Sudan's Split: As South Cheers, the North Protests

  • Share
  • Read Later
Phil Moore / AFP / Getty Images

Sudanese celebrate in Juba following the announcement of the preliminary results of the South Sudan referendum on Jan. 30, 2011

The people of Sudan's southern capital, Juba, broke out in exuberant song and dance on Sunday, Jan. 30, as the inevitable became official: in July, Sudan will split into two new nations. Sudanese officials announced that southerners had voted nearly 99% in favor of separation during a Jan. 9-15 referendum. The result itself is no surprise, but after 50 years of struggle and a decade of grueling international diplomacy, many southerners could barely believe the day had finally arrived. "We always thought this was a dream," said Ayat Jervase, 32, a doctor who was among those dancing in celebration. "Now it has come true."

But as Juba partied, Sudan's northern capital, Khartoum, became the latest major city in the Arab world to be shrouded in clouds of tear gas. Inspired by their peers in Tunisia and neighboring Egypt, Sudanese students took to the streets in the capital and other university towns across northern Sudan. The Arab government of strongman Omar Hassan al-Bashir, rattled by its role in the country's impending partition and facing a looming economic crisis because of the loss of the South's oil, deployed baton-wielding riot police who arrested suspected ringleaders, beat street protesters and surrounded universities. By nightfall, the demonstrators had dispersed.

For the North's authoritarian regime, the Arab world's wave of discontent could not have come at a worse time. Even before Tunisia and Egypt erupted in popular revolt, the South's secession promised tough times for al-Bashir's regime. As the South goes, so go 80% of Sudan's oil reserves, the northern government's main revenue stream. Al-Bashir also has a list of other financial headaches: a mountain of foreign debt, now nearly $40 billion; an economy threatened by a lack of investment in agriculture; depleting foreign-currency reserves; and rapid inflation. In early January, Khartoum enacted a series of austerity measures to try to stabilize the economy, including slashing fuel and food subsidies.

Just as in Tunisia and Egypt, rising food prices — as well as official corruption and lack of jobs — became a central rallying cry for protesters in northern Sudan. Likewise, the people largely organized themselves online. Almost overnight, demonstrators attracted 15,000 supporters to a Facebook group dedicated to organizing and publicizing the Sunday protests. Then, with the help of Ushahidi — an East African tech group that maps political protests and violence — they launched a website to track the course of their campaign.

Though the methods may have changed, Sudan is no stranger to popular revolt. Twice in the past five decades, in 1964 and 1985, dictators in Khartoum have been overthrown by peaceful popular uprisings. When former al-Bashir ally and now Islamist opposition leader Hassan al-Turabi called for a Tunisia-like government overthrow in an interview on Jan. 17, he was imprisoned hours later.

For now, however, al-Bashir remains in charge in Khartoum. The protests have not spread far beyond students. Civil-society groups like the trade unions that featured in previous uprisings have long been infiltrated and neutralized by al-Bashir's National Congress Party. Opposition parties are weak. "You don't yet have the level of inequality in Khartoum that you have in other Arab capitals," says Giorgio Musso, a researcher on the NCP at the University of Genoa in Italy.

Outside the northern capital, however, violence is a constant. The rebellion in Darfur continues. Resentment of the regime's marginalization of Sudan's peripheries also festers in other states, notably Kordofan and Blue Nile. In January, a new rebel group emerged in central Sudan, focused on grievances related to farming schemes. Northern and southern Sudan also still have yet to decide on their common border; the town of Abyei, in particular, is hotly disputed, and clashes between the southern-supported Ngok Dinka tribe and the northern-backed Misseriya cattle herders continue.

It is a bloody equation southerners remember all too well. Oppression and war at the hands of Khartoum have left the soon-to-be nation one of the least developed areas in the world, and racial and religious tensions still bring the blood here to a boil. Most southern Sudanese, who are mainly non-Muslim Africans, see their years of war as resistance to northern attempts to Islamicize the South and pin it under Arab rule. "The mistreatment that they [northerners] have subjected southerners to, [treating them as] sub-humans — this is what brought people to this day," declared the South's leader, Salva Kiir, in a speech after the referendum results were announced on Sunday. All of which is why, as Khartoum's streets filled with angry cries for regime change, more than 700 miles (1,100 km) to the south, Ayat Jervase was hugging friends and waving her hands in the air in celebration of the promise of leaving that part of Sudan behind. "At last we will have a country where no one will ask me to be a Muslim or an Arab," she exclaimed. If it was authoritarianism that pushed South Sudan to break away from the North, the question now is, Could it tear apart the rest of the country too?