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 centered around oil and the Nile’s water, ethnicity and religion have proved to be the breaking points 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? The second of our series of articles presents a historical background of the root cause of the crisis, highlighting questions surrounding who gains or loses from the pending referenda.
Britain, the colonial power that ruled the Sudan for so long, saw to it that Northern and Southern Sudan remain divided. Britain restricted access between the North and the South and denied the Southerners any representation or development. The years from 1953 to 1955 represented a period of non-representation of South Sudan in the administrative, civil service or political fields, thereby aggravating the disparity between North and South.
From 1955 up to the outbreak of the October Revolution in 1964, centralized rule was in place, and by then, 1958 coup-maker General Ibrahim Abbud had become an outright dictator whose stifling and repressive policies to Islamize and Arabize the South further polarized the country and alienated the South.
The government of Sir Al-khatim Al-khalifa, which came to power after the October Revolution that overthrew the Abbud regime, issued, for the first time in the country’s history, a statement that contained recognition of the problem in the South as political. The October government went on to hold a Round Table Conference for the resolution of the Southern problem in Khartoum in March 1965 during which the Southern Front tabled the issue of self-determination. But the traditional Northern parties rejected the South’s demands of self-determination and aborted the Round Table effort.
Islamizing and Arabizing the South
Despite the promise of a social revolution and justice for all Sudanese, the period from 1965 to 1969 did not augur well for the South, leading to historic massacres in the large Southern cities of Juba and Wau in July 1965. Veteran Northern politicians who today claim to have some sympathies for the Southern cause were then calling for the Islamization of the South. Hassan al Turabi who was then head of the Islamic Charter Front declared that the South had no culture and needs to accept Islam and the Arab culture. Umma party leader Sediq Al Mahdi stated the following in October 1966 as the premier of the Constituent Assembly:
“The dominant nature of our nation is an Islamic one and its overpowering expression is Arab and the Nation will not have its entity identified and its prestige and pride preserved except under an Islamic revival.”
The position of the then strong Sudanese Communist Party (SCP) has often been ambivalent on the Southern issue, though its central committee held Southern leaders like Joseph Garang (killed by Jafar Nimeri in 1971). Officers sympathetic to the SCP were involved in the country’s May 1969 coup d’etat that took over power, however, the Declaration of June 9, 1969 was ambiguous at best.
Southern demands had, in the meantime, evolved from civil service posts to self-determination and self-administration, but a paternalist and racially prejudiced North was at odds with the South’s reality. In February 1962 some Southerners came together to form the Sudan African Closed Districts National Union. In April 1963, the group changed its name to the Sudan African National Union (SANU) and advocated outright independence for southern Sudan.
Junior civil servants or former members of the Equatoria Corps took arms and formed guerrilla bands. The guerilla bands, known as Anya Nya, started operating in 1963. And with the help of Ethiopia (under Haile Selassie), which was at the time strongly opposed to Sudan’s support to Eritrean Liberation Front/ELF rebels, and the Israelis who had a clear interest in weakening the Sudan, and by implication Egypt, the Anya Nya developed into a serious military force that controlled most of the rural areas of Southern Sudan. Its military leaders subsequently formed a political organization, which was to be named the Southern Sudan Liberation Movement (SSLM).
Sharia law for the South
In 1971 Nimeri, weakened by a coup attempt by pro SCP officers and confronted by a drain on the weak economy by the war in the South, agreed to negotiate a compromise with the SSLM. Long discussions culminated in peace negotiations in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in February and March 1972. Under the provisions of the Addis Ababa accords, the central government and the SSLM agreed to a ceasefire, and Khartoum recognized the regional autonomy of the three southern provinces.
After signing the accord, Nimeri issued a decree for the establishment of a Southern Regional Assembly. The assembly’s members were elected in multiparty elections, the first of which was held in 1973, with a second election five years later. Throughout the 1970s, the authoritarian Nimeri government fairly observed the Addis Ababa accords.
But in 1981 Nimeiri practically abrogated the Addis Ababa accords by dissolving the Southern Regional Assembly. The political malaise was further compounded by the economic problems of the South, ranging from inflation to lack of basic necessities and jobs. And when Nimeri appointed Muslim Brotherhood leader Hassan Turabi as attorney general in November 1981, the South’s fears of forced Islamization increased.
A mutiny among about 1,000 southern troops in February 1983 led to attacks on government property and forces throughout the region. US-educated Colonel Dr. John Garang, who at first tried to be a go-between between the mutineers and the government, changed sides and joined the rebellion to form the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement. Nimeri compounded the whole problem by imposing the Sharia on the whole country. The SPLM formed its army (the SPLA), mainly and massively aided by Ethiopia, this time under Mengistu Haile Mariam, further inflaming attitudes among non-Muslims in the south. The SPLM and the defeat imposed on Nimeri’s soldiers led to a dissatisfaction in the North and an eventual overthrow of Nimeri in 1985.
Omar Bashir and the Sharia
The SPLM political program was one of forming a New Sudan and not secession as in the past. Yet the new government of Umma leader Sadiq al Mahdi procrastinated on the main dividing issue of the Sharia, although it met with SPLM leaders in Ethiopia’s Koka Dam palace.
The government was not ready to repeal the Sharia. The leader of another traditional Northern party, the Democratic Unionist Party/DUP of the Kathmiya religious sect, that is to say Mohamed al Mirghani, was ready, on the contrary, to repeal the Sharia to achieve peace, and consequently met with Garang in Ethiopia in December 1988 in order to reach a promising tentative accord.
The move got the support of other parties and civic bodies in the North. Conversely, Turabi’s National Islamic Front opposed it and put pressure on Sediq al Mahdi not to accept it. Characteristically, Sadiq al Mahdi temporized; and despite public protest including a memorandum from the military never got to repeal the Sharia, though it formed a government without NIF participation. By not including the NIF they dug their own grave, as the former plotted a coup against it. In June 1989 Omar Bashir took power after a coup, after which the question of repealing the Sharia and making peace with the SPLM/A was discarded.
Yet South Sudan won’t be thwarted in its quest for identity. Several subsequent negotiations and meetings bore no fruit, and hundreds of thousands had to die before the agreement in Nairobi could be signed, and the path to a referendum on secession/independence agreed upon for January 2011.
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