The stakes are high as Southern Sudanese head for the polls to decide on whether or not they want to break away from the North. While the North-South tug of war is centred around oil and the Nile’s water, ethnicity and religion have proved to be the breaking point in a highly polarized country.
As fear of war looms with the two sides amassing weapons, what is the role of regional players, including Ethiopia, Egypt, Eritrea, Libya and Kenya, who stand to lose or gain from Sudan’s split or union? And what about the international community, the African Union, the Arab League? Here is the first of a series of articles that tackle questions surrounding who stands to gain or lose from the pending referenda.
Dozens of tanks and artillery discovered on a ship hijacked by Somali pirates were secretly headed for South Sudan, according to diplomatic cables recently exposed by the WikiLeaks whistleblower website. The military stockpiling of southern Sudan is in response to an already formidable reserve of weapons amassed by the Khartoum government of northern Sudan. Animosities between the mostly black Christian southern Sudanese and the mainly Arab Muslim population in the North are resurfacing as the January 9 referendum vote approaches.
And while Ethiopia, Eritrea and China have remained ambiguous over their relations with both the North and South, Egypt, Libya and most Middle Eastern countries have shown support for the North.
The preparation of Southern Sudanese voters, both inside and outside Sudan, ahead of the pending referenda on the secession or independence of South Sudan and or the Abyei region, in accordance with the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed in Kenya between the government of the Sudan led by General Omar Beshir and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) led by the late Dr. John Garang, is in full swing. But the oil rich and disputed region of Abyei’s participation in the historic referendum, which should, under normal circumstances, take place early 2011, remains shrouded in total mystery.
With the recent postponement of the oil-rich Abyei region’s independence referendum, it is unlikely that the outcome of the polls will be respected, at least by the Khartoum government, which stands to lose. Notwithstanding the fact that a new cycle of war could wreck havoc to Africa’s largest country with drastic implications for the Horn of Africa region as a whole, some regional actors have tended to be lopsided backing one side against the other.
While Libya and most Middle Eastern countries back the North, with Egypt remaining Khartoum’s ally in its dispute with the Nile Basin countries, Ethiopia and Eritrea have trod witty and ambiguous lines while working with Khartoum on the one hand, and the West in what concerns the South’s cessation from the North on the other hand. The international community also remains divided as China seeks to keep cordial relations with both sides. Washington’s stance on the other hand has been revealed after WikiLeaks went public with leaked diplomatic cables on Sudan.
The recently released U.S. diplomatic cables also reveal that a Ukrainian cargo ship allegedly headed for Kenya, captured by Somali pirates in September 2008, was carrying tons of military armament. The arms ship which was, in fact, destined for southern Sudan bore testimony of an arms buildup in the oil-rich country that runs counter to armament embargoes established by the United Nations, the European Union and the country’s own Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005. Northern Sudan has reportedly invested in even more sophisticated military stockpiling, and possesses a military almost twice the size of southern Sudan’s.
And last week’s attack by the Sudanese army on the only Darfur rebel group to have signed the Darfur Peace Agreement in 2006, killing one and forcing about 250 people to flee, as reported by AFP, comes at a very sensitive moment. According to Chris Cycmanick, spokesman for UNAMID, the international peacekeeping force in Darfur, two separate ground attacks over the weekend (10 & 11 December) were aimed at elements of the faction of the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM).
Answers to questions surrounding who stands to gain or lose from the pending referenda highlight the political and economic dynamics of Sudan. Seen as a country where millions of lives have been lost to conflicts attributed to religion and power as well as natural resources, Sudan is one of the key players of the volatile Horn of Africa region; A region whose diverse ethnic groupings are more often than not split among regional states or share the same land with other hitherto hostile communities, as a result of colonialisation.
An unstable Sudan, a country that is comparable in size to Western Europe or more than a quarter of the United States of America, could have far reaching repercussions in not only the Horn of Africa, but the Sahel region that connects North and Sub-Saharan Africa.
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