The reporting about the forthcoming referendum in the western media is characterized by panic and ringing alarm bells. This only marginally reflects the reality in Sudan. When the “comprehensive peace agreement” was signed on January 09, 2005, very few observers would have made a bet that the agreement would survive the five years leading up to the referendum. Instead of looking for reasons to pick up the weapons again, it might be worth asking which factors are responsible for the survival of the peace process over the last five years, despite several crises.
The government in Juba managed to position itself as representation of all population groups of south Sudan, whereby a common enemy (the regime in Khartoum) and a common goal (independence) have surely been central factors for success. The ruling party SPLM has also approached former enemies and included them in the government as well as their militias in the SPLA. Despite various efforts, al-Bashir has not managed to exploit the rivalries among the political leaders in the south in order to kindle a new conflict.
Oil revenues as stabilizing factor
Against all expectations, the revenues from the oilfields in south Sudan, which are equally divided between Khartoum and Juba, have proven to be a stabilizing factor. These revenues make up 58 percent of the entire Sudanese household. In South Sudan the share is as high as 98 percent.
Since 2007 the government in Juba has received more than 1.5 billion US dollars. The hoisting devices and the two pipelines are relatively vulnerable military targets and thus, the oil production would be in acute danger the event of a new conflict. On the other hand, there are no useful economic alternatives for the export of South Sudanese oil, so both parties will continue to be dependent on each other for the foreseeable future.
The conflict between the two ruling parties, the NCP in the north and the SPLM in the south, is often presented as insurmountable. In reality there were, and in fact are, arrangements between both parties, such as in the presidential elections in May 2010, when the SPLM withdrew their candidate Yasir Arman in order not to jeopardize the election victory of al-Bashir. Evidence indicates that behind the scenes there is consensus that the south (together with Abyei) will be dismissed into independence, while the other two transition areas will remain with the north. It remains to be seen which price the south will have to pay, such as in the distribution of oil revenues. The current sabre-rattling is part of the business for political reasons and should not be over estimated.
Crucial questions remain unanswered
So everything is fine and we can get down to business as usual? Certainly not! Indeed there are crucial questions that remain unsolved, such as the future of the common national debt, but also of grazing rights for those groups from the north that bring their herds in the dry season to the south. Also a coup d’état in Khartoum or an outbreak of violence in the Nuba mountains could seriously endanger the arrangements between the elites in both parts of the country. The international community would be well advised to be alert and to support this difficult negotiation process. But the outbreak of a new civil war between the north and the south is not likely in the next few months.