They don’t like it…

January 4, 2011 § 5 Comments

So I wrote a post about Sudan and its January 9th referendums and then it got deleted. I’m still mourning it but life goes on and it ain’t coming back so here I go again:

So Sudan is a country which the British conquered in the late 19th century. It is where the “Fuzzy Wuzzies” (or Hadendoa Dervishes) massacred Gordon at Khartoum before being brutally put down by the British Army as fairly faithfully represented by Corporal Jones in Dad’s army. As he so astutely pointed out “they don’t like it up ’em” – a pity as stabbing seems to be one of the main recreational activities in the region.


Anyway that’s my last snide comment: I’m now going to attempt to stay away from the whole “isn’t it all so gloomy?” school of journalism because a) it can slip quite easily into Orientalism (over Christmas I started to think that if Edward Said read Foreign Affairs he’d build up sufficient Relative Centrifugal Force to leave himself nicely sedimented) and b) I don’t think that is really the story.

I once met a man (hideous name drop number one of 2011: I was on the panel for Yvonne Ridley’s discussion show) who’d just come back from the Sudan and said that the mood amongst many was hostile to the western media because they concentrate so heavily on the negatives in Sudanese politics that it denigrates their achievements. As a case in point: they had just had an election for the Presidency which Omar al-Bashir had rigged. And that was all that was reported: “typical African farce “etc… The Sudanese were quite cross about this because they felt that whilst, yes, they had been rigged, they were still the best elections they’d ever had: they marked a qualitative leap forwards – particularly in the conversations that had been engendered and the relative lack of violence – and they were very angry that the west had chosen to ignore all of these positives and just look at the headline result.

Of course if one goes too far down this line then you can easily become an apologist for Bashir, but I think it is worth looking beyond the obvious negatives and – not to belittle the very serious problems in Sudan – highlight the quite extraordinary achievement of the Sudanese in emerging from the nightmare of the last 20 years into a situation which is now merely absolutely terrible. My personal view is that Bashir is a monster and that there aren’t many saints in this story but that there is a process in place which is going somewhere and that, in itself, is remarkable.

So what’s going on?

Well one of the things that upset me most about losing my last post is I lost the guide I did to the 20+ groups involved with the Sudanese Civil War. I can’t face recreating it, I also think a lot of it is kind of redundant. So I’m going to try explaining this in a different way.

Whilst it is a bit of a simplification, the Civil War was basically between those who supported and those who opposed Bashir. Bashir himself has been the President since seizing power in a coup in 1989. His supporters tend to be members of some (although not necessarily all) of the following partly overlapping groups: northerners or those from the centre, Muslims, pastoralists, ethnic Arabs, nomads, paler skinned people. Conversely his opponents tend to be from some (although not necessarily all) of the following partly overlapping groups: people from the peripheries of the nation, Christians and Animists, aribalists, ethnic Africans, settled populations, darker skinned people.

In addition there is a region-wide angle to all this. Whilst the only recent official war between Sudan and its neighbours was a reasonably bloodless two year spat with Chad between 2005 and 2007, it is no secret that Sudan loathes and is loathed by all its neighbours – particularly the two other regional strongmen: Chad’s Idriss Deby and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni. This results in a network of interrelated proxy wars: Chad, Uganda, and the Central African Republic all have 4 or more active rebel groups (the splits between each nation’s rebel groups are usually either religious or due to historical disagreements over whether to accept a particular peace offer). They all accuse Sudan of providing funding and support for these rebellions; nor are these accusations without justification.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that the fighting associated with any particular nation’s civil war does not necessarily happen within the boundaries of that nation; rather rebel groups and government armies chase each other all across the four afflicted nations, clashing en route with other rebel groups involved in other civil wars and other national armies. They also often spill over into the DR Congo (everyone’s favourite military destination), Eritrea, and Cameroon (where they complicate Cameroon’s own civil war – which some have suggested is also linked to Bashir).

Regardless of Bashir’s complicity in actively supporting these groups (the consensus seems to be that the link with at least some is proven, others may be a case of scapegoating the obvious suspect) it is undeniable that he at least tolerates their presence on Sudanese soil. The Ugandan People’s Democratic Army now exist almost exclusively in southern Sudan and the Lord’s Resistance Army were until recently one of the major military forces in Sudan – often doing more to crush Sudan’s own rebellion than the Sudanese army.

Which brings me back by a commodius vicus of recirculation to Sudan’s own civil war. Sudan likewise claims the other countries involved in the proxy wars are financing the Sudanese rebel groups, and that too is possibly the case. Ethiopia has also given lavishly to anti-Bashir rebel groups in the past and there is a long list of potential donors for such a cause. Remember when Somali pirates captured a boat carrying 33 tanks and numerous artillery pieces and nobody would admit to knowing anything about who owned it, where it had come from, or where it was going? Well that is a classic case in point. It turned out to be destined for anti-Bashir south Sudanese rebels via a complex arrangement involving the Ukraine and Kenya. According to wikileaks the USA too has donated arms.

To add one final layer of complexity to all this, Bashir likes the freedom that acting outwith the state gives him and so, as well as acting through the military, he likes to cultivateparamilitary forces. So as well as the Sudanese Army you have the Janjaweed (Janjaweed is a blanket term meaning Arab fighter – one of the best translations for it I have seen is “Viking” – but has come to mean all the non formal supporters of Bashir), the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, and – until the late 90s – Al Qaeda (Bin Laden lived in Sudan from 1992 to 1996) fighting for Bashir. It is these non-state pro-Bashir actors that perpetrated some of the worst abuses of the war.

So where does that leave us? Well look at this map:


The civil war is kind-of still going on but there has been a bit of a lull of late. When it was in full flow Bashir’s forces held the orange and various rebels held all the other bits. As part of the peace process (which officially started in 1993 but became meaningful in around 2005ish) the orange is controlled by the national government whilst all the other areas have their own transitional arrangements. The national government is meant to involve representatives of all the various rebel groups but it is pretty much entirely Bashir dominated.

Going round the other areas: the green is Darfur. Darfur was dominated by two rebel groups during the Civil War: the Sudan Liberation Movement and the Justice and Equality Movement; the main difference being that the JEM have an Islamic ideology whereas the SLM recruit mostly from Christians and Animists. Since then Darfur has been ruled by the Transitional Darfur Regional Authority: an organisation with ten members, eight of whom are members of the  JEM or the SLM.

The idea was then to have a referendum to decide whether to go back to the old system in which Darfur doesn’t really exist (and thereby accept a fairly central Bashir-driven state) or set up an autonomous region of Darfur (which would doubtless be dominated by the JEM and the SLM, and may eventually lead to full Darfuri independence). Either way the Transitional Authority would be abolished. But it didn’t quite work out so smoothly – first the transitional authority accused the national government of exceeding its authority and interfering in its affairs, then the national government accused the JEM and SLM of breaching the ceasefire, then they counter-accused the government, via the Janjaweed, of breaching the ceasefire and said they were “stepping away from the peace process”. As a result the transitional authority limps on (severely damaged) things are very tense indeed, and the referendum on the future state of Darfur (originally set for August and then reset for the same day as the other referendums) has no date set. Talks to resolve the situation are ongoing but are badly stalled.

The purple is the Eastern Front. The Eastern Front is the name for both an area and the group that runs it. They are formed from the political movements behind two of the area’s ethnic groups: the “Beja Congress” and the “Rashida Free Lions”. They in turn were backed by Eritrea and by Darfur’s JEM. After a long fight with the Janjaweed they settled on a peace treaty whereby they would become the de facto rulers of the area whilst the de jure power would be held by the central government (various parliamentary seats and provincial ministries are also guaranteed to them). They are not directly involved in the referendum.

The pink represents the Blue Nile an Nubian mountain areas. These areas supported the southern rebels in the civil war but have been quietly forgotten about by both sides. The idea is that the areas are too poorly defined, and the issues too complex,  for a referendum to be a fair reflection of popular will. As a result there will instead be “popular consultations” at the same time as the referendums to decide what the future of the areas will be. Everyone agrees that this is just a polite fiction, that the consultations will be minimal, and that they will end with the areas returning to Bashir government control. Some fear these areas may become the Ulster of the settlement: sold out by the south in exchange for their own independence and creating a problem for the future.

The red represents Abyei. Abyei has always occupied a bridging role between north and south, both culturally and geographically. Militarily it was split in half between the government and the southern rebels. As such it is a matter of great controversy whether it should be included in any peace settlement affecting the south. The UN negotiated compromise is that, whilst it will not be involved in the peace settlement for the south initially it will, at the same time as the other referendum, hold a binding referendum of its own on whether to consider itself northern and southern and, if it chooses southern, then whatever deal is agreed for the south will also apply to it. This is the first of the referendums which will actually go ahead on the 9th. Like the other it will require a simple majority either way to pass but a turnout of less than 60% will require it to be re-run at a timetable which has yet to be determined.

Incidentally it is not the whole of Abyei that will get to vote, but just those contentious districts that the international arbitration panel decided not to decide for itself upon – they have already put the rest, including the region’s largest oilfield, into the north.

Most importantly the blue is South Sudan. It was initially in the South Sudan that the most fierce of the civil war fighting occurred and many early reports characterised the Sudanese Civil War as a purely north-south affair. However there has actually been a fairly lasting peace between north and south since 2005 and in that time the violence, and the attention of the world, moved to Darfur and to the Eastern Front. The reason the peace has lasted is because the largest of the rebel groups – the Sudan People’s Liberation Army or Movement (not to be confused with the similarly named Darfuri group) are very powerful indeed. They have tanks. They were the de facto rulers of the south for many years and the peace process accepted the institutions they set up as the legitimate institutions of state in the south. In theory it also gave them a stake in the national government and the vice presidency, but in practice the SPLA have been willing for Bashir to keep the north and Bashir has been willing to let the SPLA keep the south.

In essence what started as a civil war over who should rule the nation developed an ethno-religious aspect, in so doing it became an inter-regional conflict and now it has become so entrenched as such that we are actually looking at the nation potentially splitting in half.

And so now we have this referendum on independence on the ninth. After much toing and froing over exactly what majorities and what turnouts would constitute what result all parties seem to now accept that if over 50% of people vote yes on January 9th, and if turnout is over 60%, South Sudan will become an independent nation. If they vote no it won’t. And if turnout is less than 60% then we will do the whole thing again at some point in the future.

At what point hasn’t been decided yet, nor has the process for giving Southern Sudan independence should it vote for it. And herein lies the rub of the issue. In a sense what the outcome is is immaterial*: if they vote yes it will just make formal a separation which has existed in actuality for many years, if they vote no then the SPLA will still have total control of the south and Bashir total control of the north. Either way some of the main problems (racial, religious, and ethnic tension, mob violence, the tensions between the two sides, the fact that both sides are ruled by totalitarian dictators) will remain. However if the process goes wrong, then that is much much more serious. I can’t see any specific result in of itself leading to a resumption of the civil war – there isn’t enough at stake – but problems in the process, that could start a civil war overnight, because it is in the process that everything is at stake. The South is terrified of losing the autonomy it has, and if the north attempts to seize it back it will be procedural.

And so there we have it. It should be three referendums plus one consultation exercise but instead it will be just two referendums and once charade.  A new country may well be born; but if it isn’t it will scarcely matter. Indeed if all goes well none of it will really matter and the peace will last, but if anything goes wrong it will be a bloodbath.

Fingers crossed.



*Potentially one could argue that if the south gets independence than that will make north Sudan a more homogeneously Arabic and pro-Bashir place and that will be bad for Darfur and for other minorities in the north. I would argue that as these groups never enjoyed particularly strong support from the southern rebels in any case the political effect will be minimal. Militarily being free of the south might free up the Sudanese Army and Janjaweed for more of its police actions/ethnic cleansing but if Bashir really decides to go for his own people the way he did a few years ago then of far greater import will be the strength and nature of the African Union and UN response.



§ 5 Responses to They don’t like it…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading They don’t like it… at Who rules where.


%d bloggers like this: