Africa’s Largest Country Faces Split

ON January 9 2011, one of Africa’s most protracted and violent border disputes is likely to come to an abrupt end with the continent’s largest country splitting into two, thereby perhaps sounding the death knell to the long cherished dream of a united Africa.

Sudan, a country the size of a quarter of the United States, will hold a referendum in the southern part of the country, which will decide whether this vast oil and mineral-rich state, whose political and economic fortunes have largely been determined by the Arab ruling clique in the north – remains united or splits into two distinct countries: the predominantly Moslem and Arab north and the Christian, black south.

The irony of it all though, is – while the rest of the country’s population of 35 million holds its breath – this momentous decision will only be arrived at by 51% of the current population living in the area currently identified as South Sudan.   But even the identity on who is legible to cast the decisive ballot in South Sudan is not a done deal.

In a recent interview, the Vice President of the government of South Sudan, Dr. Riek Machar Teny said only 80% of the demarcation of the North-South border had been agreed upon.   The demarcation of the North-South border should be agreed upon by a joint committee of the ruling National Congress Party of Sudan’s President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) – which runs the government in South Sudan after a complex AU/UN-brokered deal reached in 2005 between Bashir and the then SPLM strongman, the late John Garang de Mabior.

Machar Teny a fortnight ago told a visiting Faouad Hikmat, the Special Adviser for the AU and Sudan in the International Crisis Group (ICC), that the January referendum on southern Sudan’s “independence” (or secession) would be conducted even without the complete demarcation of the North-South border.

Elsiddieg Abdalla, Sudan’s Ambassador in Zimbabwe, says while it is possible to tell who is eligible to vote in the crucial referendum, the result would have been more credible if the demarcation was completed before the vote.  Abdalla says even before the referendum is held, more effort should have been exerted to promote unity because a split Sudan would be disastrous for Africa.

“Why are we Africans not saying we are for a united Sudan,” said Ambassador Abdalla in a recent interview with a Zimbabwean newspaper, Masvingo Mirror.  He however said his government “was fully committed” to the referendum and its results even though such an important decision should have been taken by at least 80% of the population of southern Sudan, rather the simple majority of 51%, who will decide the fate of Africa’s largest country.

He lamented that the five year window provided for in the 2005 peace deal, which ended almost two decades of war between the North and South, and allowed for a semi autonomous government in South Sudan to be in place before the referendum, might have been wasted.  Abdalla said the five years would have been better utilized by both parties promoting unity rather than just as a prelude to the referendum during which the southerners were likely to vote for secession.

Abdalla said Africa should also shoulder part of the blame if Sudan splits into two come January.  He warned that the secession of southern Sudan was likely to promote similar movements and sentiments among people in other parts of Africa who felt such actions would best address their own civil conflicts.   Countries such as Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Chad, Uganda, Somalia, Morocco and Egypt – among others – might face similar problems.   Most of these countries share a border with the Sudan.

“This is one of the most disturbed regions in Africa … this is why some people say Sudan is Africa,” Ambassador said Abdalla, adding: “We expected a more positive role from the Africans … just saying we’re supporting the cause of the southerners is not enough.”

What compounds the situation in southern Sudan is that there are currently at least 15 rebel groups fighting the South Sudan (SPLM) government, according to the Khartoum government.   To further complicate matters, there are also rampant reports of roaming murderous cattle rustlers who have made parts of this vast region ungovernable.

Machar Teny, on the other hand, however told the ICC that the government of South Sudan was capable of talking to SPLM breakaway factions such as those led by disgruntled former generals George Athor Deng, Gatluak Gai and David Yauyau, to address their grievances and bring peace to the region before the referendum.

His optimism is not shared by the rebels.   In a recent interview with Reuters, Athor Deng said his militia was continually engaged in pitched battles with his former comrades in the South Sudan Army, which was created from the SPLM’s military wing.   Athor Deng says he launched a revolt against the South Sudan government because he was cheated in the race for the governorship of a province in the region during national elections held in April.

On the other hand, southern Sudanese leaders – such as Machar Teny – accuse the Khartoum government of bankrolling militias to destabilize the region, a charge denied by the northerners.

Besides addressing the North-South borders, the demarcation exercise is critical to determine who gets the lion’s share of some of Sudan’s richest oil fields, most of which are in an area which the government of South Sudan says belongs to them, say analysts.

They say the struggle over who should get the oil fields between the governments of the North and South after the demarcation of the borders had also sucked in various Western intelligence organisations who are now involved in an intense jockeying for power in South Sudan.

Even without the complexities of the problems of South Sudan and the real possibility of secession in January next year, Sudan is also grappling with the human rights abuses rampant in Darfur, a region as large as France where the Khartoum government’s reaction to hostilities and suppression of rebels has led to Bashir being accused of war crimes and genocide by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Ambassador Abdalla says the ICC charge against Bashir is just another case of hypocrisy by Western governments who are keen to weaken strong African leaders.   He says the West wants to wrestle Khartoum’s hold on Darfur’s rich resources of uranium and oil.   Currently, almost 30% of Sudan’s income is from the Darfur region.

“These resources have become a curse for the Sudan and the region.   The people of Darfur have become the victims of their massive resources,” said Ambassador Abdalla, at his offices in the leafy Harare suburb of Belgravia.

He said the Darfur conflict was however likely to be resolved soon following the resumption of talks between the Khartoum government and the largest of the armed movements, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), in Qatar.  The so-called Doha Peace Talks are being sponsored by the Qatari government and supported by the Islamic Council, the Arab League, the AU, the United States and the Egyptian and Chadian governments.

“We trust Qatar very much because they have no interests in Darfur.   We strongly believe Qatar could be a very fruitful and genuine mediator,” said Abdalla.

But even the Doha Peace Talks are not smooth-sailing into agreement.   As the talks resumed this month, the rebels were still divided on whether to form a united front before starting negotiations with the Khartoum government.   Amin Hasan Omer, the government’s chief negotiator, however said the negotiations could resume either with the multiple parties or with the rebels as one united umbrella body.

As part of efforts to find lasting peace in Darfur, the Qatari government is dangling a $1 billion carrot “to rebuild the region”, if an agreement is reached.    The fund is also expected to deal with the vexatious issue of compensation of those displaced by the war.

Some analysts say had such an offer been made in South Sudan, and the offer spiced with a resolve from the Khartoum government to deal with the contentious issue of Sharia law, the January referendum could have been a non-starter and Africa’s largest country might have remained united.

David Masunda is a Trustee of Voice of the People and a Zimbabwean media consultant.