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Middle East and Africa

North and South Sudan: Old Problems for Two New Countries

Interview with Abdullahi Ahmed an-Na‘im, by Andrea Pin

Last update: 2018-06-11 14:58:05

Now the world has two Sudans. Do you think that we should consider this as a political success, a compromise or a failure?



It is obviously too early to tell. Too many issues are still unfolding. We must also consider the “law of unintended consequences”: the way we design things – the way we hope they work – may not actually work. It is not like writing a script, too many factors are implied. My view has always been that separation as such, or unity as such, is not the answer. I don’t agree with opinions such as “if we separate, everything will be fine” or “if we remain united, everything will be fine”. Whether Sudan is separated or united, the issues are still about economic development with social justice, democratization, human rights, equal citizenship, and so on. The outcome is not a mere question of secession or of unity as if either is an end in itself.



Another factor that we must consider is what happened during the creation of South Sudan. The process started in orderly and peaceful voting, but quickly turned extremely messy and divisive – not only for the South or within the South, with period of tensions emerging and there and so on, but also for all the parties of the peace agreement. In fact, the peace agreement includes other regions, which are now struggling with tensions and wars. This started in Abiey border region which never had its referendum to decide whether it wants to be part of the North or South, and now there are still fights in Nuba Mountains in Southern Kordofan and in Southern Blue Nile. There is complete chaos throughout the border region between the North and South. Too many uncertainties or ambiguities are left in the agreement, by this time. And the solutions aren’t easy to find. The roots of the conflicts are very problematic.



For example, the breakaway of the South might not be the last. There may be a sort of other secessions in other regions: Darfur, Abiey or Southern Blue Nile. There are many scenarios other than the tension between North and South Sudan: whether the main event, the secession of Southern Sudan, was a good compromise or a bad compromise it will become clearer as other issues become clearer. In that sense it is not possible to tell, yet.



What could we reasonably expect to happen now?



It is hard to imagine what will happen, but there is predictability in the personalities and in the type of regimes that lead the two countries. Since the North is still governed by the same Al-Bashir regime, we cannot expect changes in its attitudes and policies. Bashir’s forces are widely condemned for threatening political balances and undermining peace. This is what they have done in Darfur as well as in the South Sudan for decades. So, why would they change? As long as the Northern regime remains in power, there is a predictability of “more of the same” that we had from this regime before. It is not going to be a matter of goodwill politics or a sort of positive politics. It will continue to be a manipulative, underhand and violent politics.



Nowadays, they are talking about launching Jihad to liberate places such as Nuba Mountains and Darfur. They are running a campaign in the mosques along these lines. This is insane; this is exactly what happened in the 1990s. They are playing the same game again, in order to distract people for real problems, such as corruption and economic hardship. It is a discouraging to see this happening again. Another problem derives from the South Sudan administration. The politics of liberation is not the same as the politics of a democratic government. You may have a successful transition from liberation movement to effective democratic government, but that is very rare and exceptional. In most situations, the liberation movements do not behave well when they become governments. This is because they still have a dominant military structure: they don’t have any experience with political institutions and negotiations. Political institutions need a different mindset, a different approach. The South Sudan leaders aren’t familiar with the dynamics of compromise and flexibility that are needed in government. Moreover, in the South there is another factor: the complexity of the ethnic mosaic and tensions. This can easily combine with the ambitions of war lords, who might manipulate the volatile political environment.



The oil is another relevant factor, too. I think the South Sudan has decided to adopt the policy of exporting oil through the North. But the North is asking for a very high fee for the pipelines crossing from the South. There is a blackmail ongoing behind the South Sudan oil market. Therefore, the question to be addressed is: what is the bargaining chip that the South can play in the oil market? Water could be a bargaining chip. The South, as an Independent State, can now renegotiate the agreement about the Nile water with Northern Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia. The two streams are the White Nile from the South and the Blue Nile from Ethiopia. Ethiopia never played a role in Nile water’s agreements in the past. It has always been a matter between Egypt and Sudan. This is the case for the first agreement of 1929, when Sudan was an Anglo-Egyptian colony, and also for the 1958 agreement, when the Sudan was under the first military rule after independence, and Sudanese people felt that Sudan was forced to accept a very poor deal. In any case, many other Countries of the Nile basin haven’t been involved in the agreement on Nile water. Perhaps, if the South could play “the Nile waters’ card,” this would give the Country a sort of leverage. The South should intervene in the game and influence how to export and exploit water. It is not simply a matter of oil. My sense is that water is more valuable than oil. Oil is a limited resource that will come to an end; but there is no life without water. The skills that are needed to engage in the politics of water require expertise, negotiating attitudes and official institutions. The Egyptians have five thousand years of history about this; other Countries in the region have no experience with any of this. Even North Sudan has never really stood up to Egypt in the water issue. And Egypt has always taken advantage of this tremendously. If Ethiopia and South Sudan get together and coordinate, they might have some bargaining power. Water is needed to feed people, to grow crops but also for industries – Ethiopia can use the Blue Nile waters to generate electric power, for instance.



I think peoples of the region should step back from immediate confrontation, be more imaginative about what is going on and not simply struggling to overthrow very oppressive regimes such as the one of the North of Sudan – politics is rather about being part of the region and being able to coordinate with other parts of the region. In the United States, for instance, I see very fascinating water politics among the States. Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi are negotiating water through governors’ meetings. Some States have more water than others and claiming to have complete control over their waters; the Federal Government can’t come in because individual States have a degree of sovereignty. The fascinating point of what you see in the United States is negotiating and having a peaceful politics of water sharing and management. Violence and coercion are out of question. The only card you have is negotiation – so, the problem is how you negotiate. This is the lesson that political leaders and technocrats in both Sudans, as well as in Ethiopia and in other States of the Nile Basin must learn. Look at Eastern Europe and at Israel and consider how they deal with the problem of water. There are lessons to be learned. But these issues need to be addressed at a regional scale. One State cannot simply rely on its own independence. Some problems cannot be faced by a State alone. Only a region can handle them.



How do people feel about the referendum and the creation of an independent and sovereign South Sudan?



I haven’t been to Sudan recently, so I don’t have direct idea of the impact of the separation on peoples’ feelings. But I can say what people tell me and what I can deduce from what they say. As expected, there is a mixed feeling. Most people of the North have not really internalized what happened. The media have been overwhelmed by talks about independence, but people in the streets or in the rural areas do not have a clear idea of what is going on. It takes time to realize what happened and its consequences. When you don’t see people who used to be there anymore, because they left the North and went back to the South, you start asking yourself how this will affect the economy and the social relations of people in the North. It takes time to process events not only intellectually. A lot of the reactions in the North as well as in the South are delayed reactions. People have not fully absorbed the implications of what happened. Most people of the North or of the South do not belong to the educated classes of the administration and other elites, and have not internalized the events.



Among those in the South who have articulated their feelings you can still see euphoria. But they start realizing that the independence process had created too high expectations: “If we separate from the North, our problems will be over”. With the passing of time, they are experiencing concrete but critical problems, such as the currency change. The North is refusing to accept from the Southern some of the old currency that is now going out of circulation in the North also, which makes difficult to create capital markets. Or, for instance, the fate of Juba is still largely unpredictable if a new capital city is built somewhere else.



It is precisely when one comes to consider political problems, that the lack of political leadership becomes apparent. When faced with these issues, political elites naturally lose their initial euphoria or at least moderate it. The North has experienced similar issues. Many North Sudanese people initially felt a sort of hurt of rejection in face of the South’s independence process – in reaction they pretended that to them the process was both as a relief and an opportunity to demonstrate the South that the South was wrong. Also Liberal Sudanese intellectuals thought that the South would finally realize that there was no future without the North. I think this is just a childish response to rejection.



I would summarize the point in this way: various constituencies have different reactions. For most of them, the reactions derived from an inaccurate appreciation of the process before them. We can take the question of employment. A lot of Southerners used to live in the North because they were able to find jobs there, whether in the economy, or in the army. Huge numbers moved to South to vote for the independence. After the creation of the new State, they lost the citizenship of the united Sudan and were prevented from returning to the North. They couldn’t come back to work in the North. But the South lacks both housing and job opportunities. People who used to have jobs and houses in the North just lost them with the independence of the South. The regional government of Southern Sudan administration provided transportations for Southerners in the North to go to vote in the South, and those who took advantage of them lost their jobs.



Even those who remained in the North or voted against secession, they all lost their jobs and homes because they are no longer citizens of a United Sudan. After working and living in the North even for decades, they lost the citizenship of the old Sudan, and therefore they lost their jobs and are now required to move and settle in the South. Moreover, we should consider those who expect pensions from the Northern administration for a life of work there – or people who are still waiting for their salary from their Northern employers. It is not easy that they get paid – and the level of corruption that you can find in the administration will make the money transfers even harder. Or, we should think about the children who used to go to school in the North. Now they are citizens of the South, where there are no schools – and there will not be enough schools for decades. Or we can think about the lack of infrastructures. So, immediately after the secession, people of Southern Sudan must face very practical questions. The extremely high level of expectation is now met with very harsh limitations. This will affect how people feel about the secession.



How the two States will be affected by the severe starvation that other Countries of that African region are experiences?



They will certainly be affected by the situation, but perhaps in ways that are not visible on the surface. We must consider that the region does not have reliable and accountable leaderships and governments, which would have been able to create food reserves. The dynamic is the opposite. When there is a good food production, there is a rush into exportations, because the regimes need foreign currency. But, in times of crisis, they do not know how to cope. This is true about Ethiopia, as well as about Eritrea and Sudan – Somalia, of course, has no government. Oftentimes, crops are smuggled from Sudan to Ethiopia to other States in the region. The famine that is affecting Somalia and Eastern Ethiopia is going to affect other Countries also because of the corruption and of criminal activities that will flourish in the area precisely because of the starvation. But the impact of the crisis can also have positive consequences, because it might push the leaders to take a regional approach, rather than a national one, as I said before. The needs of the people can be met by emphasizing the regional connections and collaborations. That would help from several points of view: politically and environmentally, just to name two aspects. Solutions need to approach problems regionally, rather than nationally. This would be revolutionary. So far, Northern Sudan has found its friends in China; South Sudan in the West. But global alliances and rivalries can distract from real possibilities of regional collaborations. There is no other way for the region than collaboration. They need to focus on regional collaborations, rather than looking for faraway solutions.