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Khartoum's Denouement

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.

The signal thus communicated to senior Sudanese officials and others I met with in Khartoum is that there will be a “peace dividend” to look forward to. The problem, however, is however much such a policy might make pragmatic sense, delivering on it in a timely manner will be difficult, if not impossible. The interagency process for removing the terrorism designation is quite complex. Although every case is unique, the example of the last regime to get itself off the list is illustrative: Libya accepted responsibility for the attack on Pan Am 103 and agreed to compensation for the victims in August 2003, following up by giving up its weapons-of-mass-destruction program in December of the same year; yet the “state sponsor of terrorism” designation and the accompanying sanctions were not lifted until May 2007.

Moreover, in the case of Sudan, the more serious sanctions were written into U.S. law in response to the conflict in Darfur, which left up to 400,000 people dead and displaced at least two million others. That humanitarian crisis was labeled a “genocide” by then–­Secretary of State Colin Powell and, subsequently, by Congress. Activists to the administration’s left have proven themselves no less zealous on the issue: it was, after all, a Democratic-controlled Congress that passed the Sudan Accountability and Divestment Act in 2007 and it is the Financial Services Committee chaired by Barney Frank in the lame-duck House that held a hearing on “Investments Tied to Genocide: Sudan Divestment and Beyond” on November 30. The combination of the rare bipartisan consensus on Sudan and the impending 2012 presidential electoral cycle dooms any possibility that legislation to repeal the Darfur sanctions will get passed, much less signed into law.

The chances are even slimmer for President Bashir’s desire for a United Nations Security Council resolution deferring, under Article 16 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the warrant for his arrest on charges of genocide, war crimes and other human rights violations. Quite simply, the Sudanese ruler has been so demonized in the West—not without justification—that is hard to imagine the circumstances under which it would be politically possible for the United States, the United Kingdom and France to not veto even any grant of immunity. And even if somehow he could obtain such a reprieve, it would only last twelve months before it would have to be renewed all over again. How long would the political coalition to support such a hypothetical delay be kept together, if it could even be mustered in the first place?

Hence it is rather unlikely, at least in the foreseeable future, that Northern Sudan will get the end to its isolation and the normalization of international relations which its political elites so yearn for. The issue is what will the internal political consequences be from this failure to deliver any tangible benefits to their constituents in recompense for giving up of South? Will the regime seek to provoke conflict with the new state to the South in order to bolster its nationalist legitimacy? Will hardliners in the North be emboldened or even replace the current leadership?

Certainly the NCP will confront a difficult period after the southerners secede: any government would face a crisis of legitimacy if it presided over the losses—in terms of territory, population, resources and prestige—that loom ahead for Sudan. Given the grave abuses it has perpetrated on its own citizens as well as its prior history of support for radical Islamists, there is a certain satisfaction that many in the international community might understandably derive from the denouement of the Khartoum regime as it tries to cope with its significantly reduced circumstances. On the other hand, the prospect of additional turmoil, economic collapse, radical ascendency and even outright state failure in a strategic region already struggling for a sustainable modicum of stability ought to temper any schadenfreude.