Avoiding Civil War in Sudan

By Julius Krein

Amid the growing number of international challenges, recent developments in Sudan have gone largely unnoticed. Yet the progressing conflicts there have the potential to impact the entire continent of Africa and could have far-reaching consequences for the West. To date, most international attention has been focused on Darfur, but it is the imminent independence of South Sudan that may finally push the country over the brink. The U.S. and the international community need to implement a realistic geopolitical strategy for the South or risk regional conflagration.

After years of suffering under the ICC-indicted Omar Bashir, it is now certain that the people of South Sudan will choose to secede from present day Sudan. At the latest, southern independence will occur as a result of the January 2011 referendum, as stipulated in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). It is becoming more likely, however, that the South could secede following the nationwide elections scheduled for this April. If the ongoing census dispute is not resolved, and the elections become nothing more than a sham for Bashir, the South Sudanese may have no choice.

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Once the South secedes, it is highly probable that the Darfuris will either seek the top power in the new regime or they too will secede. In total, secession from the country could amount to over half the territory of current Sudan and would likely include the most resource-rich provinces. Should events unfold according to this scenario, Sudan may be just a few months removed from civil war, as the North will be loath to lose its grip on the country's natural resource wealth. This war could re-aggravate ancient tribal animosities and cause a broader regional conflict throughout the entire Horn of Africa, to central Africa via Chad, and on through the DRC. This chaos could even ignite an already tense situation in Nigeria and would invite increased intervention from Iran and other hostile forces active in the region.

Nevertheless, these conflicts can be prevented. Following the South's independence, the North will have only limited capacity to stage a campaign, despite its build up of weaponry from China and Russia. Bashir's recent statements acknowledging the South's right to secede suggest an acknowledgement of his diminished capabilities. The current regime will likely face multiple power struggles from within the North, and the Darfuris, if not also in secession, will certainly seek to exploit Khartoum's weakness. Thus unambiguous, credible statements from the international community warning the North against any encroachment into Southern territory, perhaps combined with the delivery of anti-aircraft systems to the South, could prevent further violence.

Yet even if a North-South civil war is avoided, stability is not assured. The U.S. will have to work with Egypt and neighboring states to find a solution for North Sudan.

At the same time, we will have to make difficult choices to stabilize the South. The current Government of Southern Sudan (GoSS) is inadequate to administer an independent state, and its record inspires little confidence for a lasting peace. Until his death in 2005, the U.S. supported rebel leader John Garang as a counterweight to the Islamic North. Despite his natural gifts as a politician, and although he is still considered a hero within many parts of the South, Garang's regime was marred by blatant corruption and sought to govern with an iron fist.

After Garang's death, power devolved to current Vice-President (and GoSS President) Salva Kiir. Kiir lacks Garang's political talent but has proven similarly corrupt. Kiir's government remains undemocratic and is based on the SPLA/M Manifesto of 1983, a document that arose out of the movement's Communist roots.

For example, Kiir refuses to honor the people's vote in Unity State. The people of Unity State elected Dr. Joseph Wejang, a physician who is currently the Minister of Health, as the state's SPLM chairman. The chairman usually becomes governor. Yet Kiir refuses to seat him because the current governor, Taban Deng, gives Kiir the 2 percent royalty from the oil in Unity that is supposed to go to the people. Kiir has also orchestrated multiple attacks against tribal and political opponents, including, allegedly, a tank attack on the home of General Paulino Matip.

It would be a grave mistake to simply continue supporting the current leadership of South Sudan out of institutional inertia. Kiir is unpopular in many quarters and likely cannot survive as the leader of an independent South. Even if he does, he will be reliant upon hundreds of millions in U.S. support as well as ongoing repressive tactics.

Upon independence, the South will probably suffer a period of chaos that could lead to internecine tribal warfare. To maintain stability, a new democratically elected government will need to be instituted quickly. In a fair election, it is reasonable to expect that the South would elect the current vice-president, Dr. Riek Machar. Machar may not be George Washington, but he is probably the only viable option.

Whether it is in a month or a year, South Sudan will declare independence, but renewed violence is not inevitable. Rather than funneling more aid to corrupt governments and failed states, we could, with little extra effort, establish a just government and an important ally in Africa.

Julius Krein is a Research Associate at the Foreign Policy Initiative and a consultant to an international investment firm operating in Africa.

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