Sudan: Will the North Survive if the South Secedes?

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Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah / Reuters

Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir

In its relatively short life, Sudan has endured two bloody civil wars; famines and slave raids; a reputation as the onetime home of Osama bin Laden; and now a President indicted for genocide and war crimes — the sort of history that makes you wonder if the nation should have been created at all. Sudan was troubled from its birth when, in 1956, the British handed over power to the Arab northern elite, despite the country's vast ethnic and cultural pluralities, setting the parameters for one of the world's most dysfunctional states. So it is not surprising that the southerners — who have suffered through the two civil wars, from 1956-72 and 1983-2005, which left 2 million people dead and 4 million displaced — are pulling the plug on Africa's largest nation. The voting in a referendum on southern independence — the key component of a 2005 peace deal — began on Jan. 9 and will last until Jan. 15; the results, not in doubt, should be announced later in the month or in early February.

In the south, the vote has sparked rapturous rejoicing. But in the north, resentment and resignation reigns. "Sorrow and pain fills my heart," says Ashraf Abdurrahman, a 26-year-old engineer in the northern capital of Khartoum. The mood goes deeper than mere sentiment. Roughly 80% of Sudan's oil reserves are in the south. Previously, oil revenues were channeled overwhelmingly to the ruling elite and Khartoum, which has gone from a dusty frontier town to a booming city with a jutting skyline, an island of prosperity in a desert of poverty and disease. By contrast, the authorities in Juba, the southern capital, are only now paving the city's streets and putting up electricity lines. Aid and development workers have flooded the south ahead of the referendum in an attempt to build some semblance of a nation in time for its independence. Once the country splits, the pro-north dynamic will likely reverse. Northerners are predicting a bleak future. "Things will not be the same," says Wafi Adam, a recent university graduate who says he's already feeling the pinch. "Food prices are getting higher. And there are no jobs." Adurrahman concludes, "When the oil goes, the north will suffer."

Some ask whether the north will continue at all. For now, it will still be ruled by the same leaders whose prioritizing of the center at the expense of the country's peripheries fueled rebellion not just in southern Sudan but also in the east, in the central-southern states of Kordofan and the Blue Nile, and in the west in Darfur. That is likely to stir more resentment and continuing violence. Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir has already escalated the war in Darfur in recent months, even as millions of Darfuris remain in refugee camps. Tension is also building in the Blue Nile state, where the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) — the new rulers of the soon-to-be-independent south — already has the governorship, and in Kordofan, which is holding an election in April. Al-Bashir may have pleased the international community by allowing the south to go. But he has also likely alienated hard-line Islamists in his own National Congress Party (NCP) as well as the commanders of the Sudanese military. Hence his announcement that after the south leaves, what remains will become an Islamic republic subject to Shari'a law.

Despite a crackdown on their activities, Sudan's opposition parties smell blood. "After secession, [the north] will be in a new state," says Farouq Abu Eissa, spokesman for the National Consensus Alliance, the opposition coalition. "We need a new constitution and an interim government." Failure to produce these, he adds, will likely lead to street protests, even a popular revolution. Yasir Arman, head of SPLM's northern branch, says his party wants "dialogue and change," and if that does not happen, "there will be a confrontation for sure."

The NCP claims to be willing to listen. "We do not have an objection to sitting with all political parties to discuss a new constitution," says Rabi Abdel-Atti, an NCP communications official. But few are prepared to believe that, given the NCP's past preference to settle disputes with violence. Hafiz Mohammed, director of human-rights group Justice Africa-Sudan, expects a rebellion soon. "I don't think it will take long — less than a year," he says. "[The NCP] has made Sudan too difficult to govern." Sudan, as we know it, is at an end. But the death of one troubled state may just mean the creation of two more.