From the Editors
After three months of conflict in the Nuba Mountains of Southern Kordofan, the Sudanese authorities on 23 August declared a temporary ceasefire. This was despite the failure two days earlier of another round of peace talks between the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army – North (SPLM/A-N)1 and the ruling National Congress Party (NCP). Given the deep mistrust between the parties and the rampant militarization of the area, the fighting could well resume over the coming weeks.
The initial phase of urban fighting in Southern Kordofan’s state capital Kadugli came to a rapid halt following a spike of violence in early June. Egregious human-rights violations by the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) in the early days of the conflict achieved their purpose, driving many Nuba into areas controlled by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army-North (SPLM/A-N: Entity; SPLA-N:military wing; SPLM-N: political wing). As the SAF and the SPLA-N secured control over their respective territories, the conflict took on a more conventional form with the establishment of static front lines. The Sudanese government has severely restricted the media’s and international organisations’ access to the conflict zone, which means that the precise extent of the fighting in recent weeks remains unclear.
The scale of violence appears to have diminished somewhat in July and August as the two sides reached a stalemate. Intermittent bouts of fighting on the ground between government and rebel forces alternated with regular aerial bombings of Nuba civilians by the SAF – with reports of the use of chemical weapons. Meanwhile, President Omar al-Bashir on 1 July pledged to ‘clean’ Southern Kordofan of its rebels. Regardless of temporary variations in the levels of violence, the large numbers of forces on both sides and Khartoum’s current unwillingness to seek a political solution suggest that the conflict could last for many more months.
The turn of events in the Nuba Mountains has further exposed the deep rifts within the leadership of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP). The divisions had been apparent in the run-up to the 9 January referendum that led to South Sudan’s secession, and have only worsened in recent months. Bashir on 7 July scrapped the so-called ”Addis Ababa agreement” signed in June between Nafi Ali Nafi, his presidential adviser (and the NCP’s vice-president), and Malik Agar, the governor of Blue Nile state and chairman of the SPLM-N. The text of the agreement contained far-reaching provisions, notably the recognition of the SPLM-N as a legitimate political party and the integration of its fighters into the SAF.
Bashir’s open move against Nafi puzzled many observers of Sudanese politics, not least because the NCP vice-president is seen as his closest ally among the party’s leadership and a hardliner on issues related to the SPLM, the broader Sudanese government not just the North, (Nafi in recent years has been among those within the NCP who resisted compromise with the SPLM-dominated government in South Sudan). That the president would publicly rebuff the country’s informal head of defence and security says a great deal about the shake-up that the Southern Kordofan conflict has caused within Sudan’s ruling elite. The NCP’s leaders appear divided between those who advocate a kneejerk crackdown on any opposition – armed or otherwise – and those such as Nafi, who are hardly doves but understand that by waging war on the Nuba the regime is sowing the seeds of a much wider conflagration. (Nafi later said that the government had recognised the SPLM-N as an ‘entity’.)
As time goes on, the likelihood of the conflict remaining confined geographically will only diminish. Scenarios of a broad anti-government coalition are probably exaggerated, as divisions between the ethnically diverse armed groups in peripheral areas (such as the Darfuri movements, the SPLA-N and Eastern rebels), and the northern, Arab-dominated opposition parties (such as the Umma Party and the Popular Congress Party) are unlikely to be overcome any time soon. Nevertheless, in the absence of a political agreement between the government and the SPLM-N, the prospects of a broad alliance between the various armed opposition groups are growing.
The SPLA-N has in recent months attempted to revive links it maintained with other rebel groups during Sudan’s second civil war (1983-2005). The movement on 8 August announced that it had established a formal alliance with the two Darfuri factions of the rebel Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A). Local media on 10 August reported that the three groups were in talks with the Justice and Equality Movement, Darfur’s most capable rebel group, over the latter’s inclusion in the new alliance. In the historically restive Eastern region, the SPLM-N could attempt to capitalise on the local population’s growing discontent over the lack of any peace dividend, and thereby encourage the revival of dormant armed groups.
A more immediate possibility is that the fighting will expand into Blue Nile, a state that, much like Southern Kordofan, holds significant SPLM-N constituencies and was the scene of heavy fighting during the civil war. Unlike Southern Kordofan, Blue Nile has benefited from significant development efforts by the authorities and displays a degree of inter-marriage between the Arab and Funj populations, which diminishes the ability of either group to mobilise along ethnic lines. Its governor, Malik Agar, a unionist who opposed South Sudan’s secession, has in recent years proved more accommodating toward the NCP than his fellow secessionist partners within the SPLM. He has most recently been at the forefront of peace-making efforts, while Abdel-aziz al-Hilu, the former SPLM candidate in Southern Kordofan’s gubernatorial elections, heads the SPLA-N’s military operations.
In contrast with the fractious NCP, the SPLM-N has so far remained surprisingly cohesive. The division of labour between Agar the negotiator and al-Hilu the fighter is – whether by accident or design – strengthening the party’s hand in its negotiations with the government. But Agar’s political position is precarious: because he originates from the Ingessana tribe, which is a small minority within Blue Nile, his legitimacy within the state is intimately related to his political positioning rather than to any traditional patronage networks. As outrage among his constituency grows, he may eventually have to distance himself from Hilu or join the fight. Worried about pre-emptive moves by the government, he warned on 10 July that any attempt by the SAF to disarm the SPLA-N within his state would result in a return to war. If Blue Nile does descend into violence, South Sudan’s government will find it hard to resist being dragged into a proxy conflict against its northern neighbour.
Politics by other means
South Sudan’s successful transition to independence has dramatically diminished the risks of a rapid renewal of conflict between north and south. Events in the past year have demonstrated that most of the NCP leadership is unwilling to renege on its high-level commitment to peace with South Sudan, which would not only lead to a halt in oil production – the mainstay of government revenue – but also alienate Khartoum’s key ally, China.
But as the stalemate in negotiations between the two Sudans over key issues such as oil persists, the NCP’s uncompromising attitude threatens to bring about its own demise. By refusing to countenance a political solution to the conflict in Southern Kordofan, it risks causing a further escalation; by enforcing exorbitant pipeline fees for South Sudanese oil, it is encouraging the authorities in Juba to boost their support for the SPLA-N as a way of building leverage in negotiations. As a result, there is a renewed possibility that the two Sudans might eventually go back to war – not through an abrupt descent into full-fledged violence, but rather through a graduated series of unilateral measures that set the stage for a de-facto international conflict. Despite their reluctance to return to war, the two governments may find themselves in a situation where they have no other option.
Regardless of whether this scenario comes to pass, rising instability in Sudan’s peripheral areas, in parallel with the country’s current economic crisis, is likely to seriously test the solidity of Khartoum’s political leadership. This will expose Bashir, who is increasingly perceived as a lame duck, to opportunistic coup attempts. He is no doubt aware of this reality: his own 1989 coup against former prime minister Sadiq al-Mahdi was not the first to take advantage of soaring inflation and widespread unrest.
1 The SPLM/A-N is the northern Sudanese branch of the SPLM/A, the southern militia group turned political party which now dominates the government of South Sudan. The SPLM acronym formally designates the civilian face of the movement, while SPLA refers to its military wing.
The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed in 2005 between the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) in Khartoum and the Southern rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement / Army (SPLM/A) ended more than two decades of civil war in the south. The deal resulted in six years of autonomy in the south in an uneasy peace with the north. Nearly 99% of the Southerners voted for separation from the north in a CPA-mandated referendum held in January. The 9 July secession was immediately preceded by a rise in north-south tensions as a result of the SAF invasion of the disputed Abyei district in May and of its offensive against SPLM/A members in the northern state of Southern Kordofan in June.
Local tensions within the state had been steadily rising in the run-up to the conflict. Discontent among SPLM/A constituencies over the lack of progress in the organization of a CPA-mandated "popular consultation" in the state were stoked in May at the occasion of a likely rigged gubernatorial election, in which incumbent Ahmed Haroun (NCP) won over the SPLM candidate Abdelaziz al-Hilu. The Khartoum authorities in late May demanded that the SPLA withdraw or disarm its forces from Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile-which was problematic, given that most of the fighters present there are indigenous to these areas. Clashes broke out in Southern Kordofan on 6 June between the SAF and the SPLA-N and rapidly escalated into wide violence.
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