Tuesday, April 28, 2015

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How Should the EU Engage with a New African Nation in Sudan?

South Sudan's secession seems accomplished, but the nation's future is far from assured. How should the EU respond?
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The preliminary results of the referendum on secession in South Sudan in January indicate that this Summer a new African nation will come into existence. This vote was the culmination of a process beginning with the 2005 peace agreement which ended more than two decades of war between north and south Sudan, in which more than two million people died. While the Referendum Commission and the President of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, are cautioning citizens to refrain from celebrations until the official announcement on July 9, the separation of north and south is a fait accompli in the minds of the people. Both governments have been praised for their handling of the referendum and the results. However, many commentators have expressed concern over how the situation will evolve in the coming months as the two governments attempt to resolve potential difficulties. Furthermore, there are a number of issues internal to South Sudan that will have to be addressed to ensure the stability and development of the nascent nation. What are these issues, and what role does the European Union have to play in the birth of this nation state?

North-South dynamics

One of the key issues that must be resolved is the region of Abyei – a fairly small strip of land in the centre of the country that was an integral part of the north-south civil war, partially because of its strategic position but also because of the presence of oil in the region. The fragility of this issue has been highlighted since the referendum with reports of brutal attacks on convoys of southerners returning to South Sudan via Abyei and on 2 March, militias attacked police positions in the village of Maker, 6km north of Abyei town. The attack led to tens of thousands fleeing to the south, concerned of a repeat of the clashes of 2008, which left the town almost totally destroyed. The town and regions further north are now deserted and there are fears the clashes are part of a concerted political strategy hatched in Khartoum, but just who is involved in the attacks remains uncertain.

Abyei's vote, scheduled to take place on the same day as the referendum on south secession, never took place after bitter disputes, including one between a locally dominant/populous tribe, the Dinka Ngok and Abyei's north-linked Misseriya nomads, who graze their cattle in the region at certain periods during the year, over who was qualified to vote. As a result of these conflicts the referendum on Abyei will no longer take place. Instead, the issue was to be resolved by negotiations between the two governments, who initially planned to come to an agreement by March. However there has been no such agreement to date and satellite images appear to show that nine northern armoured tanks, attack helicopters, pickup trucks and a fixed-wing airplane have been positioned in the contested area over the past two months, potentially in violation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). In many ways the stability of the region depends on how this tension in Abyei is managed. It is imperative that a compromise which respects the rights and interests of affected populations is reached. For this issue to be resolved, an agreement will have to be reached on sharing wealth from oil resources – the north needs some share of the south’s oil resources to maintain a revenue stream, while the south needs to use northern infrastructure to process and transport its oil. Recent discussions indicate that the south will pay the north a transit fee for the use of a pipeline to carry oil exports, rather than share oil revenue and the south may also pay the authorities in Khartoum, the northern capital, a grant to compensate them for their loss of oil revenue.

Bashir and Kiir, the presidents of north and south Sudan respectively, have spoken about the possibility of using an European Union-style joint institution to manage oil exports in the region. What they precisely mean is still unclear but it is agreed that the idea of a joint structure to manage oil reserves and pipeline sharing is under discussion. The model would not be that of the EU in its current form, but something more similar to the European Coal and Steel Community which was first proposed in the early 1950s as a strategy to avert further conflict between Germany and France. This was Europe’s first supranational institution and establishing something similar between the two Sudans would ease fraught relations about oil and the use of pipeline and reassure oil investors in the region, meaning EU technical expertise would be extremely beneficial in this respect.

It is important to note that oil production in Abyei has declined in recent years and is not universally considerd the most pressing concern. Rather than emphasise the splitting of oil revenues and the border demarcation in the region, some commentators believe that the most pressing issue is addressing the grievances of the opposing factions, which so far has not been adequately done. Both governments in Khartoum and Juba, the capital of South Sudan, are under pressure from these opposing groups to maintain a hold on Abyei because of respective fears of marginalisation. Diplomatic pressure must be exerted on the two governments to ensure a peaceful resolution of this issue, while also providing technical assistance as required to facilitate negotiations. To date most engagement by EU member states in Sudan has been bilateral rather than through EU mechanisms, partly as a result of weak institutional structures for foreign policy, leading to a policy paralysis that is detrimental to the EU and its partners. Remedying this situation and acting as a bloc rather than bilaterally, would enable the EU and its member states to exert more meaningful diplomatic pressure on the two governments to reach a peaceful conclusion.

Sudan’s foreign debt of $39 billion – mostly comprised of arrears and dating back to the days of late president Ga’afar Nimeiri – was a point of contention between the two governments. Previously, the north insisted the debt burden be split between the two countries, while the south alleged that none of the borrowed money was spent in the south and thus it must not bear any of the burden. Indeed many in the South argue that Sudan’s debt is odious – a legal position which holds that debt incurred by a government for personal interests or to oppress its own people belongs to the regime not the state it controls. Sudan has been unable to borrow from the World Bank since 1993 because of its failure to make payments on its debt. That may leave the south, one of Africa’s poorest regions, ineligible to borrow from the bank and with a debt overhang making important stimulatory expenditure on health care, roads, power grids and other physical infrastructure and social services difficult. The regime in Khartoum has historically complained that political discord with the West has prevented it from benefitting from the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries debt-relief programme and recently Sudanese officials have been lobbying intensively, particularly among Western nations, to have the countries debt cancelled. North and south Sudan agreed last month in Ethiopia to embark on joint efforts to secure relief of the country’s external debt. Some countries have unilaterally begun to write off the debts, for example in July 2009, Japan cancelled approximately $28 million of Sudanese official debt.

EU Foreign Ministers have said that they are ready to look closely at EU support for an international debt relief effort for Sudan, consistent with political progress. Given that six of Sudan’s top ten creditors are EU countries (UK, France, Belgium, Austria, Denmark and Italy), the EU must play a pivotal role in coordinating a progressive and coherent response by its member states as an incentive for continuity of peace and development in Sudan, both north and south. In February the British government along with the United States announced that they have formed a joint committee to look into possible debt relief for Sudan. The EU must not get left behind in such activities and should strongly petition for a seat at the table when issues of debt relief are discussed. Debt relief is a key leverage tool by the international community, offering an opportunity to influence the behaviour of both governments – of particular note is the possibility to influence the north’s behaviour in Darfur. For debt relief to be offered, Khartoum must convincingly show that it would actually serve the interests of its impoverished population. Debt relief should only occur on the condition that Sudan makes proven and significant progress toward: peace in Darfur; the full implementation and peaceful conclusion of all outstanding issues with regard to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement; significant structural reforms that fundamentally change the repressive systems in Sudan. The EU’s political influence in this regard is however limited to diplomacy through its member states. Currently there is no mechanism for the EU to exert political pressure through the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund or the Paris Club given that no EU single-chair exists in any of these institutions. Thus the EU should ensure co-ordination among member states to block any potential debt-relief package brought before these institutions if the Sudanese government fails to match its rhetoric for progress with proven action.

There are a multitude of other issues that will need to be addressed between the north and south in the remaining months of the CPA and before independence on the 9th of July. These include: a new currency; agreements on international treaties; issues of citizenship with respect to northerners living in the south and vice versa; and border demarcation. Addressing these issues in a symbiotic and cooperative manner will provide the best opportunity to establish two separate states as peaceful neighbours. EU member funds are being used to support many of these activities through the Capacity Building Trust Fund, the Basic Services Fund and the beleaguered Multi-Donor Trust Fund (MDTF). Much has been accomplished through these funds but criticisms (i.e. the failure of the MDTF to allocate over half of the funds available to it) must be taken on board to enable further improvements.

Internal Dynamics

Since independence, South Sudan’s identity and that of its people has been based primarily on the common enemy of the north and the common goal of secession. With this enemy to a large extent ‘defeated’ and the goal attained, the absence of a distinct and unified southern identity is an issue that may lead to internal conflict. South Sudan can no longer assume that shared interests will continue to unite it. For now, those in power are towing the line that the most important thing is internal solidarity but there are widespread reports of increased internal conflict and fears that politics could become increasingly ethnicised. In mid-February there were reports of over 100 people, including 39 civilians, killed in conflict between the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army – the South’s guerrilla army turned national army – and a rebel faction in Upper Nile State. In order to overcome ethnicised and increasingly regional politics and conflict, a shared identity must be constructed. A ‘national project’ that will unify South Sudan’s diverse population is crucial if a strong nation is to be forged, particularly given the strong fear of tribal domination in the region. There are widespread fears that the Dinka – the most populous tribe in the country and the most numerous tribe in the guerrilla army during the war – will continue to dominate national politics leading to civil unrest. As a result of the shift toward decentralized politics, fear of Dinka-domination is accompanied by fear of other regionally populous tribes dominating state-level politics, for example the strong anti-Toposa sentiment among some groups in Eastern Equatoria.

Ultimately as South Sudan establishes itself as an independent nation, a move will be required from the de facto single-party rule that has been in place since the signing of the CPA in 2005. If this does not happen a sense of exclusion from the national platform understood to be based on ethnic differences will have a serious impact on the viability of South Sudan as a nation. It is important that already established parties become stronger and new parties emerge. Given the potential for ethnicised politics in this region, it is important that political parties appeal to the electorate based on policies, not tribal affiliation. Viable political parties are crucial to democratic consolidation, and as such there is a clear need to provide technical assistance to opposition parties so that they can pose a significant challenge to the ruling party in elections. The SPLM as the ruling party will also need technical assistance and political guidance to improve its ability to carry out its mandates. Such assistance must be based on the principle of equal treatment of all parties and parliamentarians, be provided in a non-partisan way and be part of a multi-donor effort.

Close attention must also be paid to the SPLM as they continue to face challenges due to their transition from a rebel movement to a functioning political party and sitting government. Since the signing of the CPA opposition voices have been suppressed with the SPLM dominating the political arena with a view to achieving the goal of self-determination. Political pluralism will be an important factor in the viability of South Sudan, but there are some worrying indicators that political dissent is not being tolerated by the ruling party. A 99.57% vote for independence in the recent referendum should raise concerns given that research undertaken in 2009 indicated that around 70% of the population were in favour of secession. While there is no doubt in most analysts minds that the majority of South Sudanese are in favour of secession, such exceedingly high majorities are usually indictors of vote suppression or political manipulation. There was pressure from outside and from within for observers to overlook certain flaws in the election process and observers, both international and local, may have been more inclined to turn a blind eye to procedural weaknesses given the ubiquitous sentiment of inevitability about the outcome. Nonetheless, there were widespread reports of increased presence of National Security officers near referendum centres and a general sentiment that to air non-conformist opinions, or even just to debate the pros and cons of secession, was not acceptable.

Observation mission reports, including those of the EU, tended to whitewash flaws in the process. In subsequent reports it is imperative that such flaws are bluntly assessed, not to call into question the veracity of the vote – again I reiterate that there is no doubt that a majority of voters opted for secession – but because procedural flaws are indicative of a negative political culture which must be highlighted and addressed if South Sudan is to stabilise and develop. Furthermore, in more contentious regions procedural weaknesses and intimidation may not be so well tolerated and could result in violent conflict and reduce the credibility and ability of GoSS to govern the country. Such behaviour by the SPLM would be a harbinger of future problems as the country seeks to establish a vibrant and diverse political environment. For example, close attention should be paid to the way that they oversee and conduct the upcoming elections in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile. This highlights again the importance of support for political debate and diversity within the country, and of close monitoring of government activity to ensure that any human rights violations are documented and perpetrators are held to account.

There are important humanitarian issues in South Sudan with estimates of 2000 people returning to the south daily from the north and with over 190,000 people returning in the months prior to the referendum, resulting from an accelerated repatriation drive undertaken by the Government of South Sudan (GoSS). The scale of the returns has for the most part taken the humanitarian community by surprise. Plans by GoSS and its development partners to meet the humanitarian needs of these people still face serious logistical and humanitarian challenges and the reality of reintegration into many of these underdeveloped rural areas requires major adjustment on the part of the returnees and, indeed, the receiving communities. Limited GoSS funding is undermining efforts to meet the needs of these people and reintegrate them into local communities. With this in mind, funds need to be earmarked to cater for emergency humanitarian needs and to support the Southern Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, which is overseeing the reintegration programme. Moving from humanitarian concerns to development ones, it will be important that technical and financial assistance must be used to increase the capacity to deliver services through deepening reforms – ultimately reducing reliance on NGO-service provision, while strengthening domestic systems of service provision. Attention has been focused on peaceful completion of the referendum, on north-south dynamics and on weaknesses within South Sudan, leaving Sudan’s other multiple political conflicts, primarily in its marginalised peripheries, and the stability of the regime in Khartoum largely neglected.

Recent analyses have begun to remedy this highlighting, for example, the reduced opportunities for patronage that will result from the loss of the south’s oil-wealth and Bashir’s already tenuous grip on power. Bashir has been president for over two decades and the recent elections were boycotted by opposition groups who claimed that they were not going to be free and fair. This coupled with the on-going conflict in Darfur and outstanding ICC indictments for war crimes has weakened the legitimacy of the regime. In fact, just weeks after the referendum al Bashir began to face mounting political opposition. Given his historical predilection for using the state’s military apparatus to suppress dissent and in light of the current situation in nearby Arab countries it may not take much for the small-scale protests in Khartoum to evolve into something larger and more volatile. In the past, most commentators felt that the opposition to Bashir’s government was too fractured to pose a credible threat, however recent events in the Arab world highlight that opposition structures do not need to be united and institutionalised to effectively mobilise against a regime. The upheavals across northern Africa are altering mind-sets in the region and some governments have started to take pre-emptive action to avoid rebellion. This could provide international and domestic actors with an opportunity to pressure the government in Khartoum to undertake important political and economic reform. However, if protests do escalate and there is overwhelming popular support for a regime change, the international community, including the EU, should support the will of the people and use all diplomatic channels to enable this to happen in as peaceful a manner as possible.

Regional dynamics

The upcoming secession of South Sudan has re-opened the question of self-determination in Africa with one analyst calling it the most significant event in Africa this century. Some commentators point to Eritrea as the first country to ‘defy’ colonial borders but Eritrea’s secession from Ethiopia was presented as exceptional given its separate colonial history and because it was important for vested interests to have it understood in this way. It has been argued that the secession of South Sudan could be the beginning of the unravelling of the Berlin System – which in 1885 saw the division of Africa between the major imperial powers – inherited by Africa’s post-colonial nations. The African Union and its member countries have been reluctant to accept claims about the right to self-determination but the creation of South Sudan as a nation state may create problems in this regard. Irrespective of how unpalatable secession may be to some, there is a strong local sentiment that there was never any other option. While Garang fought for a united Sudan, there has never been a strong sense, at least not since his death, that unity presented a viable future for the people of South Sudan. Unity was not made attractive and other African governments and indeed Khartoum would do well to note that failure to address the needs and demands of marginalised populations can and does lead to a pervasive desire for self-rule. Khartoum and other African governments are afraid that southern separatism could have a contamination effect as the preservation of the colonial boundaries will become less sacrosanct than before. For example, in Darfur where there historically was no large-scale movement in favour independence, the idea of self-determination has been growing largely in response to Khartoum’s rigidity in dealing with the region. Given the level of state weakness in Africa and the familiar challenges of ethnic diversity, it is strange that there have not been many more separatist movements on the continent. South Sudan’s secession may change this. This will most likely lead to assertions about South Sudan’s exceptionalism - i.e. its claims have been legitimized both nationally and internationally in the CPA and the Interim National Constitution. However, on the whole the Sudan case is not exceptional and the international community may need to begin to look at what action they will take if other groups begin to assert claims to sovereignty and try to upset that status quo of unity in weak or failing states. Sovereignty is a difficult issue for national governments and multilateral institutions, but it would be wise to begin thinking about what action the EU would take in the event of increasing claims to independence on the African continent.

What Next?

The 'two Sudans' are beset with narratives of conflict - between Arab Africans and Black Africans, between Islam and Christianity, between those who fought the civil war and those who fled to neighbouring countries. The binaries are endless and whether their content is real or imagined, they remain powerful portrayals of the region as a battleground of opposing interests and causes. There are very many challenges both in the short and long-term, only some of which have been outlined here but this is a historic moment for Sudan and for the whole African continent and the achievements to date should not be forgotten. The multitude of reports predicting widespread violence during the referendum and conflict in its aftermath have thus far not proved correct and with adequate support, both diplomatic and financial, it is possible that the south could secede peacefully from the north and embark on its nation-building project. Nonetheless, numerous challenges remain and sustained diplomatic attention from the international community is imperative. The EU, lacking a clear structure for foreign policy, has difficulty co-ordinating its member states which results in members engaging Sudan bilaterally rather than through EU mechanisms thus undermining the potential political impact of engagement. This must be remedied in order for the EU to fully leverage the combined weight of its member states, not just in Sudan but in other fragile regions. The EU and its members have the political and financial strength to influence the governments in Juba and Khartoum, and Sudan must remain high on the political agenda in Brussels in the coming months to ensure that this opportunity is not wasted.

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