Sudan, After the Breakup: Can Violence be Prevented?

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

The referendum on Southern Sudan, taking place on Jan. 9, will almost certainly result in secession from the North. While an independent South Sudan might be the prudent long-term solution for a country long ravaged by conflict and sectarian violence, the referendum threatens to escalate war and bloodshed in a region already deeply destabilized by drought, poverty, terrorism, and ethnic and religious violence. Renewed violence would not only damage the future welfare of North and South Sudan, but present alarming implications to regional and international actors as well.

However, these same leaders and international actors can also skillfully prevent conflict escalation. They must provide both North and South Sudan with a supportive climate that encourages development and addresses the issues at the heart of conflict. The referendum may then be seen as a turning point in Sudan’s (and the region’s) future.

Conflict over oil-rich border city

Though a creation of an independent South Sudan may solve one source of the conflict, renewed violence is still a possibility since the referendum does not address many of the root causes of this conflict. Most important, the referendum fails to address the issue in the oil rich border city of Abyei, whose inhabitants face the choice of staying with the North or joining the South.

The city was excluded from the referendum due to the strong disagreements between the conflicting parties. The Southern-oriented Ngok Dinka argue that the inhabitants alone have the right to vote on their future. The Misseriya Arabs of the North believe the land belongs to them and insist that they should be part of any future political settlement. By itself, the explosive issue of Abyei has the potential to destabilize the entire post-referendum environment in Sudan.

We can look at the history of a nearby conflict to understand the importance of Abyei. The city’s situation is reminiscent of that of Bademe, a city that borders Ethiopia and Eritrea. Both countries went to war twice after Eritrea gained independence in 1991, but the future of the city still remains in question today.

Coupled with the rich oil resources in Abyei, the dispute over the voter registration criteria has come to shape the parties’ positions. Both the Dinka and the Misseriya have dug in their heels and refused to compromise. Given that the South controls over 80 percent of the oil resources in current Sudan, the future of Abyei becomes especially important for the North. Should the separation take place as expected, the North faces a drop in its oil exports from 450,000 barrels a day to zero.

Threats to region and globe

There are still additional challenges that threaten a stable post-referendum Sudan. They include a host of potentially explosive negotiations, such as border demarcation, Sudan’s $30 billion debt, and the fact that Southern Sudan will become a landlocked nation relying on the North to transport its oil production. Taken together, the post-referendum era is rife with challenges that could lead to violence.

Renewed violence in Sudan is a damaging option not only for the future of North and South Sudan, but for the global community as well. The emergence of a new stakeholder, Southern Sudan, would join the already unstable arrangement around Egypt’s vital water resource, the Nile River. Violence in the South would only aggravate the situation in Darfur and further pressure the security concerns in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden – areas already troubled by Somali piracy and terrorism in Yemen. The spillover of the Sudanese conflict would no doubt present a serious challenge to the US regional security arrangement as well, and would further complicate the United Nation’s management of violence in Darfur.

Responsibility to support Sudan

Despite these towering challenges, conflict escalation in Sudan is preventable, and much can be done to ensure a peaceful post-referendum stage. Although direct US engagement helps tremendously, involving regional stakeholders is vital for making intervention even more effective.

Egypt in particular, as a regional power and a stakeholder in the Nile water arrangement, has a crucial role to play in holding a peaceful and legitimate referendum. Post-referendum violence is not in Egypt’s interest, as it constitutes a viable threat to its most vital water resource.

Additionally, though Abyei can be an engine for conflict, it can also be a source of peace, prosperity, and collaboration between the North and the South. A traditional referendum in Abyei represents a zero-sum approach to resolution. But such an approach will not solve the city’s problem, since both the Dinka and the Misseriya groups have aspirations for independence, which will have to be addressed. Efforts must be made to transform this into a win-win situation, which can be achieved only by meeting the interests of both ethnicities.

The international community must also support the creation of economic enterprises that will encourage the parties to collaborate on developing and protecting their own interests. Social and political relations form around economic interests, and such enterprises will result in interdependence between both of them. Such a relationship, in turn, makes war and violence less likely. Finally, confidence-building measures must be taken immediately after the referendum to help reassure both parties and to help establish the ground for better relations and collaboration in the future.