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Sudan on the Verge of Division? The Referendum, Oil, and Foreign Involvement

A referendum in Sudan scheduled for January 9, 2011 stands to determine no less than the creation of a new state. Southern Sudan, rich in oil and populated mainly by Christians and animists, will decide whether to split off from the primarily Muslim north, poor in oil and striving to impose shariya law on the country. The conflicts threatening the unity of Sudan are not unique, and in general, how ethnic groups and tribes in the Middle East divide their oil profits impacts on the region as a whole. However, the situation in Sudan is particularly severe and is liable to deteriorate into a renewed civil war. The sides are arming themselves heavily and seek the support of external players who have substantial interests in Sudan.

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Although oil production began only in the late 1990s, it plays a central role in the Sudanese economy and accounts for 95 percent of the country's export revenue (which has been negatively affected by the security situation and Western sanctions). Sudan has estimated oil reserves of some 5 billion barrels, located primarily in the south, but the refineries and means of transportation are in the north, in Khartoum and Port Sudan. The oil produced in the south represents some 98 percent of the southern government's income and 65 percent of the income of the government in Khartoum. For the foreseeable future, the south has no alternative for transporting oil other than through the north to the Red Sea. While perhaps this co-dependence has prevented a widespread confrontation, so far both sides have channeled increased oil revenues primarily into their respective military buildups.

In 2005, the sides reached an agreement whereby Khartoum and Juba, the capital of the south, would share oil profits equally, and the south would gain partial autonomy until the referendum. However, Juba has claimed that Khartoum hides profits that rightfully belong to the south, and the two governments – often at the same time – issue production permits for the same regions, setting off occasional violent clashes. In addition, the south already maintains separate – albeit limited – military, political, and banking institutions. What is currently on the table is thus the transition to full independence. However, the two sides have so far failed to agree on the terms of the referendum. Will residents of the south who happen to be in the north be able to vote, and which residents of the Abyei district (located on the border between north and south and the site of most of the oil) will be allowed to vote?

Because of the sweeping support for separation in the south, the assessment is that separation is unavoidable. The question is how and when it will take place. The concern is that if the referendum is postponed or its results are unacceptable to the south, the latter will declare independence unilaterally. A unilateral declaration of independence by the south is liable to spark a military response from the north. Beyond the north’s reluctance to lose the huge oil reserves in the south is the fear that if the 10 million residents of the south declare independence, other districts, such as oil-rich South Kurdufan, will follow suit. For its part, the southern government has announced that any postponement or manipulation of the results will generate a confrontation. Indeed, there are few scenarios that preclude an armed confrontation.

Dilapidated infrastructures and the longest civil war on the African continent have brought Sudan to the point where it needs cooperation with foreign entities, mainly energy-hungry China, which – despite criticism from the West – is investing heavily is developing Sudanese oil fields, and imports about half of all Sudanese oil. At the same time, the crisis in Sudan and its geo-strategic location have made it attractive to other players, Iran included. Tehran seeks to increase its hold on Sudan by means of economic investments, cultural-ideological influences, and military aid, thereby in practice helping Omar al-Bashir’s regime to survive. In addition, Iran views Sudan as a preferred channel for smuggling arms to Hamas, Hizbollah, and other radical organizations in the Maghreb. The foreign press has reported that Israel has increased its presence in the Red Sea, intercepted several arms convoys, and even sunk an Iranian ship carrying weapons.

Egypt too, sensitive to any activity involving pumping water from the Nile or diverting its course, has a critical interest in Sudan. While Egypt and Sudan cooperate in the struggle against any redistribution of water, lately Sudan has put its membership in the Organization of Nile Basin Countries on hold, weakening Egypt’s position vis-à-vis the other member states. Also at issue is the question of the Hala’ib Triangle, a border zone in dispute since Sudan’s independence in 1956. Over the years, Egypt has likewise accused Khartoum of granting asylum to radical Islamists opposing the Mubarak regime. Yet while Cairo has expressed support for the south, it is hard to believe that it will sanction the division of any Arab land.

The international community is not preparing adequately for the ramifications of the referendum and is split in its support between south and north. It must also decide whether to maintain relations with Sudanese president al-Bashir and what it is prepared to do (such as canceling debt) in order to appease the north. Bashir, who took power in Sudan in 1989 after an Islamic revolution, has two outstanding arrest warrants against him issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity for his support of the Arab Janjaweed militias who murdered hundreds of thousands in Darfur. In Darfur, fighting continues, albeit somewhat scaled back from the level of previous years, despite the Qatari-mediated ceasefire that went into effect in June 2010.

Unless decisive action is taken – including by the Arab League, which has so far has been helpless on this issue – Sudan is liable to deteriorate again into a bloody war or Darfur-like ethnic massacres, not only between the south and the north but also among different ethnic groups in the south (some of which are supported by Khartoum) fighting over oil revenues. While Israel may likely gain diplomatic relations with another state (senior officials in Juba indicated willingness in this regard) – no mean feat in this part of the world – it is also liable, at least in the short term, to see an increase in the number of refugees crossing the open border in the south. President Obama has appointed a special envoy to Sudan, but has exchanged the moral emphasis of his presidential campaign for pragmatism and a desire for dialogue. Although this is seen in Khartoum as a sign of weakness, the American administration apparently prefers to avoid applying pressure, and is hinting at possible aid, and perhaps even at removing Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism should Khartoum accept the results of the referendum.

The civil war, which resulted in an estimated 2 million people dead and 4 million refugees, did not prompt the international community to invest as much in conflict resolution in Sudan as it did in other areas. At the very least, the drive to retain access to the Sudanese energy sector (there were recent reports of natural gas findings) will hopefully prompt the various actors, whose involvement in Sudan is primarily motivated by material interests, to help find a resolution to the conflict.

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