from Africa in Transition

In the New Sudans, History Dies Hard

July 14, 2011

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The flag of South Sudan (C) flies after the United Nations General Assembly voted on South Sudan's membership to the United Nations at UN headquarters in New York July 14, 2011. (Shannon Stapleton/Courtesy Reuters)

This is a guest post by Payton Knopf, a foreign service officer at the U.S. Department of State currently serving as an International Affairs Fellow in Residence at the Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed herein do not represent those of the U.S. government or the U.S. Department of State.

With euphoria from its newly won independence still hanging over South Sudan’s capital, Juba, relations with Khartoum are already being tested by the increasingly tense situation along their shared border.

In South Kordofan, a northern state that borders the South, a stalled political process and subsequent northern military offensive against the forces of Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) leader Abdulaziz Hilou has left tens of thousands--if not hundreds of thousands--displaced. To the east, rumors abound that northern troops will launch a related campaign in Southern Blue Nile, another northern state governed by SPLM leader Malik Agar, within days. And to the west, the conflict in Darfur still simmers. North Sudan President Omar Bashir’s boasts that a peace agreement signed Thursday in Doha with one Darfur rebel faction rings hollow, as that group lacks both political legitimacy and military relevance.

The potential for an anti-Khartoum alliance among Hilou, Agar, and the only Darfur rebel movements with true military might—the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the newly reconstituted Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) of Minni Minawi and Abdulwahid al Nur--are high, which could lead to a war stretching across nearly the entire length of the days-old border between North and South Sudan.

Such a development would significantly complicate the already shifting political landscape between North and South resulting from the latter’s secession. The northern leadership appears to be in disarray as it absorbs the loss of the South, with Bashir having disavowed a political framework for addressing the situation in South Kordofan that his hard-line advisor, Nafie Ali Nafie, had signed only days earlier. The northern military is furious at being thrust into the campaign with little preparation, which may account for credible reports of significant defections to Hilou’s forces (many of whom are from Hilou’s Nuba tribe) as well as his large territorial gains in recent days. South Sudan President Salva Kiir is also in a difficult position.  Having emphasized in his independence day address his country’s desire to live in peace with its northern neighbor, Hilou and Agar are key members of the SPLM, which led the struggle for southern statehood, and Kiir will find it difficult not to come to their aid.

Worryingly, international access to South Kordofan has been reduced to nearly zero, leaving the scale of the humanitarian need unknown.  We can expect the same in the event of a military escalation in Southern Blue Nile.  In the wake of the tectonic political shift of July 9, trouble looms in the “new south” of North Sudan, and sustained international focus, particularly that of the United States, will be crucial to monitor and shape events in the coming days. For more information on Sudan’s state of affairs, see my recent CFR Expert Brief, "How to Secure Peace in South Sudan."

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