Sudan's Referendum Amidst Revolution

by Edward Thomas
published in MER258

On February 7, 2011, the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission presented President Omar al-Bashir and First Vice President Salva Kiir with the results of the January 2011 vote on southern self-determination. It was a formality: During the three-week voting tabulation process, both presidents had publicly accepted the credibility of the vote and the overwhelming majority for southern secession, which turned out to be 98.83 percent. There was some apprehension that Husni Mubarak, then still president of Egypt, might resign on the same day. But Mubarak managed to hang on for another week, securing for Sudan second billing on Al Jazeera’s evening news when, 55 years after independence, it decided to split into two countries.

The timely organization of the vote, and its peaceful acceptance, were not widely anticipated by Sudan’s pessimistic corps of foreign analysts and observers. For the past six years, relations between Kiir and Bashir, the leaders of Sudan’s two ruling parties, have been marked by obstruction and wary confrontation. At the start of 2011, this mistrust was replaced with an unexpectedly sentimental entente. On January 4, Bashir made a rare visit to the southern capital, Juba. Reportedly, he spent an entire day reworking the speech he was to deliver there, which had been drafted by a peacenik academic. Khartoum’s legions of spies buzzed with rumors that elements from Bashir’s own party would assassinate him in Juba, creating a crisis big enough to postpone the vote and prevent secession. The president went ahead with the speech, and it was a remarkable demonstration of his political skills: warm, self-deprecating and nostalgic, replete with well-aimed anecdotes about his affection and concern for southerners, as well as promises to support the referendum process, respect the results and work out problems within the framework of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the northern and southern leaderships. A few days earlier, Kiir had commended his “brother President” for “having endured the burden of presiding over the affairs of this country during the difficult moments of our history.”

Two Ruling Parties

Bashir and the leadership of his National Congress Party (NCP) -- a coalition of Islamists, security men, and financial and commercial capital -- have held power in Sudan since a 1989 coup. The coup was partly aimed at forestalling a peace agreement to end the civil war between the Khartoum government and the southern-based rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), now led by Kiir. The war continued until 2005, when the NCP and the SPLM signed the CPA. The CPA brought historically under-represented southerners into central government; established an autonomous southern government with its own army and a share of southern oil revenues in Juba; and invested in Sudan’s vast and impoverished southern boundary zone. These outlying regions were left out of colonial and post-colonial development, and their diversity was mismanaged to create social divisions that are among the starkest in the world. Over a six-year interim period, the CPA aimed to make Sudan’s unity “attractive” to southern Sudanese people, who inhabit the poorest of Sudan’s peripheries.

The CPA ceasefire has been a success, but has not brought comprehensive peace to the country, with Darfur and parts of northern Sudan still wracked by insurgency. The CPA also promised national reconciliation, democracy and a transformation of the regime’s internal security forces, but the elites made little attempt to fulfill of these pledges, which required unaffordable changes to Sudan’s coercive political culture and a reconsideration of national identity. Such a reconsideration was particularly unaffordable for the NCP, which despite winning an overwhelming majority for itself in the 2010 general elections, still sees itself as a minority party with an Islamist ideological base that requires shari‘a (Islamic law) components in the constitution and commercial and criminal law. Even though these components are enforced only fitfully, their repeal would be politically impossible.

Instead of comprehensive peace, the CPA prompted the two parties to pursue a set of coincident interests largely created by the country’s oil industry, which pumps southern oil through northern pipelines. The NCP-SPLM political duopoly allowed for spectacular, oil-driven growth, but it did not turn Sudan’s beautiful and uneasy Afro-Arab mix into something livable or equitable for its people.

A New African Nation

The vote for separation may yet cause a crisis of legitimacy for the NCP. But the SPLM-led government in the south entered 2011 at the pinnacle of its legitimacy -- its long liberation struggle has ended with a solemn, joyful and overwhelming vote for separation. It garnered the international support needed for independence, and intransigently positioned its economic and diplomatic resources to force the NCP to accept the loss of one third of its territory.

The vote for independence will reframe the many contradictions of the country that will now be known as South Sudan. These contradictions are to be expected in a society that has had only three decades of peace since the arrival of its first colonizers in the late 1830s and almost no investment before 2005. Outsiders deployed their violence against a relatively defenseless society: Most of the people of the south belonged to groups that are only partially incorporated into state culture. South Sudan could be an anarchist paradise. Indeed, it may once have been one -- its multiple subcultures mean that most southern Sudanese have a deep personal experience of vernacular democracy (albeit a kind that sometimes limits female participation).

But the south’s long, complicated wars present many challenges for the future. In many phases of the war, ethnic difference was used as a basis for military mobilization. Wartime displacement traumatically imposed urbanization on delicate and complex societies, transforming work and family relationships. Many participants in its partially monetized economy have not learned the tricks or disciplines of a cash market in labor. And the macro-economic outlook is mixed: South Sudan is oil-rich but oil-dependent, with petroleum accounting for over 95 percent of government revenues.

The southern government’s response to these contradictions has been security-led. One of its most important achievements was the 2006 Juba Declaration, which ended a civil war within southern Sudan between Khartoum-allied militias and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. The southern government has spent a large portion of its revenues -- probably most of them -- on its army payroll. South Sudan citizens may accept military spending as a necessary precaution against renewed conflict. But the spending invites corruption and skews society around a military patronage network. It is still a better approach to demobilization than the low-rent policy pursued by the NCP in the aftermath of major conflicts in Darfur and Kordofan, which plays former allies off against each other and fragments adversaries into groups too small and divided to negotiate peace.

The SPLM’s new legitimacy allows for magnanimity. An all-party meeting in October was the starting point for discussions on the new country’s constitutional order. Even the NCP (a junior party in the south) was invited to attend. One NCP delegate chided the SPLM for pursuing a military solution to its latest mutiny, led by George Athor, a general in its army who lost a gubernatorial contest in Jonglei state. A misstep in the peace negotiations has led to brutal battles in the area under his control. These outbreaks of violence are portents for pessimistic and hostile observers. But South Sudan enters its new era with possibilities, too -- many groups that had sowed local insecurity exercised restraint during the vote, motivated perhaps by a sense of historic occasion. The new country can build on this self-discipline.

Northern Reactions

The referendum on southern self-determination was an opportunity for southerners to pass judgment on the CPA as a template for Sudan’s unity (northerners were ineligible to vote). By the time it came along, everyone expected that judgment to be withering.

The Forum for Just Peace, a group of Islamists linked to a provocative pro-secession Khartoum newspaper, al-Intibaha, owned by the president’s uncle, slaughtered cows in celebration of the result, which, they believed, abolished the conundrum of Sudanese identity by making northern Sudan an Arab and Islamic state. But for many northerners, the referendum result was painful. Most Khartoum media were cautious in discussing the implications of separation for the north of the country; and, in any case, the very long period of polling (seven days) and results tabulation (23 days) meant that the attention of Khartoum newspapers drifted.

Toward the end of January, some papers were preoccupied with immolation stories. The fatwa council (responsible for Islamic legal opinions) declared that setting one’s self on fire was contrary to Islam, prompted by a poor soul’s attempt at suicide through self-immolation because a passerby had refused to buy him some tobacco. The most notorious of these stories came in a huge photo essay on January 24 in al-Dar, a newspaper that usually confines its coverage to lurid crimes, celebrity gossip, sports and sample exam questions. Al-Dar’s front page was given over to rows of low-resolution video stills, which purported to show southerners being burned to death for trying to leave the south. Very few details of the story could be established from the text, and the paper quoted an SPLM minister who suggested that the photos had been faked. They definitely had.

Even as a fabrication, it was a story for the moment. Many northerners wanted to believe that southerners had been coerced or manipulated into supporting separation, and that violence in the south originates in the southern character, not in the enormous external pressures exerted on the remote region. The story reflected and fed those northern impressions -- while also reminding readers of the dangers of the kind of disorder being witnessed in Egypt and Tunisia, where the self-immolations of economically desperate young men were setting off urban revolts against autocracy and the unfair distribution of the costs of a global downturn.

The Opposition in the North

The NCP made clear its need for allies as it prepared to relinquish the south. The party is trying to maintain dominance in the face of economic pressures felt across its political heartland and pressures from the revolts in North Africa. The government has also been engaged in inconclusive negotiations to resolve the conflict in Darfur, where armed groups are seeking a constitutional order that creates bigger and stronger regional structures to counter the dominance of Khartoum. After the referendum vote, the government also faced renewed insecurity in eastern Sudan, scene of a small, yet protracted revolt.

In spite of its need for allies, the NCP, nervous and habituated to coercion, deployed its security forces against the opposi- tion, which sought to exploit the ruling party’s weakness as it prepared to cede the south. Hasan al-Turabi, the leader of the disaffected Islamists of the Popular Congress Party, was arrested on January 18 after predicting a Tunisia-style uprising. The government successfully divided the opposition by immediately holding a meeting with al-Sadiq al-Mahdi, a former prime minister and leader of the centrist Umma party. Hoping that Sudan might catch some of the fire that was spreading from Tunisia to Egypt, al-Mahdi tried to organize a commemoration of his forefather the Mahdi’s capture of Khartoum, of which January 26, 2011 was the one hundred and twenty-sixth anniversary, from the Anglo-Egyptian condominium ruling Sudan at the time. For his part, Bashir made a skillfully insouciant speech the day before, welcoming the Tunisian uprising and promising to go out on the streets to be stoned by protesters himself if there was one in Sudan.

Al-Mahdi did not get much of a crowd on January 26, but cost-of-living protests had already started in Jazira state, just south of Khartoum. On January 30 and 31, there were demonstrations across the colleges and towns of the northern Nile valley, home to the regime’s political base. Led by youth activists, they had more success in mobilization than the old parties, like Umma. Three (unconfirmed) deaths were reported, as well as hundreds of arrests.

The president did not, in the end, go out to meet the protesters. Instead, he sent his security forces, whose use of violence was sparing but bitterly effective. Girifna (We’re Fed Up), a youth-led movement involved in the demonstrations, posted a video of Safiyya Ishaq, a fine arts graduate who describes how she participated in the protests; how she was shadowed for a few days; and how she was then gang-raped in the custody of the National Intelligence and Security Service. Protests in February were limited, but at the start of March, two previously unknown groups announced that they would be organizing protests toward the end of the month. The initiative appears to lie with young people rather than established opposition parties.

Those established parties have been disoriented by secession, partly as a result of their reliance on the SPLM. Although officially a partner in government, the SPLM functions in northern Sudan as part of the opposition, the Alliance of Consensus Forces. The party’s leadership in the south, however, sees an independent south as its primary political objective and needs the NCP to achieve this objective. This exigency restrains the movement’s northern sector, the most powerful non-NCP force in the north, and in turn restrains the opposition, which needs the SPLM to exercise pressure on the government.

NCP-SPLM Relations

The referendum is not the end of the affair. Sudan’s successor states and their citizens need agreements on future citizenship; on currency; on the sharing of southern oil revenues (a key factor in the peace); the sharing of Sudan’s debts (left over from the 1980s debt crisis, a key factor in the war); on security; and on borders. All the arrangements are complex: Currency changes after political separation were implicated in the wars between Eritrea and Ethiopia and the civil war in Somaliland; and dividing up the national debt could make or break either economy. But the dispute between the NCP and SPLM over the status of Abyei, the area lying along the border between the north and the new South Sudan, and citizenship are two issues that affect millions directly.

The SPLM says that it will grant citizenship to northerners seeking it, but the NCP has repeatedly refused to reciprocate. Estimates of the southern population in the north vary according to the political imperatives of the moment -- half a million for those needing low estimates and two million for those needing higher ones. Some came north during the modernizing national projects of the 1970s, but many came as a result of displacement by war. Many have spent two decades at the bottom of urban labor markets, but some have prospered in the boom years of the mid-2000s. The NCP does not want to continue these migrants’ citizenship because it sees them as a potential opposition constituency. Turning southerners into foreign workers may scare some away, but it will help maintain the ruthless labor discipline of the boom town. Citizenship arrangements have not yet been agreed upon, but ordinary people are alert to NCP messages; indeed, these messages probably contributed to the victory of secessionists in the referendum.

The most pressing border issue is in Abyei, an enclave in Southern Kordofan (part of the north), which was transferred from the south in 1905. It is the home of the Ngok Dinka people, part of an ethnic group indigenous to southern Sudan. The CPA gave Abyei citizens the right to a referendum that would decide whether the territory should be returned to the south, due in January 2011. The referendum did not take place because of disputes over voter eligibility: Extending eligibility to seasonal residents from northern Sudan would have defeated the SPLM’s aim of returning the enclave to the south. In the absence of agreement on eligibility, the NCP called for partition of Abyei, which would see its northern section remaining subject to Khartoum. This proposal has been rejected by the SPLM, which argues that it has already conceded parts of Abyei to the northern state of Kordofan. Since January, SPLM forces in the area have blocked access to Abyei’s migratory corridors used by northern pastoralists to take their herds south. Armed elements among the pastoralists fight back. As migration starts shortly after the start of the dry season, in the middle of winter, fighting broke out in January and again in March.

In some respects, Abyei is a victim of the referendum’s success. The NCP accepted separation with some grace, but it needs leverage over the SPLM during negotiations on post-referendum arrangements and possibly beyond. Neither party trusts the other, and both need a sounding board for frustrations. The brinkmanship and obstructive delay that makes up much of the political style of Sudan’s two ruling parties often puzzles foreign onlookers. In crises, the two parties often reach for their unexpectedly resilient alliance and snub more natural partners, bewildering those suitors, too. The SPLM, for instance, enabled Bashir’s victory in 2010 presidential polls through strategic boycotts and withdrawals, and got a quid pro quo at the referendum. And even as the SPLM withdrew from talks on post-referendum arrangements in March, it was quietly assisting the NCP in dealing with a new challenge -- the revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East.

A Desolating Fulfillment

On December 19, 2010, Bashir gave a speech in Gedaref, in the east of the country, where he called for an intensified application of shari‘a, reportedly stating, “If South Sudan secedes, we will change the constitution and then there will be no time to speak of diversity of culture and ethnicity.” These remarks may have been aimed at managing the NCP’s Islamist constituency. They encouraged little-known religious enthusiasts to call for the application of shari‘a in South Sudan, in the event of secession, and were applauded by many Islamists. But in many circles, they caused anger or wry surprise: The NCP has long made shari‘a the center of its legitimacy, and the president’s remarks implied that Islamic laws had not, after 20 years of rhetoric and sacrifice, been implemented.

For many Islamists and others who welcomed it, secession was an opportunity for the north of Sudan to get rid of Afro-Arab contradictions and become a more homogeneous Arab Muslim state. In an ironic coincidence, the opportunity presented itself only when the convulsions in the Arabic-speaking world began. The northerners who wanted secession may find themselves feeling, to borrow a line from the poet Philip Larkin, they have been “stumbling up the breathless stair, to burst into fulfillment’s desolate attic.”

The NCP initially spun the revolution in Egypt as a victory for military dependability, telegraphing congratulations to the generals who took over there on February 11. (Egypt’s “big brother” role in Sudan is often at its strongest during periods of military rule.) The NCP leadership’s Islamist orientation led to direct confrontation with Cairo, but even when Sudan’s security services were implicated in the 1995 assassination attempt against Mubarak in Addis Ababa, Egyptian diplomats vetoed condemnation of Sudan in international forums, reaching an accommodation with Khartoum that seemed invincible. That kind of support from Egyptian diplomacy will no longer be available.

Sudan’s system of government -- a hyper-dominant center and a periphery managed by violence -- is different from Egypt’s. But there are some important parallels. In the 1970s, Sudan and Egypt were both ruled by single-party socialist unions, notionally uniting state, capital and labor in a modernizing national project. In the debt crises of the 1980s, these projects were abandoned, and political success lay with the groups (like the NCP’s leaders) who could negotiate a global economy based on international trade, labor migration and financial capital. The state-capital-labor alliance was replaced with an alliance of state and capital, often acting together against labor. The coming months will show if this model can be sustained in spite of the enormous costs it imposes on popular welfare: In any case, elites in both countries will have to prepare for alternative scenarios.

The situation in Libya offers a different set of risks. Even before Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi’s pan-Africanism displaced his Arabism, his country was enmeshed in Chadian and Darfuri politics. Over the past six or seven years, Libya has had a second-rank role in mediating the Darfur conflict, and it hosts the leader of Khartoum’s most credible adversary, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). Many JEM leaders are disaffected Islamists linked to Turabi’s Popular Congress Party, but the JEM began its military operations in 2003 with recruitment of elements from the Zaghawa tribe, a group spread across Libya, Chad and Sudan with origins in camel nomadism. A February 2010 rapprochement between Chad and Sudan led to the JEM’s expulsion from Chad, and Sudanese government sources claimed that Libya had provided materiel for the JEM’s military operations in Darfur last year.

Qaddafi’s indefensible opening moves against demonstrators were quickly condemned in Khartoum. The NCP also fostered rumors that JEM elements were among the African mercenaries that Qaddafi had deployed against his rebel populace. It was a foolish move -- there are hundreds of thousands of Sudanese in Libya, many of them Darfuri migrant workers now cast back into the violence and poverty of Darfur. The African mercenary story led Libyan rebels into some hasty and brutal racial profiling of their enemy (not for the first time). Like all Egyptians, all Libyans are Africans, but it is unlikely that their relationship with their African selves will become any easier as a result of the convulsions of 2011.

Sudan’s young oppositionists may yet find inspiration from Egypt and Tunisia in coming up with a formula to challenge the NCP. But they are organizing a population that sincerely hates war, and changes in Sudan will prob- ably happen over a longer timeframe as a result.

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