Sudan faced a fateful vote yesterday, as Southern Sudan decided whether to separate or remain a part of the country. The referendum for southern self-determination was a key element of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended Sudan’s civil war in 2005 – the longest civil war to date on the continent, spanning almost five decades.
The CPA mandated both free and fair national elections, which were held last year amid allegations of intimidation and fraud on the part of President Omar al-Bashir, and a referendum presenting southern Sudan an opportunity for political self-determination.
Bashir’s government has consolidated its power in the north, enforced the Islamicization of Sudan’s judicial system, revoked Sudan’s old constitution, and systematically shut out opposition.
The Daily spoke to Khalid M. Medani, an Associate Professor of Political Science and Islamic Studies at McGill, ahead of the referendum about his view on the vote, and what it means for Sudan. Medani, who grew up in Sudan and is a frequent visitor to the region, specializes in African and Middle Eastern politics, and has studied various aspects of Sudanese politics.
The McGill Daily: Have you traveled to Sudan lately? What was the atmosphere that you observed there surrounding the referendum?
Khalid Medani: I was there this summer and the atmosphere is very tense. There are a lot of different emotions. It’s not easy for people to wake up one day and realize their country is going to be split in two. There are different attitudes in the north and the south.
In the south, the southerners are very nervous and apprehensive – many southerners think that the northern government is not going to go through with the referendum in time. Many in the south talk about going back to war if the southern government doesn’t allow them to have this referendum.
In the north, there are two different points of view. There are many people in the north who want the south to separate. Civil society in Sudan is very diverse, but in twenty years of Islamicization – and with an Islamic government – a younger generation of Sudanese is increasingly attached to Islam as both a religion and as a primary source of cultural and political identity.
There are others in civil society who feel that if the south separates it’s going to have negative consequences in political terms for both regions of the country. These are people who’ve been fighting for democracy for decades and they say that the northern government is going to continue to be authoritarian and … that in the south the Sudan’s Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM) [the predominant political party in Southern Sudan] is also not democratic – it is dominated by essentially one tribe, the Dinka.
So there’s that concern among many people about the prospect of these two countries separating but increasingly becoming, or continuing to be, really authoritarian dictatorships.
MD: Why do the international community and Sudanese feel that it is so important that the referendum take place on time? If tensions are rising, would it not be best to postpone the referendum?
KM: It is my opinion that, if it was up to the international community, they would have preferred to delay the referendum to ensure that it goes through smoothly. Understandably, many in the international community involved in the politics of Sudan are concerned about a number of technical and political problems.
I think what the international community is rightly concerned about is that any delay in the referendum will just give the opportunity for those hardliners in the north and in the south to make an excuse of this and to go to war – and it wouldn’t be the first time. I have to admit that the international community is in a bind, but they’re not wrong about this. Any delay could be used very quickly to start arming different proxy militias along the borders – they’re already doing that, both northerners and southerners.
MD: Why is the Abyei region so important?
KM: Abyei is important because it’s a border region between the south and the north, where you have residents of both Arabized tribes and Africanized southern tribes.
Most tragically, in a policy of using militias as proxies to fight the long south-north war, the regime armed Arabized nomads in and around Abyei with the result that the latter were responsible for displacing hundreds and thousands of southerners during the war. Consequently, grave animosities have developed.
There is still a great deal of conflict over precious resources – namely water and livestock resources – but the real problem is that much of the oil in the south is in that province. It is for this reason that the people of Abyei have found themselves the focus of international attention, and face the likelihood of a more locally-based conflict if their status is not worked out peacefully following the referendum.
MD: Are there southern Sudanese who want to remain a part of greater Sudan, and do they argue that instead of secession being the solution, the solution is making efforts to democratize Bashir’s regime?
KM: The reality is that there’s over two million southern Sudanese in Khartoum, in the greater north and the capital area. We’re talking about two million in a capital city of maybe seven or eight million – it’s not a small percentage.
One of the ministers – a couple of the ministers actually – have threatened the southerners by [saying] that citizenship rights will not be given to southern Sudanese in the north if they do not vote for unity. This is quite troubling because it suggests possible attempts and policies aimed at disenfranchising, marginalizing and eventually repressing people who have grown up all their lives in the north. Their solution and their security can only be fortified and ensured in the context of a more politically open system that includes more political parties and includes a participation of civil society.
I know people think that is a pipe dream, in the African context in general, because many of these governments are very authoritarian, but they really require legitimacy at any cost and in [Bashir’s] case he tried to fake these  elections.
The Bashir government thought that they had the elections in the bag. They were going to allow some political parties, but make sure they had the money, the TV spots, the cars to bring in voters and that they were going to win. Low and behold, as the elections started going on this young man was becoming more and more popular, and by the end he threatened to push Bashir to a run-off.
I spoke to this major contender, Yasir Arman, and he was like the Obama of Sudan. He was a candidate who was a northerner married to a southern Sudanese woman running on the ticket of the southern Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) whose voting block was mostly young northerners, young southerners, and educated people who were voting across ethnicity [and] class lines.
As the elections – true democratic elections – threatened the incumbent regime, the Bashir government realized that it had only one choice and that was to say, “Hey, I don’t come back to power: no referendum.” The important point to emphasize is how successful this candidate was in amassing so many votes. So democracy is not a lost hope, it’s something that has been part of Sudanese political culture since the first elections of 1955.
MD: What are the perspectives of neighboring countries regarding the referendum?
KM: At a larger level, African and Arab countries really don’t like it. Africans are more supportive of southern Sudan’s separation because they have linkages to the SPLM, but that doesn’t mean that they really think that separation is a good idea.
Kenyans, more than other countries when I was there, were very critical of this notion of a quick independence, and establishing a new state as if it’s going to work overnight. They are very aware about the refugee problem and what the war has actually done to the south for decades. There are no hospitals, no schools, not enough people to man the ministries that are supposed to be set up.
MD: If it is held on January 9, what do you see being the outcome of the referendum? What do you hope to happen in the best-case scenario?
KM: What I would hope is that the war fatigue of what was Africa’s longest civil war would take precedence over any potential conflict and especially that local communities in Abyei would … come back to what really was their real relationship between them: the relationship of cooperation and, most importantly, peace, because they are the ones who have suffered the most.
I would hope that the international community keeps an eye on the SPLM and the central government, and makes sure that they don’t militarize the situation. I think that it’s important to pressure both sides to put security arrangements in place along the borders, and I think if that happens the war fatigue in conjunction with these security arrangements are the best way to go. That’s what I hope for and I think that’s what’s possible – too bad we don’t have a little bit more time.
The worst-case scenario, of course, is [that] the oil issue, in particular, is not settled, and this central government decides that they would profit more from instability than peace.
On a more positive note, it’s heartening that the international community is taking such a serious look at the situation.
I think [for] most people this [civil war] was a war much worse than Darfur. I think people who are older, even people in the international community, remember it: four decades, two million dead. I’ve visited and it’s a devastation that is really hard to describe.
—Compiled by Erin Hudson