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North Sudan faces its likely truncated future

Sudan will lose a third of its land, nearly a quarter of its population and much of its main moneymaker, oil, if south Sudanese vote for independence in a referendum Sunday as seems all but certain. Khartoum's government wants to make sure it doesn't lose its grip on power as well.

President Omar al-Bashir has spent most of his 21 years in power vowing to his supporters that he will hold Sudan together. But he appears to have accepted the reality that southerners are determined to break away, along with a Texas-sized, oil-rich chunk of the country.

Now he's working on two fronts — to shore up his position in the new, truncated Sudan and to secure rewards from the United States and the West for not resisting independence. One prize he particularly seeks is for the West to forget about an international arrest warrant against him on charges of committing genocide in Sudan's western region of Darfur.

The United States isn't publicly offering that. But it has put forward a package of potentially lucrative incentives for Khartoum if it accepts the results of the referendum peacefully and resolves a host of issues concerning separation from the south. Among the carrots: removal of Sudan from the U.S. list of terror-sponsoring nations, re-establishment of full ties and new economic and development aid.

That likely explains how resigned al-Bashir has been about the potential loss of the south. American aid and trade would help prop up an economy weakened by the south's departure and help him hold his the rest of his fragmentary country together.

It would also help him assuage members of his own regime angered by the loss of the south.

Ibrahim Ghandour, a senior al-Bashir party official, rued the country's likely split, but dismissed concerns about losing control.

"We believe we have achieved peace in the last six years," he said. "We don't feel ashamed, we don't feel betrayed, we don't feel that we are in trouble."

Pragmatists within al-Bashir's ruling party and the military "expect to see some kind of improvement in their relationship with the U.S. and with the West more generally," said Roger Middleton, a Sudan expert with the London-based Chatham House.

To please his other pillar of support — fundamentalist ideologues — al-Bashir is vowing to go further in establishing Sudan as an Islamic state, including greater implementation of Islamic law, Shariah.

Al-Bashir, who came to power in a 1989 coup backed by the military and Islamic fundamentalists, said the south's departure will "mean a new revolution" in the north.

He promised to implement "those Islamic penalties that infuriate" Islam's enemies, noting amputations for theft.

An increasingly extreme Islamic regime could strain relations with the West, but al-Bashir will likely try to keep it from going too far for fear of losing U.S. benefits.

Instead, the Shariah promises represent al-Bashir's search for a basis of legitimacy for his rule, after his claim of being the guarantor of unity is wrecked.

Northern opposition groups warn that waving the Shariah card could worsen the country's fragmentation, pushing ethnic groups that resent Khartoum's domination to try to emulate the break-away south.

"The reckless policies of the National Congress Party will not only cause the south to split but also Darfur and the east," said Farouk Abou Eissa, the leader of a northern opposition umbrella group.

Violence has already been on the rise in Darfur, as the government tries to assert its control of the troubled western region, where it has faced rebels since 2003. Darfur peace talks have been complicated by the southern referendum as rebel groups seek more concessions from the government.

In eastern Sudan, Khartoum signed a peace deal with rebels in 2006. But the heavily armed tribes still complain of discrimination.

Opposition parties say al-Bashir's legitimacy will vanish with the south's departure. They are demanding he step down, allow a transitional government includes them while a new constitution is drawn up. Al-Bashir has repeatedly rejected the demand.

"No self-respecting person can lose a third of his nation ... and still say he will stay in power," al-Mubarak al-Fadl, a member of the Umma party, told the crowd at a late night opposition gathering in Khartoum on Wednesday.

The opposition poses little immediate threat, given the ruling party and military's lock on the levers of power.

Probably more worrisome for al-Bashir is keeping the elements within his own regime in line.

Hard-liners — both Islamic and secular — could try to disturb the south's transition to independence by mobilizing armed mobs to stir up violence negotiations over outstanding issues continue.

Middleton said al-Bashir's policy of accepting the referendum results "will certainly hold out" in the short term. But after that, it's not clear whether his regime will approach things "in a generous or confrontational way."

Ghandour, the ruling party official, said U.S. treatment of the south and north must be on equal footing if the separation is to work in the long-term.

"The real success will be in the sustainability of a viable peaceful state in the south," he said. "But that will not take place if the north doesn't enjoy peace and viability."

In a Friday interview with Al-Jazeera TV, al-Bashir was back to a harsh tone. He warned that he may not be able to restrain armed Arab tribes in Abyei, a flashpoint region rich with oil and grazing fields claimed by both sides, if southerners unilaterally claim the territory as its own.

Al-Bashir must also absorb the economic blow from the loss of the south. Most of Sudan's oil resources — the motor behind an economic boom in the past few years — are located in the south. Khartoum's only consolation will be that the pipelines to get the product to market all run through its territory.

With the oil gone, Khartoum stands to lose 30 percent of its budget, according to the European Coalition on Oil for Sudan, straining the spending that al-Bashir uses as patronage to ensure tribal support. It would also damage the country's ability to service its large foreign debts, around $36 billion.

Already, Khartoum is tightening its belt, cutting subsidies on fuel and hiking prices of basic commodities. Sugar prices have gone up 15 percent, and fuel jumped from $2.6 a gallon to $3.40 a gallon.

The minister of state for finance, al-Fateh Ali Sidiq, told reporters this week separation will have an impact and the government needed to reduce the $2 billion a year it pays in fuel subsidies.

International isolation would worsen the economic blow, and many remain hopeful that will force al-Bashir to moderate his stances regarding the radicalization of northern Sudan, his dealings with the south and his tactics in Darfur.

But others fear that the government now feels free to do as it wants.

Nagui Moussa, a 23-year medical student and activist in the Youth Forum for Social Peace, said a crackdown on internal opponents is already under way while the world is paying attention to the southern independence.

"The government is now more aggressive because the (southern party) is going away...the environment is now free for them," he said. "We will lose a part of the country, of the people, and we will lose part of our diversity."