UN troops move to north-south border as secession vote looms

The semi-autonomous Government of South Sudan has pledged to hold a long-awaited referendum on independence in January despite Khartoum’s objections, prompting international alarm over the prospect of another civil war.



A top UN official said Friday that extra peacekeeping troops were being deployed to "hotspots" on the north-south Sudan border to head off violence before a January 9th referendum that could break up Africa's biggest country.

If not for the heavy presence of soldiers or the conspicuous t-shirts of rivalling political leaders on the backs of young men, a visitor to southern Sudan would not imagine that civil war plagued the country less than ten years ago – or that a new wave of violence could be just weeks away.

“There are no visible scars of the war, and people don’t really talk about it,” says Benjamin Macciow, a French paediatric nurse working with a humanitarian group in the region (NGO’s name withheld on its request). However, Macciow says, the rejection of the mostly black southerners toward the local Arab minority is palpable.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir (left) and Vice President Salva Kiir (right), the leaders of the parties to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended two decades of civil war in 2005.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir (left) and Vice President Salva Kiir (right), the leaders of the parties to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended two decades of civil war in 2005.

That animosity is the result of two prolonged civil wars between the Arab and Muslim north and rebels in the Christian-animist south, which killed two million people, according to the former rebels. In 2005 the two sides signed Sudan’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). The South secured some autonomy for six years and a promise that it could vote on its independence thereafter.

“Northerners in the South have been extensions of the Khartoum government in the South through their activities as soldiers and other government agents,” explains Alfred Lokuji, a Sudanese analyst based in the southern capital of Juba. “For southerners, there is little reason to believe that the people and government are different.”

In less than 100 days southerners expect to vote on whether to split with the north. It is widely expected that a referendum will favour secession.

But the government of President Omar al-Bashir in Khartoum in the north has made it clear that Sudanese unity is non-negotiable.

Speaking to parliament on Tuesday, al-Bashir said: “Despite our commitment to the CPA we will not accept an alternative to unity.”

Khartoum has been criticised for trying to delay and manipulate the January referendum. Khartoum has countered that the south is threatening Sudan’s fragile peace by forcing an election before definitive borders are drawn. Both sides have accused each other of readying troops at the border.

Oil and regional pressure

“We know where the borders are,” says John Ashworth, an expert on the Sudan who took part in a delegation of concerned Sudanese church leaders who met UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon on Tuesday. “But if you look at the maps that have been drawn since 1956, especially since the 70s when oil was discovered, you’ll see that those borders have begun to march further south,” Ashworth adds.


At stake in the referendum is direct control over Sudan’s oil fields, 80 percent of which are located in the south. According to the International Monetary Fund, oil exports account for 65 percent of the government’s revenues. The 2005 CPA calls for equal oil revenue sharing between north and south.

The CPA also calls for a second, planned referendum on the disputed oil rich Abyei region that straddles the north-south border. Abyei must decide on whether it wants to answer to Khartoum or to Juba (in the South) in the future.

On Thursday, Khartoum said that it was impossible to hold the Abyei referendum on time.

According to Ashworth, it is no surprise Khartoum has stalled on both referendums. “[The CPA] is not a bad agreement for the south at all. When the north signed it many people suspected it would be dishonoured,” he says. Indeed, the international community has not been caught unaware by the menace of war, nor does it ignore that its resurgence would amplify conflicts in neighbouring DR Congo, Uganda, Chad and even as far away as Somalia.

A UN Security Council delegation visited Sudan last week to reinforce its message that a referendum on southern independence must be held on time.

Even Hollywood star George Cloonery has joined the effort to pressure the north to honour the referendum and prevent a new war. Speaking to France 24 this week, Clooney warned: “We were late for Congo, we were late for Rwanda, and we were late or Darfur. This is an opportunity to stop it before it happens. The situation requires sustained attention.”

But the situation has also caught the attention of Arab leaders who are inclined to sympathise with President al-Bashir. Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi warned last week that a partition of Sudan would be a “contagious disease” that could spread over Africa. Speaking at the opening of an Arab-Africa summit on Oct. 10, Gaddafi urged regional leaders to stand behind al-Bashir.

Back in south Sudan, Macciow’s NGO has been holding weekly security briefings to discuss procedure in the event of a new war. “My trainees think that violence may break out, but they also think they’ll be safe in the city,” he says. This opinion is not shared by all. As the scheduled date for the referendum approaches, Macciow says, many southern Muslims fearful of reprisals are making plans to head toward for the border.



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