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Uncertainty reigns as Southern secession looms in Sudan

Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2011-01-06

As South Sudan moves closer to independence, the government in Khartoum is shifting its attention to securing power in the north and ensuring that southern oil continues to flow through its pipelines.

The event would have been impossible to predict only a few months ago: on Tuesday pomp and ceremony greeted Sudanese President Oman Bashir on his visit to the southern capital of Juba. And Bashir arrived with a message of peace, proclaiming: “I am going to celebrate your decision, even if your decision is secession.”

Only as far back as October Bashir told Parliament that Sudanese unity was non-negotiable and cautioned southerners against voting for secession in the upcoming January 9 referendum. Southern Sudanese leaders warned the international community that Khartoum was moving troops south and asked the UN to send peace-keeping troops to the border.

The product of more than two decades of civil war, anti-northern sentiment runs deep in the south and security was high for the president’s rare visit to the region. Bashir’s brief stay in Juba passed without incident and was highlighted by his seeming resignation to the liklihood that the south will split.

“The parties to the 2005 peace agreement pledged to work for unity as a priority. Unfortunately most of them did not stick to the soul of the peace agreement, but we have now passed that stage,” Abdelrahmen El Zouma, a spokesman for Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP), told “The NCP is ready to accept the outcome of the referendum and now only seek better relations with the new state. Today’s visit by President Bashir is evidence of that.”

The apparent about-face by the NCP and Bashir, who is still wanted by the International Criminal Court for plotting genocide, has abated international fears that the two sides would return to war. It also signals an important change in Khartoum’s priorities in a post-referendum period.

Consolidating power in the North

In late December Bashir made a rare public appeal to northern opposition parties, calling for a “broad-based government to unite the internal front,” according to the state news agency SUNA. A move that has been seen by some Sudan observers as a sign of Bashir’s weakened position in the wake of the referendum.

If the South secedes as expected, the exit of southern legislators from parliament and government in 2011 will leave a quarter of the parliament and cabinet posts open and potentially available to the northern opposition.

“The next battle in Sudan after the referendum will be between Bashir and northerners,” Salah Eddin El Duma, Professor of International Relations at the University of Omdurman Umm near Khartoum, told “There will probably be an uprising. The South is no longer Bashir’s rival, his next enemy will come from within.”

The northern opposition is hesitating to back Bashir at a time when his international arrest warrant leaves him politically and economically isolated, and when the conflict in Darfur seems far from resolved.

The future of oil

With the South will go the region’s mineral wealth. Oil accounts for 90 percent of Sudan's exports. The country currently produces around 500,000 barrels per day, but around three quarters of this is pumped from the south.

Since the 2005 peace treaty was signed, the north and the south have shared oil revenues equally. The entire existing infrastructure for extraction, refining and transportation belongs to the north and in the near future the south’s oil will continue to flow toward Khartoum. But the NCP cannot guarantee the current scheme will continue to hold long after separation.

“Definitely there is a concern that the South will look to other countries to exploit its oil reserves,” admitted the NCP spokesman El Zouma. “A lot of international parties are greedily looking to the mineral wealth of the South.”

On his visit to Juba, Bashir did not forget to mention oil and his desire to see continued cooperation between the Khartoum and the new government of the South on its extraction. Oil is blamed for having prolonged Sudan’s north-south civil war, but in a turn of fortune could now become the keystone of lasting peace.

Many unresolved issues, including the border-straddling region of Abyei, citizenship and border demarcation will keep the north and south engaged with one another in the months and perhaps years to come. Oil is almost certain to be part of future talks. “We hope our Southern brothers will listen to us. They have no outlet and not a single kilometre of pipeline. If they think rationally they will,” said El Zouma.

Date created : 2011-01-05


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