MADRID — The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that was reached in 2005 between mostly Christian southern Sudan and the country’s Muslim North ended one of the bloodiest civil wars in modern times. Lasting 22 years, the war left more than 2 million dead. Now the CPA is facing its most vital test: the South’s referendum on independence, which began Sunday and will end Saturday.
Whether a new state is born in one of the most strategically sensitive areas of the world is of utmost concern to Sudan’s neighbors and others. Vital issues are at stake: the scramble for oil; China’s robust presence in Sudan; the West’s desire to see a mostly Christian state break the contiguity of Muslim regimes — and the consequent threat of Islamic radicalism — in the region; the regional distribution of the Nile’s waters; and the possibility that independence for the South might lead to Sudan’s total dismemberment along ethnic and religious lines.
The fact that Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s president, was not especially keen to agree to the United Nations’ plan to beef up its peacekeeping force in the country ahead of the referendum raises concern about his intentions. He would certainly be happy to dispute the referendum’s legitimacy.
He might not find that very difficult. Brinkmanship and broken agreements threaten to turn the referendum’s technical and political difficulties into yet another disaster for the country. The 2.5 million Southern Sudanese known to live in the North are under explicit instructions by the South’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army to boycott the referendum, as the SPLA has grounds to believe that Bashir would use their registration to rig the results in favor of unity.
Indeed, if not convincingly deterred by the international community, it is extremely difficult to believe that Bashir would let the South secede without a fight. A crucial bone of contention that might ignite a new war is the future of the country’s oil industry and the North-South border demarcation. So far, the good offices of the Norwegian government have failed to produce an agreement on the key question of the post-independence distribution of oil revenues between North and South.
Given that most of Sudan’s oil wealth is concentrated in the South, the management of the oil industry and its revenues after secession is an existential problem for Bashir’s regime and its capacity to control his vast and ethnically diverse country. It is in the oil-rich border areas that a new war might erupt.
As one of the poorest and neediest countries in the world, for which oil revenues would be the only source of income for years to come, an independent South Sudan could not be expected to rescue the debt-ridden North. Its own challenge lies in reforming the entire oil industry, which for years has been brutally and irresponsibly exploited by Chinese and Malaysian companies, with devastating environmental consequences.
Conspicuously, Bashir’s regime has been disqualified in the eyes of its neighbors in Africa and the Arab world to a degree that makes the South’s secession a more acceptable option to the main regional stakeholders than ever before. Indeed, the Arab world as a whole seems to have given up on Bashir. Some Arab leaders still toy with the idea that overthrowing him might yet salvage a united Sudan, but it is probably too late for that.
After failing to moderate Bashir into accepting a secular decentralized or confederate Sudan, Egypt, a key Arab player concerned about the stability of its southern border, has come to accept the inevitability of secession — so long as the new state lines up with it on the issue of the Nile’s waters.
Egypt’s fears are mainly of Sudan’s disintegration into a chaotic tapestry of mini-states controlled by warlords and plunged into lawlessness and bloody tribal feuds. In that case, what remains of “Sudan” — Khartoum, Gezira, and the two northern states — might degenerate even further, probably turning into a base for global Islamic terrorism.
Black Africa, particularly the East African Community, cannot think of any solution other than secession. To EAC members, this is a matter of de-colonization, for southern Sudan’s people have been enslaved, dehumanized, and humiliated for centuries by the Arabs.
Hence, as the Kenyans put it, the border between northern and southern Sudan should become the border between black Africa and the Arab world.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rightly defined the referendum as a “ticking time bomb.” She also made it clear, however, that the outcome, independence for the South, is “inevitable.” But, to avoid a cataclysm, the U.S. and its allies must defuse the bomb by enforcing the provisions of the 2005 CPA, which they all endorsed. They would have virtually all of the regional stakeholders on their side as well.
Shlomo Ben Ami is a former Israeli foreign minister who now serves as vice president of the Toledo International Center for Peace. He is the author of “Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy.” © 2011 Project Syndicate