How to avoid a war after the Referendum in Sudan


In the recent weeks, Khartoum has increased its rhetoric that there are key post-referendum aspects that must be negotiated and agreed upon before the referendum; otherwise they will not recognize the vote’s outcome. Some key leaders including Pres Omar Bashir have threatened a likelihood of conflict should the vote be held without agreeing on all of these issues. On its hand, the SPLM led by its chairman and southern president Salva Kiir has vowed to go ahead with the vote even if it means unilaterally organizing and conducting it. One might say that the war drums are beating and everyone should prepare for war.

In my opinion, it is highly unlikely that either Khartoum or Juba is willing to bring out the guns again, at least with an intention of another round of full scale war. The costs are just too high and no one is guaranteed of outright and quick victory.

However, there are several things that can be done to mitigate the worst of possibilities and ensure a smooth transition during and after the referendum.

  1. Outstanding issues in post-referendum arrangements negotiations: Accept that the referendum does not spell the end of negotiations of key issues. One of the main reasons the mediation that led to the CPA signing succeeded was because the mediators were able to convince the parties (especially NCP) that the signing did not close the door for further consultation and negotiations on the then contentious issues; it was going to provide an interim period to the finalization of these issues.
    1. On Abyei; there is need to mainstream the involvement of the local communities of Dinka Ngok and Misseriya in the negotiations. As witnessed in many other natural resource-based conflicts in Africa, discovery of high value resources has often brought with it conflicts engineered by elites who take advantage of ethnic differences of groups living on such resource finds, yet these groups were living peacefully side by side before the discovery. Clearly, it is the political elites who drive the conflicts and thus the peace talks must be spearheaded by the local communities themselves with political elites only coming in to strengthen what the locals have agreed within the larger government institutions of peace building and economic development.
    2. On border demarcation; the remaining twenty percent that is yet to be demarcated is, as the International Crisis Group noted, a political not technical issue. Examples abound globally where sovereigns are still solving long-standing border issues under the auspices of international dispute resolution mechanisms.
  2. Role of IGAD:  Scott Gration can not act like George Mitchell. It is unfortunate that the IGAD team of states which, despite playing a key role in the mediation efforts, has not lived up to its billing as the key local guarantor. This regional body has become a backseat spectator, leaving western nations to take the lead in post-war peace- and state-building and thus giving Khartoum room to rubbish any good-intentioned intervention as ‘meddling in internal affairs of a sovereign state’ and ‘neocolonialism’. The AU, whose key voices include the likes of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi, readily fronted this as the basis for refusing to cooperate with international bodies like UNSC, UNAMID and ICC. IGAD must retake the lead role in the Sudan peace efforts. This will deny Khartoum, and by extension the AU, the perfect excuse of non-compliance with its obligations under international law. The international community, especially the US should only come in to complement the efforts of IGAD, just like they led the Troika on nations during the CPA negotiations.
  3. Southern unity: the recent conference of political parties held in Juba early October could well be the most critical preparation for separation by the southern leadership. Even if they secede, south Sudan runs a high risk of internal divisions entrenched in years of interethnic conflicts and political divisions. This inter-parties political dialogue is something that the international community should strengthen and institute a thorough follow up to ensure that the resolutions such the multi-stakeholder constitutional conference after the referendum is actually set up. This will guarantee a strong and accountable polity for a future South Sudan state.
  4. Immediate recognition of separation vote: The most critical moments will be when the vote is concluded and the ballots are counted. Predictably, there will be many poll-related issues that any party might use to refuse to recognize the outcome. In that very decisive and nail-biting moment, a very hard decision will have to be made not just is Khartoum and Juba but in many capitals all around the world. Analysts expect majority of players in the Khartoum decision-making machine to lean heavily towards non-recognition of separation vote while the one in Juba leans the other way. If there was ever a moment the powder keg that is Sudan can explode, this is it. The question is: will regional and other capitals have the boldness to act swiftly to avert the worst case scenario by promptly and decisively stating their positions without delay? The world will be watching Juba, Khartoum, Nairobi, Washington, Beijing and Cairo and to some extent Addis Ababa for direction in the immediate period following the conclusion of the vote.

Towards the Separation

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Pres Salva Kiir


It is now only three months to the referendum in South Sudan and Abyei regions.

The mood in the south is heavy with anticipation for the plebiscite. Every southerner can tell you for sure that it’s only a matter of days before they become an independent state, ‘free from the NCP clutches’, so they say. In churches, clan gatherings, the message is the same: let’s all vote for unity. Almost every day in Juba, the South’s capital, there’s demonstrations by various groups in support of separation come January 2011. Dismissing their obligation under the CPA to make unity attractive, many SPLM officials in government are no longer ashamed of campaigning for separation. Perhaps this is guided by the clear mood on the ground: Southerners will not go for anything short of a new independent state.

It is considered sacrilegious in the south to even speak of unity.

While the Referendum Commission prepares for the voter registration which is, in true Sudanese fashion, way behind schedule, there are fears that just as it was before the April elections, this process will be marred by irregularities that may cast doubts on the legitimacy of the vote’s outcome, depending on where one stands.

NCP is currently raising its rhetoric against proceeding with the plebiscite before ‘certain key aspects’ of post-referendum arrangements are finalized.

Storms seem to be gathering in the horizon as the Referendum Commission embarks on voter registration. It is not lost on many observers the messy nature of a similar process in preparation for the April elections. Of significant bearing to this is the issue of citizenship of throngs of southerners living in the north. What is their fate and most importantly, will they be allowed to vote in the referendum?

The referendum itself should not be such a complex process. If the commission can come up with a simple question such as “Do you approve the separation of Sudan into two states” with simple to identify symbols, it is likely to register a very high voter turn out. Interestingly, many SPLM officials are asking those southerners who know they won’t be able to vote not to register as this will negatively affect the total percentage of registered voters that vote for separation (the NCP managed to add an interesting caveat; that they will only accept an outcome for separation if the total voter turn-out is above 60%. This is going to be hard to attain in the vast and remote south). The kind of acrimonious fall-out witnessed after the April elections is not likely to be seen because expectedly, the majority will be voting the same way and therefore not polarizing outcomes as far as the south is concerned. It would only turn bloody in the unlikely event that blatant and widespread rigging result in vote for separation being defeated.

There is also the growing concern that Khartoum will not recognize the outcome of the referendum due to what they term as non-completion of key post-referendum arrangements. Whether these threats are classical NCP upping its stakes in readiness for the final round of its negotiations with SPLM is anyone’s guess. What many analysts agree is that NCP knows that there is nothing short of a full scale war that can stop the South from ‘going’. The only question is, are they convinced that the costs of such a war would be justified by a quick and clear victory or will it usher in another round of intractable and large scale conflict that will not only strain Khartoum’s resources but will also suck in major regional powers and invite international condemnation especially in light of ICC indictments on President Omar Bashir? The International Crisis Group avers that should war breakout, it will be the biggest conventional war of the 21st century. Not many people see this as likely. The NCP has in the recent past increased its rhetoric to this effect, with such leaders as the deputy foreign minister and other leading lights threatening the worst. Predictably, this has been met with harshest of condemnation from the SPLM. And during the UN meeting, GOSS president Salva Kiir left no doubt as to his administration’s unequivocal desire to hold the vote as scheduled and not a day later. In fact, he admitted that the process may be fraught with major challenges from registration to the actual vote. Said he, “Sudan is not like Switzerland… Things do not happen perfectly”.

Just like the last trimester in a woman’s pregnancy, the next three months will be very critical if we are to have a safe delivery. The international community and especially the US must play a proactive role in ensuring the following two key things take place. One:

1.  That the referendum goes on at all costs on the agreed date. Expecting perfect preparations and all-round happiness from the parties is naïve. Contrary to what NCP is saying, the vote can proceed peacefully even if there are pending post-referendum arrangement issues

2. The Abyei talks be spearheaded by the Ngok Dinka and the Misseriya tribal leaders only without interference from Juba or Khartoum. It seems this is what they want. A neutral mediator can facilitate these talks.