The Future of Sudan – One State or Several?

Sudan map
A map showing Sudan’s conflict areas

AFRICANGLOBE – Sudan’s President, General Ahmed Al-Bashir and South Sudan’s President Silva Kiir met in Addis Ababa on 4th January for talks aimed at resolving their on-going conflict. But this has all happened before, and is likely to happen again, until they come to address the underlying causes of the conflict.

Sudan is a country of extreme ethno-cultural diversity with some 80 or more ethnic groups, mostly, territorially-based, whose interests have long been subordinated to those of Khartoum-based elites.

Sudan’s internal wars appear to be increasing rather than decreasing. The new wars in the Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile regions are expanding, while the long-standing Darfur conflict continues unabated.

A key question is how long can Khartoum manage to continue fighting in three regions ranging from its western to eastern borders? This has consumed crucial resources at a time where these are rapidly diminished since Khartoum lost control of South Sudan’s oil production.

Sudan’s 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), mediated by the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), sought to address the problems of Sudan’s diversity through the decentralization of powers.

However, its Interim National Constitution was more federal in form than in practice and the ‘CPA was not ‘comprehensive’ enough. It was essentially an agreement between the two main belligerent parties and largely addressed the interests of Khartoum’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP), and the South’s dominant Southern Peoples Liberation Movement/Army(SPLM/A).

The CPA gave little attention to Sudan’s other groups, including the SPLM’s allies in South Kordofan, and Blue Nile, and rebel movements in Darfur and among the Beja of the Northeast. It offered Khartoum what appeared to be an opportunity to continue its traditional strategies of ‘divide and rule,’ but the result has been continued conflict.

What was known as the ‘Southern Problem’ was, and remains, the problem of Khartoum – of a state that has yet to learn to accept the inhabitants of its peripheral regions as citizens equal to those of Khartoum, and the “Arab” populations to its north along the Nile.

The “Southern Problem” has gone its way and become the new Republic of South Sudan, but has not been resolved. Calling it the “Southern Problem” may have only served to divert attention from the true nature of what was, and remains, the bigger “Sudanese Problem.”

The CPA, while it provided the South with the possibility of a referendum on independence, also offered Khartoum an opportunity to avoid the secession of the South by providing for a six year interim period during which it would have the chance to ‘make unity attractive.

‘But ‘making unity attractive,’ was never likely to happen. It would have required breaking the hold of the traditional northern elites on Sudan’s central government, and the powers that have enabled them to control the country’s economy and exploit its resources to the detriment of the populations of its peripheral areas.

It would also have required accused war criminal General Ahmed Al-Bashir’s Islamist NCP Government to give up its ideology of forcible Arabization and Islamization of the Sudanese peoples, its justification for its seizure of their resources for the benefit of the Khartoum-based elites. This, they found difficult to accept.

Sudan’s decades of conflict continue with no end in sight. The recent arrest of key security officials is indicative of what may have been a failed coup attempt.

It is indicative, as well of the difficulties of organizing a successful one. President Al-Bashir is well aware of such dangers to his regime and has taken measures to divide his security forces to make a coup more difficult, including concentrating power in a small circle of trusted officials.

Overall, Al-Bashir’s regime is in deep trouble and facing multiple problems that could threaten its existence. In particular it faces an economic crisis that even agreement with South Sudan to resume the flow of oil is unlikely to resolve, and an increasingly hard-pressed urban public.

He talks of addressing the economic crisis by increasing gold exports to seemingly most unlikely levels, but most of Sudan’s gold production is in the hands of small artisanal miners and never passes through government hands. The miners prefer to sell their gold to black market operators who have their own means of exporting it and pay a better price.

Meanwhile, the Sudanese economy is in freefall. The wars in South Kordofan, Blue Nile State, and Darfur, led by the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) are draining the treasury and weakening the military. The urban population, in particular, is feeling the economic pressure and as fuel and food subsidies are affected.

As life becomes increasingly difficult for the urban poor and middle classes, opposition to Al-Bashir’s NCP regime is on the rise, and with it, some say, the possibility of the sort of popular uprising that has in the past unseated similar regimes in Khartoum. But Sudan has changed since those days and Al-Bashir is more ruthless than its previous post-independence rulers.

As usual when confronted by opposition, the Khartoum regime has opted for a military solution, but its capacity to impose one appears to be diminishing.