President Barack Obama has spent the last few months encouraging leaders in Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Libya, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda, and the African Union as a whole to accept the results of Sudan’s upcoming referendum on statehood. National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer told reporters that, “ongoing aggressive diplomatic effort with the parties in Sudan and with its neighbors reflecting our intense interest in having a successful referendum."
Hammer insisted that Sudan is one of Obama’s top foreign priorities, concluding, "We believe that an on-time referendum is the best means of preventing the resumption of a full-scale war between northern and southern Sudan.”
Unfortunately the referendum stands a good chance of descending into a broad spectrum of warfare, as the UN has predicted in a report obtained by The Associated Press.
Outlining the worst case scenarios following Sudan’s January 9th election, the UN estimates that 2.8 million people could be at risk of violence, displacement, or starvation if one or both sides reject the referendum’s outcome. The UN, “is in consultation with the southern government” based on the assessment that, “during the referendum period and its aftermath, a number of unprecedented risks are likely to emerge.”
While the White House hopes that everything goes smoothly - as if it ever does - the odds of each scenario must be analyzed and factored into a pre and post-election strategy.
The best news out of Sudan is an overall softening in regional tensions. Although the Obama administration has championed the virtues of democracy and progressing African politics, these talking points didn’t sell Sudanese and other African leaders. At first the AU resisted the thought of secession, as the bloc’s policy opposes breakaway territories out of fear of empowering Africa’s numerous liberation groups. But the White House impressed upon Sudan’s neighbors that, in the event of regional warfare, the spill-over will contaminate them all - and the “domino theory” argument has won out.
The UN’s document warns, "deterioration of the North-South relationship, as well as tensions within northern and southern Sudan could lead to large-scale outflow of people to neighboring countries."
It’s also believed that the north has finally given up on the south. Nafie Ali Nafie, an aide to President Omar al-Bashir, recently accepted the south’s independence after regretting that unity efforts failed. Perhaps the international walls have finally closed around Khartoum, or else the north and south realize they need each other too much. 75% of Sudan’s proven oil reserves lie in the south while its refineries and port operate in northern territory. With oil accounting for 45% of northern revenues and 98% of southern revenues, both sides would be choking themselves if they attacked each other.
The Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and Sudan People Liberation Army (SPLA), the south’s armed forces, even signed a framework agreement over oilfields and related infrastructure in the South. Of all the forces keeping Sudan in a tense equilibrium, this mutual dependence may be the most solid.
Oil, of course, is also a powder-keg awaiting detonation from a thousand sparks. Sudan embodies a state of Murphy’s Law - so many things can wrong that conflict must be expected. Hammer declares with confidence, "Over the past four months, the administration has redoubled our efforts to support referendum preparations and peace negotiations between the two parties."
While failing to hold the referendum on time would potentially unleash another civil war, the White House’s support isn’t without a double dose of irony. Support of the referendum’s outcome, to be specific. In the White House’s mind, as in nearly every Southerner, independence is “inevitable.” Other inevitabilities: voting irregularities, political persecution, night-raids, air-raids, and prolonged insurgency. Sadly both of Sudan’s choices risk intense conflict. Americans know at least a few things about the lesser of two evils.
According to Pagun Amum, south Sudan government's minister of peace, "I am sure 100 percent that the voting will go very peacefully unless someone in Khartoum decides to interrupt the process. It is not a very high probability, but of course it is there."
The probability is too high in Sudan.
Despite their public acceptance of a southern Sudan, northern officials appear to be lulling people to sleep. Officials from the north recently met with Libyan and Egyptian officials to discuss holding the election in a "climate of freedom, transparency and credibility.” Not very comforting coming after Cairo’s own suppressive parliamentary election. Massive vote-rigging is possible.
al-Bashir also issued the alarming statement that, if the south does succeed, Sharia law will be rigorously enforced: “we will change the constitution and at that time there will be no time to speak of diversity of culture and ethnicity." The half million southern Sudanese living in the north could become immediate targets for persecution.
On top of the north’s general resentment of southern secession and the continual hostilities with Sudan’s many armed factions, Abyei’s “special administrative status” remains a provocative unknown. Still undefined by its borders, the central region is considered key despite its oil reserves trending downward. But Maj. Gen. Scott Gration, the White House’s envoy and one of its most optimistic officials, recently conceded that Abyei isn’t in position to hold its referendum.
Since the parties involved have enough of a challenge defining Abyei’s borders, Gration believes a political resolution should split the territory to avoid conflict. This seems like a recipe for conflict, one of many detonators for both states. Amum believes that Khartoum should consider just handing over Abyei to the south, an even quicker path to war. The people of Abyei are worried that whatever side they shun will retaliate.
Once down the warpath Sudan’s territories are left with three worst case scenarios: insurgency, conventional warfare mixed with insurgency, and outright conventional warfare. The last possibility, though still feasible, is least likely for several reasons. In addition to a presumed U.S./EU/AU military response, Khartoum won’t resort directly to its military when it operates its own paramilitary in the Janjaweed, Popular Defense Force, and foreign mercenaries.
Any warfare will mix conventional air operations with unconventional ground operations, backed by regular units where necessary.
Yet this step down is only slight comfort to those who have witnessed the Janjaweed in action, many of which were absorbed into the Sudanese military. They could deploy independently. One can sense the return of Sudan’s armed groups like a desert that just drained a rainstorm, the battlefield gradually stirring to life again, virtually assuring an armed conflict of some type following the referendum. According to the UN report, both the northern and southern militaries and paramilitiaries are hastily stocking arms and reinforcing their positions along the border, limiting aid work.
The resulting competition over positioning has sparked dozens of clashes between the Sudanese military and Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), Darfur’s main insurgent group. JEM claims that government forces just attacked a position near Dar al Salaam, while also declaring to fight alongside the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) for the first time.
Clearly the referendum can touch off Darfur as well.
And the White House recently warned Khartoum to end its bombing raids on the south, not the kind of pre-election atmosphere Washington had in mind. Attacks on November 12, November 24, and December 6 are still being investigated by the Sudanese government, but Susan Rice isn’t buying any of it. The US ambassador to the UN (and the White House’s toughest critic of Khartoum) told reporters after a Security Council meeting on the referendum, "The United States calls on the government of Sudan to immediately halt aerial bombardments.”
In the event that one or both sides reject the electoral process and/or results, the World Food Program and other aid organizations have already begun “pre-propositioning the six core pipelines” (food, nutrition, non-food items and emergency shelter, emergency medical kits, seeds and tools, and water, sanitation and hygiene supplies). One million people in need will exhaust the West’s capabilities let alone 2.8 million. Sudan’s Afghan-like infrastructure also led the UN to predict, “as the conflict drags out, local level government structures will become inoperative and social service delivery and trade will be seriously disrupted.”
The strong possibility exists that Sudan’s insurgent groups will use the chaos to seize whatever territory they can grab under the banner of “self-determination.” Also possible: al-Qaeda slips in undercover or Sudanese-Muslim insurgents take refuge in the Sahel, Somalia, or Yemen.
Southern Sudan would make for a wonderful African tale if it didn't have so many bad endings to choose from. al-Bashir, the world’s most powerful war criminal, would be further isolated by a Southern Sudan, allowing for easier containment or removal. Except every indication points to conflict on some level. The White House waged its policy on a successful referendum, ignoring criticism from Save Darfur for going too soft on al-Bashir. The south will be free if it can just get to January 9th.
But the White House better be prepared for democracy’s Hyde side.