The people of Southern Sudan ought to be celebrating on July 9 the culmination of their hard-won, long-fought and often extremely violent struggle for autonomy and respect on their own soil. On that day, the oil-rich but development-and-infrastructure-poor south is to break free from the oppressive yoke of Khartoum and officially declare itself as the world’s newest nation: The Republic of Southern Sudan. It ought to be a happy and optimistic time in a region that has had little reason for hope and few moments of sustained peace since Sudan, Africa’s largest country, gained independence in 1956.
But disturbing developments along Sudan’s contested, militarized and resource-laden north-south border look set to undermine the elation of independence. Throughout last month, aggressive military actions of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), the northern army, severely undermined internationally-backed negotiations between Juba and Khartoum to forge a peaceful and cooperative relationship between the two Sudans after the country splits. In lieu of level-headed discussions with the Juba government, Khartoum is instead using its army’s superior military strength over its southern “brethren” and southern-aligned civilians living in northern border areas — including the Southern Kordofan state and the strategic zone of Abyei, which both governments claim.
Chilling accounts are emerging from Southern Kordofan, home to the Nuba people, who practice several religions and allied themselves with the southern guerillas during the north-south civil war. The black African Nuba are northerners, and the Arab-led Khartoum government headed by President Omar al-Bashir — wanted by the International Criminal Court for atrocities committed in Sudan’s western Darfur region — has brutally lashed out against them in recent weeks, stirring local church leaders, international activists and diplomats alike to fear a repeat of the genocide perpetrated against the Nubas in the 1990s while the civil war raged. With restricted humanitarian access caused by insecurity and the government’s blocking of media access to the region in recent weeks, the impact of the SAF’s aerial bombing of civilian areas in Southern Kordofan is difficult to verify. But the United Nations said at the end of June that at least 73,000 people had fled their homes since fighting erupted between northern and southern forces in the state’s capital Kadugli on June 6.
After winning praise earlier for accepting the near-unanimous results of the south’s independence vote held in January, President Bashir now appears to be attempting to undermine southern secession by tearing the north-south border asunder, a strategy that provides his government with the added advantage of a destabilizing “spillover effect” for the south. Sporadic violence continues to dog the former southern guerilla movement — turned soon-to-be-national army, known as the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) —as it confronts a range of rebel movements aiming to overthrow the southern government. The SPLA’s recent campaigns against these rebel movements have raised human rights concerns abroad — especially given the substantial Western support for the army — after civilian deaths in many oil-producing southern areas further stoked the south’s internal grievances.
The southern government blames Khartoum for backing these rebel militias, which is certainly possible, though hard evidence to support these claims is, again, difficult to come by. Rebels fighting the SPLA take issue with how it is governing, citing problems of ethnic exclusion and corruption in the soon-to-be-born state, and some of these complaints are merited. Building a state is a monumental task by any standard, not to mention creating a nation out of the scores of local tribes and sub-groups in the Afghanistan-sized south. If the Khartoum government’s deadly games in Southern Kordofan persist, July 9 will not be a day for celebration, especially given the plight facing the Nuba. The south will still likely get its freedom, though, and be saddled with the new challenges it will bring.
A saying I’ve often heard repeated by southerners in discussing successive regimes in Khartoum is a quote from former Vice President Abel Alier: “Too many disagreements dishonored.” The broken promises of Khartoum at the eleventh hour of a painstaking and years-long north-south peace process are a bitter but fitting note with which to mark the division of Sudan.
MAGGIE FICK is a freelance journalist based in Southern Sudan writing for the Associated Press, Foreign Policy and the Christian Science Monitor