Sudan: Regional Perspectives on the Prospect of Southern Independence
Africa Report Nº159
6 May 2010
South Sudan is just eight months away from a self-determination referendum that will likely result in its secession from the North. Much remains to be done to implement the outstanding elements of Sudan’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), and time is running out. The agreement’s underlying aim of “making unity attractive” has failed, and most Southerners thus appear determined to choose independence. Neighbouring states are increasingly focused on the fragile circumstances in Sudan and the likelihood of a newly independent state in the region. Support from Sudan’s neighbours for the referendum process and respect for its result will be crucial to ensuring peace and stability in the country and the region.
Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Egypt are among the immediate regional states that matter most, as well as Eritrea and Libya. If a credible referendum is held in accordance with the CPA and the Interim National Constitution, and Khartoum endorses the process, recognition of a new Southern state should prove relatively uncomplicated for the region and CPA signatories more broadly. If, however, the process does not go according to plan – particularly if Khartoum attempts to manipulate, deny or delay the exercise or its result – regional states and institutions will need to consider how best to respond to ensure respect for the CPA and the right of self-determination and to avoid a new conflict. Not enough planning is being done in this regard.
Each border state has interests at stake and will be directly affected by either peaceful separation or a return to conflict. Despite differing views on unity, all are likely to accept the referendum on self-determination and honour its outcome, provided it goes ahead as planned. While the decision of the South Sudanese is paramount, strategic considerations will undoubtedly play a role in how each state responds if the process is disrupted. Responses will depend largely on circumstances and events, but an assessment of historical relationships, recent engagement and strategic interests sheds light on the positions of the key regional actors.
Having hosted and led the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) peace process that yielded the CPA, Kenya has a particularly strong interest in seeing it implemented successfully. As the economic powerhouse in the region, it stands to benefit from the development of a considerable market and major infrastructure in the South, including as a conduit for oil. Kenya long managed to be pro-South without being anti-North, but diplomatic relations with Khartoum have shown signs of strain as its Southern leanings have become increasingly clear.
Uganda, the most unambiguous supporter of independence, seeks a stable buffer on its northern border, not least to ensure that the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) insurgency does not return to its doorstep. Trade has tripled in recent years with the South, which is now the largest importer of Ugandan goods. While the official policy is respect for the CPA and the will of the Southern people, some officials in Kampala are privately encouraging independence.
Egypt prefers unity and has arguably done more than Khartoum to make it attractive. It opposed including self-determination in the CPA talks, preferring instead to promote its own initiative premised on unity. It has recently redoubled diplomatic efforts to prevent partition, in part because it fears a new state – and an unstable one at that – could pose a threat both to regional stability and its precious supply of Nile water.
While its support to South Sudan is evident, Ethiopia has multiple interests to balance, so it is careful to toe a neutral line on independence. It provided military support to the SPLM in the 1990s, in part to counter Islamist elements in Khartoum whose destabilizing activities posed a threat to Ethiopian and regional security. Regional security remains its primary concern, given the volatile situation in Somalia, continued confrontation with Eritrea and its own domestic fragility. Addis can afford neither renewed war in Sudan nor to antagonise Khartoum, lest it find itself with another hostile neighbour. It supports the right of self-determination and will respect independence but is more likely to seek a common regional position than be out front on any difficult decisions if the process is derailed.
As with other foreign policy issues, Libya’s Sudan policy is driven personally by Muammar Qaddafi, and unsurprisingly, the outspoken Colonel has proven unpredictable on this issue. While he has several times pledged support for Southern independence, he has also cautioned Juba on the dangers of forging a new state. Eritrea’s position on Southern independence is likewise unreliable. During the last civil war, Asmara and its army provided critical backing to the SPLA/M (Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement) and other opposition groups in Sudan, supporting regime change in Khartoum. However, Isaias Afwerki’s recent actions indicate that his policy may be driven more by self-preservation than principle. Increasingly isolated in the region and beyond and in need of economic assistance, Asmara’s dwindling list of allies has led it to a rapprochement with Khartoum.
The referendum is to be held six months before the end of the CPA’s six-year Interim Period. If Southerners choose to go their own way, it is during the ensuing half-year window that any disputes over, as well the transition to, independence must be resolved. While pragmatic tones are emerging in Khartoum, attempts to delay or derail the exercise are not out of the question. Neither the SPLM nor its regional supporters want a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI). The SPLM is aware of the risks that would accompany it and is working hard to avoid such a scenario. But if pushed into a corner, the possibility of UDI is very real.
If either side abrogates the CPA, a return to conflict is likely and would undoubtedly affect the region and draw in some of its militaries. This must be avoided. Regional actors will face a delicate task in calibrating their response if the referendum is denied or its result contested, including the possibility of extending recognition to the South. The broader international community will seek to adjust its response in light of African opinion. Policy coherence between IGAD and the African Union (AU) is crucial. IGAD’s members will likely be the first to make any recommendations regarding Southern Sudan’s post-referendum status, but ensuring AU participation in, and ultimate backing of, that policy is crucial if an independent South is to secure maximum legitimacy. The weight of the AU – an instinctively pro-unity institution – and the importance of its recognition cannot be ignored. The AU High-Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP) can play a leading role in lining up the body’s 53 member states in support of realities on the ground.
Regional states must prepare for South Sudan’s possible independence by engaging Khartoum and Juba on practicalities of the referendum and peaceful implementation of its outcome. This includes insistence per the March 2010 IGAD summit communiqué calling for the referendum commissions to be established by May 2010 and reiterating firm support for the referendum timeline. Preparations should include clear modalities for extending official recognition to the South if it votes for independence and developing policy responses to alternative scenarios, including UDI. In the event of disputes over the referendum or its result, regional states should engage the AUHIP and IGAD to ensure the right of self-determination is fully respected and modalities for implementation of its outcome are agreed.
Nairobi/Brussels, 6 May 2010