Western donors would be wise to resist the temptation to pour money into the south as a counterweight to Khartoum
Two countries will be created when more than 3 million Sudanese vote in a referendum on independence on 9 January. South Sudan will be reborn for the first time in over half a century, an act of secession which should put to rest the ghosts of Africa’s longest and bloodiest civil war. North Sudan, however, will not be able to emerge from this process unchanged.
President Omar Hassan al-Bashir vowed in his last speech to turn Sudan into a state governed by sharia law if the south chose to secede. Although the north is largely governed by Islamic law already, an interim constitution which recognised the country’s ethnic and religious diversity would be overturned. The number of Christians living in the north is hotly disputed, but their ability to live in whichever part of the country they wish and to move freely across the border after a new state in the south is created would be integral to any post-referendum settlement. Al-Bashir’s incendiary words were intended to raise the spectre of mass expulsions.
His were not the only noises off. Sudan’s army attacked a rebel group in a village in South Darfur, which was also an attempt to draw the southern ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), into the fray. This was preceded by a series of bombing raids on its territory, which the northern army denied any involvement in, even though theirs is the only airforce around.
Day by day, the referendum is becoming a reality and with it the realisation that both sides will have to find a means of living with each other. There will be a number of hurdles. The first is whether al-Bashir’s National Congress party (NCP) recognises the result.
Their intentions are notoriously hard to read, and some observers doubt they themselves know how to play it. As the International Crisis Group said last month, the NCP feels threatened by the break-up, especially as it is about to lose the majority share of its most profitable resource – oil – and seeks assurances that the new capital in the south, Juba, will not side with opposition parties. The NCP do not want to be blamed for breaking the country up. The SPLM wants the reassurance that the referendum will take place, and once in, will be recognised, and not challenged in court. Neither side want to commit to a post-referendum deal before they get those assurances.
The optimistic scenario is that mutual reliance will bind the two countries together. About three quarters of Sudan’s 500,000 barrels of oil each day come from the south. The existing agreement to share the revenues of oil produced in the south was the single biggest factor behind the success of the comprehensive peace agreement which ended the civil war. But that ends with the referendum and a new deal will have to hatched. Until a southern export pipeline is built, the oil has to go through the north, so the deal will hinge on how much of a cut it gets and for how long.
Then there is the question of negotiating a new international border. If Khartoum expels southerners living in the north, the south could reply by stopping the southern migration of nomadic cattle-herding groups which are an important constituency for the NCP. The obvious solution is to have an open border with clear rules for cross-border movements.
Both sides have to realise that they rely on each other, not just on oil and the border, but a common currency and issues like Sudan’s external debt. Western donors will be tempted to pour money into the south as a counterweight to Khartoum. But it’s a temptation they would be wise to resist. Differential treatment would entrench the divide between north and south. The referendum on 9 January will be only the start of a long and hard transition period in which a number of vital deals will have to be hammered out. Next year will be a defining period for Sudan, both north and south.