Is an independent south Sudan now inevitable?
That was the conclusion of some observers of a bluntly worded exchange of views between two leading lights from the north and the south at a symposium in Khartoum on Tuesday.
Sudan’s Muslim north fought a two decade civil war with southerners, most of them Christians and followers of traditional beliefs. The 2005 peace deal that ended that conflict set up a north/south coalition government and promised a referendum on southern secession.
Sudan’s foreign minister Deng Alor told journalists at the symposium most of his fellow southerners, embittered by decades of northern oppression and imposed Islamic values, “overwhelmingly” wanted independence. Only a miracle would change their minds, he said, going on to appeal for a “peaceful divorce” should the south choose to split.
Two days earlier, southern president Salva Kiir shocked many when he openly told a cathedral congregation they should choose independence if they wanted to be free and unity if they wanted to be “second class” in their own country.
Powerful northern presidential advisor Ghazi Salaheddin countered on Tuesday by accusing southerners of paranoia, “living in victimhood” and mismanaging their own semi-autonomous region.
The comments were unusually blunt and personal for such a public venue. To many, their tone was a bitter reminder of the rhetoric routinely thrown around before the signing of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA).
Sudan commentator Alex de Waal wrote on his blog that many of the comments echoed what had been said in earlier closed sessions in the U.N. sponsored conference.
“During the earlier sessions of the symposium, the same theme was repeatedly made: Sudan is entering its last days as a single nation. Among the northerners, there was immense regret, but also acceptance of the inevitability of the split. One well-known Islamist said that secession was coming and the important thing was to make it smooth.”
Managing a smooth secession would be a huge task for northerners and southerners weighed down by decades of mistrust and bitter grievance, poisoned by ethnic and religious divisions.
There are many good reasons for them to want a peaceful divorce, beyond avoiding another bloody conflict.
The biggest factor is that they both need each other when it comes to oil — the south has most of the country’s proven oil reserves while the north currently has the refineries and the pipeline routes to the sea.
But any managed separation needs planning, and plenty of it. So far there has been no sign that the two sides have got together for any kind of strategising on the implications of separation after the referendum.
The head of the U.N. in Sudan, Ashraf Qazi, tried to accentuate the positive when he summed up Tuesday’s discussions, saying both sides remained committed to the ideal of unity.
But there was a telling slip as he finished his summation.
“We are still at a moment of hope. And I believe that the leadership of the two countries which have ensured that the peace is maintained, that the ceasefire has not broken down, during the period of the CPA, they have already shown that responsibility. They can rise to the challenge even now.”