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Situation Assessment 21 July, 2011

Sudan’s Future: between partition and war


Amani Al Tawil

Amani Al Tawil is a researcher and expert on Sudanese affairs at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies (ACPSS). She is a member of the Egyptian Council for African Affairs and a member of the board of directors of the Center for Sudanese Studies at the Institute for African Studies at Cairo University. Al Tawil served as a consultant for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Sudan between 2005 and 2006 and was a visiting scholar at the Elliot School of International Relations at George Washington University in Washington DC in 2009 and 2010. She has also lectured on the political history of Sudan and several other African countries in Ein Shams University Cairo between 2004 and 2006. Al Tawil took part in authoring the ‘Arab Strategic Report’ and ‘Economic and Strategic Trends’ both published by Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. She has also coauthored ‘Water Security and Regional Changes in the Nile Basin’ which is due to be published by the Al Ahram Center. She has also authored a book on ‘The Role of the Egyptian Elite Before the July (1952) Revolution’ published by Dar Al Shorouk in Cairo in 2007 as well as coauthoring ‘The State of Women in Egypt: A Study of Representation in Leading Posts’ which was published by Al Ahram Center.
Al Tawil has helped organize and taken part in several workshops and scientific conferences on African affairs in general and Sudanese affairs in particular held by Al Ahram Center as well as other Egyptian Sudanese Arab and American institutions. She also writes for a number of Egyptian newspapers including Al Ahram Al Masry Al Youm Al Shorouq Al Wafd alongside the Sudanese Al Akhbar and Al Ahdath the Qatari Al Sharq and other newspapers. She is often hosted by Egyptian and Arab satellite channels to comment on current affairs. Al Tawil earned her doctorate from Ein Shams University for her thesis on Egyptian-Sudanese relations.

The partition of Sudan, which was officially announced on July 9, poses a number of questions about the future, and the role this partition will play either in making peace or making war; the answers to these questions will make themselves felt in the lives of tens of millions of people living in Sudan and its surrounding areas.

The process of partition will have its repercussions on the geopolitics of East Africa and Central Africa. Attempting to reply to the questions posed by these issues and trying to divine the future vision of Sudan, one finds that there are three tracks that need to be discussed first.

The first is the inter-relationship between the two states born of Sudan: the North and the South, and the nature of the factors that will impact this inter-relationship.

The second and the third deal with a precise understanding of the internal challenges, the factors that will influence the internal politics of each of these two states domestically, as well as their expected outcomes, and the probability of all of these factors leading to either stability or war.

Since independence in 1956, relations between the Northern and Southern regions of Sudan have been victim to a complex make-up of the remnants of colonial policies that sought to exacerbate existing ethnic divisions. These policies continued after independence, using patriotic dimensions in a racist fashion against the Southern Sudanese.

The state pursued unbalanced development projects in the different parts of the country, discriminating against particular groups of Sudanese and the regions from which they came; it was only natural for foreign intervention to influence the inter-play between the North and South of the country over the 60 years that have elapsed since.

The understanding of these dimensions helps in developing a framework for the current controversial issues as flashpoints that play an important role in the north-south relations, where the seeds of an explosive conflict have always been present.

The Border Issue

One of the most pressing and controversial issues within the bi-lateral relations of the two states is the question of drawing the borders between them, which stretch around 1,950 kilometers between the latitudes 9º and 12º North. This territory itself is host to a wide range of natural wealth, including mineral and oil resources, animal biodiversity, and a human population that is ethnically divided between Arabs and black Africans.

The new peace agreement between the government in Khartoum and the rebels in the South made use of the dividing line that was present at the time of independence on January 1, 1956, which was also adopted during the Addis Ababa talks of 1972, putting an end to the first phase of Sudan's North-South civil war (1955-1972). Legislation to govern the Southern region as a self-rule area deemed this as a boundary for administrative demarcation, but this quickly became problematic with the increase in oil exploration activities and the mechanization of agriculture in the area.

Since the Sudanese parliament had delineated the southern boundary, using old unreliable maps with misleading topographic data, and had neglected to conduct a thorough land ownership survey in Sudanese states, the very beginning of the demarcation process was coupled with a conflict. The strains of conflict became apparent on both the national and local levels.[1]  A list of the areas that were affected by this conflict can be found below:

  • Abyei
  • The frontier between the Dinka-Malual tribe from Northern Bahr el-Ghazal and Rezeigat tribe from Southern Darfur State.
  • The oilfields between the Unity ("Wahda", a part of South Sudan) and South Kordofan states.
  • The boundaries between the Blue Nile, Upper Nile, and South Kordofan states, all of which are in the North of Sudan, but lie on the border with South Sudan states.
  • The Shall al Fil ("Elephant's Shawl") area in the Blue Nile State.
  • The Northern boundary to the Upper Nile State.
  • The Hufrat el-Nahas area in South Darfur, in North Sudan, and the Kafia Kingi area in Bahr el Ghazal of South Sudan.[2]

The Abyei case in particular had been a stumbling block to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005, endangering the negotiations, nearly driving the parties in Northern and Southern Sudan to war. These unresolved issues have yet to be addressed.

The placement of Abyei within either Northern or Southern Sudan is still an open question; this was partially a result of the way Abyei changed hands between the Bahr el Ghazal State, now in South Sudan, and the South Kordofan State, now in the North, several times in the 20th century. There was even a special article covering the future of Abyei within the Naivasha Agreement, which called for a referendum to determine the future of the region and its share of future oil reserves.[3]

The question of Abyei was a particular sticking point for the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005, and came close to bringing an end to the negotiations as a whole and possibly even re-igniting the North-South civil war. The on-going complications which prevented a decision on which states would have control of Abyei, and whether it would be in the North or the South of the Sudan, were due in part to the history of the region.

This necessitated a special, Abyei-specific protocol as a part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005, which made way for a referendum to be held in Abyei simultaneously to the one planned for South Sudan, in January 2011.

However, disagreements over voter eligibility put a stop to that - the leadership of the Dinka tribes in the area insisted that the Arab inhabitants had no rights to vote in such a referendum. Attempts to hold this referendum as stipulated in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement have failed due to a dispute over the fate of Abyei region. The Ngok Dinka tribe inhabitants of Abyei insisted that the nomadic Misserya Arab ethnic group, which makes annual migrations to the region, should not be included in the vote.

A number of alternative resolutions were attempted in order to bring an end to this dispute through Abyei border delimitation, but they all failed. One of these was a 2005 plan to have the future of Abyei decided by an independent commission of international experts known as the Abyei Boundary Commission (ABC); however, the Khartoum government rejected the commission's report, claiming that it had over-stepped its Comprehensive Peace Agreement mandate.[4]

The next attempted remedy was to refer the case to the Abyei Arbitration Tribunal seated at the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which adopted a consensual resolution in July of 2009.5 In this case, the Misseeri Arab tribesmen rejected the 2009 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the grounds that it would deprive them of nearly half of their best grazing pastures and aquifers for eight months in a year.

The tribesmen remained adamantly opposed to the imposition of the agreement, threatening to go to war if need be to prevent the implementation of the plan. The North-South conflict over Abyei escalated into armed skirmishes of varying size and intensity, and led to human casualties. Perhaps the most important aspect of the dispute is how the government in Khartoum has been able to leverage it in its dealings with the international community.

North Sudanese forces attacked the area in May of 2011, leading to the evacuation of a civilian population which foreign media sources estimated to be over 100,000 persons.[5] This attack was in itself retaliation for an attempt by the Sudan People's Liberation Movement to establish a military presence for itself in the area, with its cadres using police uniforms as disguises. The Khartoum government then conceded that it would not leave Abyei except in the framework of a political resolution.

This new fork in the road was an opportunity for the North Sudanese authorities to secure an international response regarding a write-off for their debts; they also were able to rally elite public opinion of North Sudan around the cause of Abyei, which they came to see as vital for the future of their country, and take it away from concern over the Arab Spring and hopes of democratization in their own country.

Ultimately, the United Nations Security Council intervened in the form of Resolution 1990, which paved the way for the placement of 4,200 Ethiopian troops in the region, as well as 50 Sudanese police personnel. These were to act as a buffer between the two warring factions in Abyei. The Security Council granted the Ethiopian forces six months of authority to remain there.

Oil as a Factor in the Conflict

The conflict over the Abyei region is also connected to the broader conflict over oil resources, to which the North and South of Sudan are parties. When the state of South Sudan came into being, the north of the country lost 70% of its oil reserves and would lose 45% of its revenues.[6] These same oil reserves will be contributing 98% of the budget to the new state in the south. These facts gave rise to the repeated crises between the North and the South during the transition period from 2005 to 2011.

During this time, the authorities in the South claimed that the Northern government had withheld some of the revenues of oil production, and had been dishonest about the actual scale of the oil production. It was these sorts of allegations, which remain to be verified by an independent source, which fanned the flames of separatist sentiment in the South.[7]

It is noteworthy that the discovery of oil, by the US oil giant Chevron, in South Sudan towards the end of the 1970s, had been Jaafar Numeiri's incentive to abrogate the 1972 Addis Ababa peace treaty between the central government of Sudan and southern rebels.

The present peace agreement - the Naivasha Agreement - calls for the sharing of oil revenue between the North and South; this division is based on the fact that while most of the oil fields are in the south of the country, the infrastructure for refining and exporting it lies in the north. Sudanese President Omar Bashir made this very clear in a speech that he gave on June 21, 2011.[8]  The central government also found many ways to apply pressure on the regional power structure in Juba; for example, they delayed the delivery of refined petroleum products (gasoline) to Southern Sudan, which drove prices at the pump to above $10 per liter.[9]

Marginalized Areas and the ever-recurring Civil War

The two states of South Kordofan and the Blue Nile represent a vital interest in North-South relations, as they straddle the border between the two new states, and shelter units of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement. This military presence is based on a supposed ethnic affinity between the peoples of the South and those living in these two states, the Nubians.

The military form of alliance between Southerners and Nubians dates back to 1983. Some of the more famous Nubians to emerge from this joint struggle are the late Yousef Koua and Abdulaziz Helou, who lost the gubernatorial elections in South Kordofan state. The problem begins with the text of the Naivasha agreement, which is unclear in its wording on the text governing these two states, and leaves much room for interpretation for an interpreter.

The agreement itself also made use of the popular legislative assemblies that were formed during the fourth year of the transitional period. Another body being created by the agreement is an independent commission that is authorized to monitor and evaluate the Khartoum government's implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.[10] The position of the state's governor also gained in significance, with a governor being made responsible for much of the coordination with the central government (in Khartoum for the present time).

It is also possible that the role of governor, in southern states, will be able to play a crucial role in relations with the North. This was the background to the South Kordofan gubernatorial elections, which were held in May of 2011; the announcement of the winner of the election had to be delayed due to a dispute over the result.

The People's Liberation Movement had accused the National Congress, which is in power in the North, of cooperating with the election commission to rig the election results in favor of their candidate, Ahmed Haroun; Abdulaziz Helou who was the Movement's candidate, lost out.[11] This same controversy over the electoral process coincided with the new security arrangements agreed upon in the security agreement for the two states, which took force after the declaration of the independent state of the South. All of this combined would see the re-deployment of the People's Liberation Movement military forces to within the boundaries of South Sudan, while forces loyal to the government in Khartoum withdrew to the North.

The Khartoum government has complained that the Southern authorities' have maintained a military presence for the People's Liberation Army in areas like Abyei, which is part of the Northern State. Nubian fighters in the People's Liberation Army in the South Kordofan state have refused to hand over their weapons to the federal authorities; in the Blue Nile state, the governor himself refused the re-deployment of People's Liberation Movement forces outside of his state. Both South Kordofan and the Blue Nile are within the territory of the North.

The government in the North was then pushed to intervene militarily in South Kordofan in early June of 2011, but this drove Nubian members of the northern military to join the ranks of southern rebels. Abdulaziz Helou, who last the election in South Kordofan, declared himself the leader of an armed insurrection to overthrow the political, thus threatening to plunge the country into civil war again.

There were, thus, two layers of this conflict: the first level was the conflict between the Sudanese government and the People's Liberation Movement, which was fighting a proxy electoral war through Abdulaziz Helou. The second layer was the conflict between the People's Liberation Movement and the Nubians in the mountains of Kordofan, as the Movement apprehended Telephone Coco, a Nubian electoral candidate.[12]

The People's Liberation Movement now stands accused by the Nubian movement of betraying the Nubians' through the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which the Nubians did not benefit from, despite fighting alongside the People's Movement for 30 years. The Movement even allegedly summarily executed a number of Nubians in the mountains, in a clear breach of principles of human rights. In the end, the Nubians were not able to extract any concessions from the peace treaty in exchange for the price they paid.[13]

It is in this sense of unruly chaos that the three marginalized areas (Abyei and the Blue Nile and South Kordofan States) lie, feeding the probability of the outbreak of a new civil war. This chaos is due to the intersection of interests between the leadership in both Northern and Southern Sudan, forming one axis, with tribal and ethnic alliances forming a second axis. These divisions become clear in a very complex conflict over resources, and proxy wars resulting from the inter-play between the previous factors. In this regard, we need to consider the peace agreement between the People's Movement and the Sudanese government in Addis Ababa, which covered the administration of South Kordofan and the Blue Nile.

The agreement might lead to a fissure in the ruling National Congress Party of the North, as a result of the provisions it made for the People's Liberation Movement to be politically active in the areas to be administered from Khartoum, with grave repercussions in the North of Sudan.[14] The governor of the Blue Nile state views the allowance of activities of the People's Movement in the North as a way to prevent war.

It is worth noting here that the chaos and crises afflicting Sudan due to internal reasons are also connected to foreign powers' interests as they use the Sudanese sides as pawns in a blood-letting exercise in a bid to gain control of the country's natural resources, which include not only oil but vast agricultural lands in the south, which could be important in the development of bio-fuels by large American corporations. Reports in the British press even revealed evidence of a secret agreement to sell the equivalent of 9% of South Sudan's landmass at a price of $0.04 per square kilometer.[15]


  • [1] Douglas H. Johnson, When Boundaries Become Borders: The impact of boundary making in Southern Sudan's frontier zones, (The Rift Valley Institute, 2010).
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Protocol between the Government of the Sudan (GOS) and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), on the Resoultion of Abyei Conflict, (Naivasha, Kenya), May 26, 2004, http://www.usip.org/files/file/resources/
  • [4] Sudanese As Sahafa, (Arabic), July 22, 2005.
    5 Pan-Arab Ash Sharq Al Awsat, July 22, 2009, http://www.aawsat.com/details.asp?section=4&article=528543&issueno=11194.
  • [5] http://www.bbc.co.uk/arabic/
  • [6] Al Akhbar, interview with Sudanese Minister of Petroleum, September 10, 2010.
  • [7] Visitors to Juba Airport in June of 2006 made note of billboards, proclaiming, "The land is ours; the oil is ours; freedom is ours."
  • [8] http://www.sudantribune.com/Sudan-s-Bashir-threatens-to-turn/39299.
  • [9] Eyewitness accounts of visits to Juba between May and June 2011.
  • [10] The Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the Government of the Republic of the Sudan and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, www.aec-sudan.org/docs/cpa/cpa-en.pdf.
  • [11] Al Jazeera (Arabic), July 14, 2011, http://www.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/90E622C8-0254-43CF-AD83-D8B016C67168.htm.
  • [12] Mustafa Al Batal, The No-return Sacrifice for the Struggle, available online in Arabic: http://www.sudaneseonline.com/arabic/permalink/5704.html?print.
  • [13] Ibid.
  • [14] Al-Sudani (Arabic), "Backstage agreement between Nafe' and Uqar", June 29, 2011, http://www.alsudani.sd/index.php/news/3-flashnews/3883-2011-06-29-11-41-19.html.
  • [15] Javier Blas and William Wallis, Financial Times, January 9, 2009.