Sudan: Preparing for a peaceful southern secession

December 17, 2009

francois_grignon_apr09_206[1]- François Grignon is Director of the Africa Program at the International Crisis Group. the opinions expressed are his own. -

Four years ago, the Sudanese people were promised a brighter future. A peace deal had finally ended the two-decades-long civil war between north and south, which killed more than two million people and devastated the south. But today, that bright future is looking decidedly tarnished, and Sudan is sliding towards violent breakup.

At the core of the current political crisis are delays in implementing key benchmarks laid out in the 2005 deal, known as the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The referendum on independence for the South, a key pillar of the arrangement, is due in January 2011. Before that referendum takes place, Sudan must hold national elections. These are now set for April 2010.

But President Omar al Bashir’s government has failed to pass key democratic reforms promised by the Agreement, and without these reforms, there is no way the results of the elections will be accepted and offer a milestone for the peace process.

On the contrary, fraudulent elections engineered to strengthen Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP), close the doors to political negotiations in Darfur and undermine the southern-based Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) both in the South and in national institutions.

A sham poll would most likely lead to a new escalation of violence in Darfur and compromise the holding of the referendum. And if the referendum does not go ahead on schedule, the South will probably declare unilateral independence, plunging. Sudan back into civil war.

Tensions have been rising between the NCP in the north and the SPLM in the South. In October, the southern leader, Salva Kiir, for the first time openly called for the South to secede from Sudan. Both sides are rearming. Needless to say, another civil war would be devastating for the Sudanese people, as well as the entire horn of Africa.

The recent progress of NCP-SPLM negotiations on the South Sudan referendum law, the Abyei area referendum and the popular consultations in South Khordofan and Blue Nile regions are positive steps, but they remain largely insufficient to bring back genuine momentum to the peace process. While democratic reforms have been non-existent in the north and remain essential for the elections, agreements still need to be found on border demarcation, demilitarisation of the border areas, the census results, and oil revenue sharing, ahead of the South’s self-determination referendum.

The Comprehensive Peace Agreement and the Darfur parts of the peace process need to be brought back together and a new calendar of implementation negotiated. To prevent a new escalation of violence in the north, all Darfuris need to be able to participate in the elections: at present, more than two million Darfuris trapped in camps are unlikely to have the right to vote in Sudan’s first polls in 24 years. It is also essential for everyone to accept where the Comprehensive Peace Agreement is headed and plan accordingly.

In 2005, unity between north and south was still a possibility. Now, secession by the South is almost certain. If so, it is essential to bring about a smooth separation and ensure that both states — in whatever form — can peacefully coexist after 2011. There is a great deal of work to be done, but the international community has some leverage. The NCP badly wants these elections to go ahead in order to relegitimise its rule and protect Bashir from the International Criminal Court’s arrest warrant issued against him earlier this year.
In addition, Khartoum would like the U.S. to lift sanctions and normalise relations. The EU will likely fund a large part of the electoral process. Meanwhile, the UN has 30,000 peacekeepers in Sudan serving in its two missions.

The international community now really needs to start working together if it is to make a real difference in Sudan. The UN and the African Union should appoint a lead mediator who should then develop an all-Sudan strategy, reaffirming its commitment to Comprehensive Peace Agreement implementation and in particular to the holding the Southern Sudan referendum in January 2011.

The mediator should simultaneously propose to negotiate an addendum to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, reviewing the election calendar to give time to key democratic reforms and guarantee fair Darfuri participation.

The addendum should also include a genuine political settlement for Darfur and address the concrete modalities of the likely separation and necessary transition of sovereignty to a new state of Southern Sudan after the referendum.

Most regional actors and international players are terrified by the prospect of southern secession and would prefer a new institutional formula for unity. But it is too late for that. The right to self-determination has been given to southerners, and unity under the NCP means implosion.

The time for international confusion and hesitation over the Sudan peace process has lapsed, and the moment has come to both negotiate a peaceful secession and make sure Darfuris are not sacrificed on the alter of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.

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