Focus on Southern Sudan: Success of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement remains critical

FRIEDERIKE BUBENZER writes that the Darfur question and the warrant for arrest of Omar al-Bashir may have diverted global attention from the plight of the people of southern Sudan.

The violent conflict and deepening humanitarian crisis in Sudan’s western province of Darfur has attracted large-scale international attention since it first began in 2003. Much of this attention shifted in recent months to the issuance of an International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant against President Omar al-Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Within days of the warrant, al-Bashir expelled a number of prominent international aid organisations from Darfur thereby sending the area into an even deeper crisis and sparking widespread local and international outrage. Al-Bashir continues to be defiant in the face of the ICC, claiming that Sudan has not signed the ICC Rome Statute and hence is not bound by its decisions. He argues that Sudan, a sovereign nation, is well positioned to address the situation in Darfur through its competent and independent institutions.

Less reported, yet arguably more fundamental to Sudan’s long-term stability, remains the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLA/M) – a 2005 agreement to end Africa’s longest running civil war between Sudan’s Arab-Islamic north and its African-Christian south.

This agreement has come under increasing strain, not least because minimal progress has been made towards its effective implementation – with potentially disastrous results for Sudan and the entire greater horn region.

A referendum at which southerners are to vote on self-determination, and which is provided for in the CPA, is more than two years away; and crucial elections that had been scheduled for mid-2009 have been postponed to February 2010. The decision to schedule the original election date during the rainy season (when roads become even more inaccessible than usual) was regarded by many as a cynical ploy by the north to decrease poll-access for the impoverished south, and is a sign of the pervasive distrust between the two regions. At the same time southerners are contesting the outcome of a crucial national census. The results are essential not only to establish the actual population of Southern Sudan, as a basis for economic planning and service delivery, and even more importantly, to establish the estimated voting population in the south.

While the CPA calls upon its signatories to take ‘national ownership of the peace process’ and to promote ‘political will and continuous dialogue’ at the political- and civil-society levels, southerners remain deeply sceptical. The contested oil-rich district of Abyei, a geostrategic state between north and south, has yet to reap the benefits of the implementation of a long-promised new administration. The transparent 50/50 north-south distribution of its oil wealth, as stipulated in the CPA, has not materialised either. Thus the de facto north-south separation continues and remains as strongly entrenched as ever; a reality that is further exacerbated by the fact that the south is insufficiently equipped to rebuild its failed and depleted governance institutions.

In the mean time ordinary Sudanese, like John Ngarben, continue to bear the brunt of the political impasse. Ngarben, who is the son of a Presbyterian pastor and an ex-child-soldier, has four children whose future depends on this fragile peace. Late one night, while sitting under a giant mango tree – a symbolic space where many a dialogue in this community has taken place – he recounts how, as a ten-year-old boy, his family’s car was captured by SPLA/M soldiers and how his decision to offer himself as a child soldier saved the lives of the rest of his family, who could proceed unscathed.

He remembers that as a child soldier, gross violence was always around the corner: ‘There was a child soldier who was accused of having hidden ammunition in the bush. They tied his hands behind his back. A small grenade was tied with a rope around his neck, which was connected to a wire that was held by the rebels. They took him a few metres away and fired the grenade. We all watched as he exploded…The soldiers told me that I should learn from this – if I tried to escape they would kill me…’

‘My only wish,’ Ngarben continues with a smile, ‘is for my children’s lives to be normal.’ While the odds still appear to be stacked against his wish coming true, his and many in his community’s faith in a bright future remains resolute. As he pulls up his trouser leg to show where a landmine tore off his right leg, he states that ‘God is great’ and that ‘one day there will be peace in Sudan’.

Like the majority of southerners who spent their formative years in exile or as refugees in Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia, Ngarben returned to his home town in Upper Nile after the CPA was signed, hopeful that his experience of working with international NGOs in refugee camps would make him well placed to contribute to the new dispensation. After being trained by a local NGO, he began volunteering for the ministry of local government to raise awareness around issues of trauma, human rights and civic participation for the upcoming elections. He is excited about this new role and the opportunities it presents for him as a father, a village elder and a returnee to his home country.

Unfortunately John’s innate optimism will not put food on the table and will not send his children to school. And his cheerful demeanour changes when asked about the micro-level conflicts that are raging within and between communities and the role these play in the bigger picture of Sudan’s budding transitional justice process.

Despite the admirable optimism of people like Ngarben, there is, however, no doubt that the mass trauma that characterises this society has a stifling effect on the way things are done here. People are tired of war. Age-old tribal rivalries continue in Sudan, fuelled by severe poverty, a prevalence of illegal arms and a breakdown of cultural values and traditional systems.

While many analysts will argue that these conflicts have existed for centuries and form part of the national identity and power struggles, local people claim that cattle raiding, trade in children, land disputes and fighting over access to resources are propelled by the need to survive in the face of the costs of war. Though tribes like the Dinka, Murle and Nuer have raided cattle from one another for centuries, these raids are now fought with more sophisticated weaponry, and result in severe injuries and frequent deaths, which the nascent civilian law enforcement system fails to curtail.

While the majority of these conflicts are rural and take place between competing ethnic groups over natural resources, many have been politicised and aggravated by government sponsorship of militia groups and the widespread influx of small arms. In Northern Bahr-el-Ghazal, Southern Kordofan, Abyei and Southern Blue Nile, fighting has resulted in the massive displacement of civilians from oil-rich areas and the most fertile agricultural land. Demobilisation,  disarmament and reintegration (DDR) initiatives, which were provided for in the CPA to ‘contribute to the creation of an enabling environment to human society’, are far from being completed and human security thus remains elusive. To turn the tide and effectively roll out these DDR provisions, rule of law institutions will have to be strengthened significantly.Failure to do so will only further entrench the culture of impunity.

Yet, even the prospect of relative peace may present the region with its own complexities. Should displaced Sudanese continue to return from neighbouring countries, such as Kenya and Uganda, new conflicts are likely to arise in relation to competing claims to resources, political allegiances, differing and or waning cultural practices, and unresolved personal and inter-communal grievances. The resettlement and reintegration of these refugees will therefore have to be managed with great sensitivity to their needs, but also to that of the communities into which they will be integrated. Displaced communities have specific needs, interests and concerns around the peaceful reintegration into mainstream socio-political and economic life. Returning populations can become positive resources in war-affected areas but this hinges on the successful reintegration of these communities. If not well received and integrated, returning – frequently better educated and resourced – communities could lead to further community divisions, which could undermine and strain the implementation of the CPA.

While the CPA brought the signatories (the Khartoum governments’ National Congress Party [NCP] and the SPLM/A) together, ongoing contests between the two parties obstruct the successful implementation of the CPA at the cost of sustainable peace. This appears to demonstrate a lack of commitment to implementing the key components of the CPA and has given rise to the growing perception that the ‘peace dividend’ has not matched expectations. Evidence to this effect, and which has strengthened this view, can be found in the rapidly expanding exploitation of natural resources by the north, the ongoing manipulation and use of southern proxies by the NCP, tribalism and corruption in the Government of Southern Sudan (GoSS), the slow pace of progress in implementing the rule of law, a lack of basic services, and an absence of opportunities for civic participation.

The years following the 1972 Addis Ababa Agreement showed that a combination of local tensions (access to resources, border disputes, oil exploitation and the location of refineries, and the lack of follow up on the Abyei referendum) can quickly tip the balance back to civil war. Similar threats are clearly present in Southern Sudan today.

The violent and internationally condemned conflict in Darfur (now starvedof aid since the expulsion of key agencies) and the ICC’s arrest warrant against President Omar al-Bashir, increasingly draw the bulk of international attention. This focus away from the forthcoming election, and the work that must be done in the period running up to it, is surely welcomed by Khartoum as it clings to power. But southerners have waited long and prayed hard for an opportunity to make their voice heard. A delay will further postpone the hopes and aspirations that ordinary Southern Sudanese people, like John Ngarben, have for their children.

Friederike Bubenzer is Coordinator of the Greater Horn of Africa Project at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. An earlier version of this article recently appeared in the Cape Times.

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