Khartoum's Denouement

The prospect of Northern Sudan as a failed state should temper any schadenfreude policy makers might have about the potential demise of Omar al-Bashir's regime.

On November 26, the South Sudan Referendum Commission extended by one week the time which southerners, both inside Sudan and abroad, have to register to vote in the self-determination plebiscite, scheduled to take place over several days beginning January 9, 2011. Given the extra time to overcome logistical hurdles, the poll—mandated by the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) ending nearly half a century of civil war between the government in Khartoum and southern dissidents that left at least two million people, mostly southerners, dead and millions more displaced—now looks likelier than ever to take place and will, by all indications, result in an overwhelming vote for secession.

I have previously observed that the nascent new state in Southern Sudan will face an extraordinary number of political and developmental challenges which it must overcome if it is not to quickly slide from independence into state failure. What is often forgotten, however, is that southern secession will result in the emergence of two new and fragile states, not just one. While the North is likely to be, legally speaking, the successor state to the current Republic of the Sudan, in actuality it will be a radically new geopolitical actor on the world stage, one whose status will be considerably diminished and which, albeit for different reasons, is just as likely to become a failed state.

When the southerners break away, they will take with them one-third of Sudan’s national territory and one-fourth of its population. Perhaps more importantly, they will also take an estimated 80 percent of the country’s proven oil reserves, on which the regime in Khartoum has been dependent for nearly 60 percent of its revenues. Even assuming that some sort of limited revenue-sharing agreement is reached between the two parties, the rump state in the North can nonetheless look forward to a significant economic contraction on top of the strain its economy is already suffering from the shortage of foreign currency and high prices—to say nothing of a $36 billion external debt, largely in arrears, that effectively cuts it off from any access to multilateral financial institutions like the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund.

Unchanged, regrettably, will be some of the sources of conflict that have bedeviled the North, including the violence and unrest in marginalized regions like Darfur and the East as well as the need for a greater openness in the political and social spaces. While the southerners’ successful secession will, undoubtedly, embolden various rebel movements in the North, ironically it will also, at least in the short run, enable the current regime to tighten its hold on the reins of power. For example, in the 450-member National Assembly once the 99 seats belonging to the primarily southern Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) are vacated by the South’s independence, the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) will be left with 306 seats against a mere 45 held by a plethora of smaller parties—leaving the NCP by itself comfortably well above the threshold of three-quarters needed to amend the constitution at will.

I recently spent two weeks in Sudan as part of a delegation assembled by the Brenthurst Foundation of South Africa and led by former Mozambican Prime Minister Luísa Días Diogo and former African Union Commission Deputy Chairperson Patrick Mazimhaka. While our report, which we initially delivered to the African Union Commission, was primarily concerned with political and economic challenges facing Southern Sudan over the intermediate and long terms, we also included a recommendation that “it would be prudent in the circumstances to seek a soft landing, diplomatically and economically, for the North to guard against a wider conflagration and economic collapse.”

There are indications that the Obama administration has picked up on this necessity. Earlier this fall, in a “test case,” the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) eased restrictions on the sale of agricultural equipment to the North and signaled that it was open to expanding the exception. During two trips to Sudan in early November, Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered an offer to remove the country from the State Department’s list of “state sponsors of terrorism” if Khartoum cooperated in allowing the Southern Sudan and Abyei referenda to proceed smoothly, recognized their results and otherwise refrained from destabilizing the North-South situation. Similar offers are undoubtedly part of the diplomatic toolkits of Special Envoy J. Scott Gration (who has never quite lived down the ridicule that came his way for telling the Washington Post that he thought Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir needed “cookies . . . gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk and engagement”) and Negotiation Support Unit head, Ambassador Princeton N. Lyman.