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Don't forget the bigger picture in Sudan

Written by Sara Pantuliano

Sara Pantuliano, Head of the Humanitarian Policy Group at ODI answers some topical questions ahead of the referendum in Southern Sudan which looks likely to lead to secession for the southern part of the state.

If the South votes for secession, what are the key issues outlined in the CPA that still need to be addressed in order to ensure a peaceful separation, and how likely is it that Al-Bashir’s NCP party will accept/support the South should it vote to secede?

Many outstanding issues are still to be resolved should the South vote for secession, in particular how citizenship will be defined, border demarcations, the status of the disputed region of Abyei and wealth sharing, especially in relation to oil and land. President Al-Bashir’s National Congress Party will likely stall any decision on the outcome of the referendum until post-referendum negotiations on these issues have been finalised.

Sudan is one of the most under-developed countries in the world. What are the key humanitarian and developmental challenges facing Sudan and in what ways would the secession of the South help or hinder development?

In the last six years, attention was meant to be focused on fostering the development of the South. However, it was always unrealistic to expect that much could be achieved in such a short time in a region affected by decades of conflict and under-development. Today, in many regions, services are still inadequate and people’s needs are not being met, especially in the more peripheral areas. Many areas are still unsafe, making it difficult for humanitarian and development agencies to operate. Agencies have already raised concerns about the large numbers of Southerners returning from the North, fearing for their assets and possibly for their lives. Most are flocking to urban areas. In cities such as Juba, which has already almost trebled its population since the signing of the CPA, further large influxes of people will only exacerbate needs and heighten insecurity. For agencies, reintegration will remain a complex and challenging exercise as people struggle to establish their livelihoods. Tensions are only likely to increase.The referendum was a prize to be won at whatever cost, and in the pre-referendum fever many of the problems affecting the country were tolerated by the citizens of Southern Sudan or blamed on the North. Once the referendum is over blaming the North for the South’s problems will not be possible anymore; people’s expectations will be very high and the government will need to manage them and inspire confidence. Minimising corruption and increasing accountability will need to be a priority.

What will separation mean for the more marginalised communities in areas such as Southern Kordofan, Abyei and the Blue Nile?

These areas were meant to be the litmus test for a united Sudan and for the wealth- and power-sharing arrangements set out by the CPA. This has not happened. The borders of the region of Abyei are yet to be defined and the referendum that was supposed to take place along with the South Sudan referendum is not going ahead next week. What we have is a deadlocked situation where the Misseriyya are not being allowed to graze in the South in the current dry season. In Southern Kordofan, where a popular consultation rather than a referendum is supposed to be held, there is growing frustration and tension. Reports of troop movements do not bode well for a peaceful transition. This is a flashpoint in the making. For many of the communities affected by the North-South war, the atrocities committed during that time are still raw. Although Southern Kordofan (part of which is also known as the Nuba Mountains) and the Blue Nile are set to stay with the North in the event of secession, the sentiment of the people is still very divided.

The distribution of resources such as land and oil will be key in any transition. How do you expect this to happen?

Land will remain a vital issue, both in urban and rural areas. This is a key point of tension. No mechanisms are in place for people to reclaim their land, either because customary processes have broken down or because legislation is incomplete. In some areas, such as in Juba, there are simply not enough trained people to demarcate the land in the first place. Humanitarian and development actors cannot resolve these issues, but they can ease the situation by advocating for interim land titles until such time as the authorities are better able to address these problems. Development agencies should work with the authorities to train more people in land management and to help put a system in place, both in the capital and rural areas, with the involvement of affected communities.The issue of oil, at least politically, could actually be the saving grace for Sudan – a resource that will connect the two sides, at least temporarily. Both rely on each other for the exploitation of these resources: Southern Sudan will have to rely on the pipeline and the refineries in the North and the North on the revenues from pipeline and refinery fees, so it is in both parties’ interest to negotiate a wealth-sharing agreement. However, there is a great deal of frustration in communities in areas with oil installations, as they see little of the benefits. Many have lost grazing and agricultural land to oil exploration and infrastructure, water and pasture pollution has become a huge problem and many are unable to graze their cattle freely around oil rigs.

What recommendations would you make to the international community to support Sudan after the referendum?

A few months ago, no one would have believed that the referendum would take place on time; that it is going to happen has in part been down to the robust support of the international community. Many countries, particularly the US and several African states, have been very active to make sure that the referendum could go ahead. The biggest mistake that the international community could make now is to focus too much attention on the South and ignore the ongoing conflict in Darfur or escalating tensions in Southern Kordofan and Abyei. Now is the time to focus on Sudan as a whole. The North, the situation in Kordofan and the needs of marginalised communities throughout Sudan will continue to pose huge challenges.