Sudan’s Fractured Internal Politics

Sudan’s Fractured Internal Politics

Experts say instability in south Sudan should be looked at in tandem with the crisis in Darfur, and some call for addressing Sudan’s problems in a more unified way to help forestall an escalation of violence.

Last updated October 7, 2010 8:00 am (EST)

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For the past several years, significant U.S. attention has been focused on the crisis in Sudan’s Darfur region, in which roughly three hundred thousand have died and nearly three million have been displaced. Meanwhile, continued violence in South Sudan--along with uneven implementation of the fragile peace brought by the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) and an impending 2011 referendum on allowing South Sudan to break away--raises fears that the country’s civil strife will expand to disastrous levels. The country’s major opposition parties boycotted Sudan’s presidential election scheduled in April 2010--part of the first multi-party general elections in twenty-four years--citing concerns of irregularities in voter registration and insecurity in Darfur (SudanTribune).With much of the opposition boycotting, controversial President Omar al-Bashir received 68 percent of more than 10 million valid ballots and won another five year term.

U.S. foreign policy has treated Darfur and South Sudan as separate issues. But experts say both situations can be traced to Khartoum’s central government, which has historically maintained control of the country’s periphery through divide-and-rule policies. There is wide disagreement about the best policy course for the United States to pursue in Sudan, but analysts agree that any effective policy will have to consider Sudan’s internal politics and the center’s relationship with its periphery.

Khartoum and its Periphery

Sudan is the largest country in Africa, approximately the size of Western Europe. Since its independence in 1956, it has been roiled by civil war almost continuously. This war was initially between northern Sudan and the south, which objected to its isolation and lack of development relative to the north. Following the military coup that brought Bashir to power in 1989, his National Congress Party (NCP) spurred an Islamist revolution that empowered the center’s security and business interests at the expense of rural areas.

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South Sudan


Crisis Guide: Darfur In response, groups from each peripheral area of Sudan entered conflict with the central government. Although a series of agreements have been enacted to patch relations between the government and these periphery territories--the CPA, the Darfur Peace Agreement, and the East Sudan Peace agreement--"all suffer from lack of implementation," according to a 2009 briefing paper from the International Crisis Group. The government maintains that peripheral areas in the south were underdeveloped because of the long civil war.

In a 2009 article for International Affairs, Sudan expert Alex de Waal says insight into these conflicts requires an understanding of Sudan’s "political marketplace" (PDF), in which provincial leaders bargain with Khartoum for the price of their loyalty. Each time they start a new round of negotiations with the government, they launch "a targeted assault on the economic and human assets of the metropolitan elites," he writes. For example, a group might attack a merchant or army outpost as a way of drawing attention and demanding that the government bargain with it. The government usually retaliates with another act of violence, de Waal writes, and then the two sides will settle, or the violence escalates. The regions with ongoing conflicts are as follows:

  • Darfur. In February 2003, rebels from the western Darfur region of Sudan launched an uprising and demanded equal representation in the government and improved infrastructure in the region. The government retaliated by sending armed Arab militias, known as janjaweed, to target the villages of the rebel groups. In February and March 2010, the government signed separate tentative peace deals with two of Darfur’s major opposition groups (SudanTribune), the Justice and Equality Movement and the Liberation and Justice Movement. Yet continued clashes between rebel forces and the government and disagreements over the power-sharing and election process have put the ceasefire in jeopardy.
  • Southern Sudan. Southern Sudan, which holds roughly 85 percent of Sudan’s oil, fought to achieve independence from 1955 to 1972, and again from 1983 until 2005. In its second iteration, the war in the south was fought by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), which gained political legitimacy under the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) and become known as the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). The CPA gave the oil-rich south autonomy for six years, to be followed by a January 2011 referendum on secession, and there are indications the south will overwhelmingly vote to separate. In an April 2010 election, Salva Kiir was elected president of Sudan’s semi-autonomous south, paving the way for the referendum. But continuing conflict between the north and south could jeopardize the vote.
  • Southern Kordofan. Created by the CPA, this new state straddles the border area between north and south. It has fertile land for agriculture and the only proven oil reserves in northern Sudan. It is also one of the poorest states in the country. During the north-south war, Southern Kordofan was a critical battleground. The CPA has a special protocol related to the region, but its neglect has led to "insecurity and growing dissatisfaction," according to an International Crisis Group briefing on South Kordofan from 2008. The briefing says the state’s inhabitants "are armed and organized, and feel increasingly abandoned by their former patrons, who have not fulfilled their promise to provide peace dividends." Experts note that if there is to be war between the south and Khartoum, it is likely to start in Southern Kordofan. And humanitarian experts are particularly concerned about the appointment of Ahmed Harun as the region’s governor, since he is wanted internationally for war crimes in Darfur.
  • Eastern Sudan. Fighting erupted in northeastern Sudan in 2005 between the Eastern Front, a group of rebels, and government troops. Rebels signed a peace deal with the central government in 2006.

The Comprehensive Peace Agreement Is Not Comprehensive

Experts agree that Sudan will not be a stable state until inequalities between the center and the periphery are addressed, but they differ on whether the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement facilitates or hinders that process. The CPA has been criticized for being nothing more than a bilateral deal between the north’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and the south’s SPLM that excludes other conflict-ridden parts of the country, such as Darfur. But the negotiators from the south believe the CPA is "a panacea for other problems in Sudan," according to Omer Ismail, a Sudanese policy fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. The International Crisis Group asserts that "the CPA is the linchpin for peace throughout Sudan--[and] Darfur must be resolved within this context."

Resolving conflict in [Sudan’s] periphery will require resolving land problems, particularly in areas like Darfur, where massive displacement has complicated ownership issues.

Though the CPA excludes actors in large peripheral areas such as Darfur and eastern Sudan, it does call for state restructuring that could address what is viewed by many provinces as the central government’s excessive power. Edward Thomas, writing in a January 2009 report for UK-based think tank Chatham House, calls it "the most important political framework in Sudan." Its provisions on power-sharing, wealth-sharing, land, and elections "still offer Sudan an alternative to permanent crisis, fragmentation, or breakdown," he adds. Ismail cautions, however, that clauses applying to the entire country are much vaguer than those that apply specifically to the south.

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South Sudan


The elements of the CPA that affect the whole of Sudan include:

  • Elections. The CPA had called for general elections before mid-2009, with the aim of replacing appointed politicians with elected officials. Elections are meant to include state governors, state assemblies, the presidencies of northern and southern Sudan, the National Assembly in Khartoum, and the Legislative Assembly of southern Sudan. After several rounds of postponements, in part over a dispute over the country-wide census, general elections were held in Sudan from April 11-15, 2010. Various independent organizations, including Human Rights Watch and the Rift Valley Institute, published detailed accounts of the elections, citing abuses such as widespread intimidation against opponents and the manipulation of electoral districts.
  • Wealth-sharing. The CPA calls for the distribution of a greater share of oil revenues to the south, but it also commits to development funds that invest in conflict-affected areas, and the transfer of more resources to states. According to the World Bank, the percentage of government expenditures distributed by states rose from 8 percent in 2000 to 35 percent in 2007. The north and south have begun splitting the revenues from southern oil fields. However, there are questions about whether Khartoum is underreporting total revenues from these fields. Also in question is whether revenue sharing will continue in the case of the south’s independence.
  • Land. The CPA is supposed to establish a National Land Commission to resolve the multiple legal regimes for land ownership--but it has not yet been created. In some areas, the state leases tribal lands, while in others, ownership is market-based. Experts say resolving conflict in the periphery will require resolving land problems, particularly in areas like Darfur, where massive displacement has complicated ownership issues. Khartoum and the People’s Liberation Movement have used international arbitrators to decide control over disputed lands, especially in contentious southern regions surrounding oil fields and the Nile oil pipeline. In July 2009, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, based at The Hague, granted the southern region of Abyei to the Khartoum government (al-Jazeera). Such decisions are temporary; they only hold until the referendum decides whether Abyei will remain within northern Sudan or join the south which will simultaneously vote on its own independence. The region’s powerful Missiriya tribe, who spend months each year grazing cattle in Abyei, have threatened war with anyone who interferes with their voting in the January referendum (Reuters).

Continued delays and neglect of the CPA raise serious questions about how much of the agreement can be executed before 2011, when southern Sudan can hold a referendum on its independence. A March 2010 report from the Enough Project, an anti-genocide advocacy group, notes "the current environment remains incredibly fluid (PDF), and anything could happen before the expiration date on the CPA’s official ’interim period’ at the end of July 2011."

Searching for Stability in Sudan

The United States was instrumental in the negotiation of the CPA, but since then has focused on the crisis in Darfur. In 2008, some analysts began to call for an "all Sudan" policy that examined both the problems of CPA implementation and the crisis in Darfur. On October 19, 2009, the U.S. State Department announced a new U.S. policy on Sudan that seeks engagement with the Sudanese government to end atrocities in Darfur, implement the CPA, and prevent Sudan from becoming a haven for terrorism. Reviews of the Obama administration policy have been mixed. Ray Walser, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, wrote  that a "soft U.S. approach that curries favor with the present regime in Khartoum will permit those wedded to absolute power and unafraid of committing genocide to continue perpetuating tyranny and terror over the people of Sudan indefinitely." But CFR Senior Fellow John Campbell called the policy "a positive development" and said engagement is a necessary part of diplomacy.

A few experts suggest that there is little the United States can do to affect the political situation in Sudan. They argue that Sudan’s internal political upheaval . . . can only be resolved by a domestic political deal that has buy-in from all relevant parties.

In remarks on the fifth anniversary of the CPA in January 2010, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasized that the situation in Darfur must be seen in tandem with the CPA. "Threats to progress are real, reform of key institutions has been sporadic, and true democratic transformation--envisioned in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement--remains elusive," Clinton said in a statement. In response to the Clinton speech, John Prendergast, cofounder of the Enough Project, says the Obama administration should do more to get both sides to meet the commitments under the CPA.

In September 2010, the United States dispatched Special Envoy Scott Gration to the region to offer new incentives to the government in Khartoum to encourage a smooth referendum process (AP) including restoration of full diplomatic relations with the United States. The visit preceded President Obama’s attendance at a UN-organized summit on Sudan, which focused on the upcoming January referendum. Participants stressed the importance of ensuring that the referendum occurs as scheduled.

But experts note that the International Criminal Court’s investigation of Bashir, which resulted in an indictment in March 2009, has put the NCP on the defensive. Many government officials now spend much of their time trying to figure out how to handle the ICC, to the detriment of work on the CPA. "The NCP badly wants [2010] elections to go ahead in order to re-legitimize its rule and protect Bashir from the International Criminal Court’s arrest warrant issued against him earlier this year," International Crisis Group’s François Grignon wrote in late 2009 (Reuters).

A few experts suggest that there is little the United States can do to affect the political situation in Sudan. They argue that Sudan’s internal political upheaval--the weakening and fragmenting NCP, the changing aims of Southern Sudan, the ongoing conflict in Darfur--can only be resolved by a domestic political deal that has buy-in from all relevant parties. The Kennedy School’s Ismail, who grew up in Darfur, suggests that the "CPA needs to be revisited and other regions need to be included."

The Potential Split

Many experts believe the south will vote for secession if a referendum is held. A 2009 U.S. Institute of Peace Report on scenarios for the secession referendum predicts large-scale political violence (PDF) as a likely outcome. Another 2009 report, from the Netherland Institute for International Relations, on scenarios for Sudan in 2012 notes that even if the north and south separate peacefully, each region is likely to face internal conflicts (PDF). And Refugees International notes that donor states are not doing enough to prepare for the potential breakup of Sudan, especially the kind of aid southern Sudan will need to meet the needs of its people.

However, Payton Knopf, CFR’s International Affairs Fellow in Residence, argues that the United States and other nations must realistically assess the possibility that Sudan will be ready for the January referendum. He suggests that international participants in the Sudan peace process "must also, without inadvertently encouraging northern obstructionism, begin to develop alternative scenarios through quiet discussions with the parties."

With the threat of renewed civil conflict looming large in the months leading up to the scheduled referendum on southern secession, Katherine Almquist outlines the possible triggers for outright civil war in Sudan and discusses U.S. policy options for the prevention and/or mitigation of such conflict in this Center for Preventative Action Contingency Planning Memorandum. Almquist, a senior fellow for security and development, concludes that U.S.-led international support for self-determination should be unambiguously affirmed without prejudice toward unity, and that it must be backed by preparations to recognize and assist an independent southern Sudan.

Corrine Baldwin and Caitlin O’Connell contributed to this report.


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