automatically."

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