The political situation in Sudan has developed a new sense of urgency ahead of January’s referendum on independence for the south. Despite widespread concerns regarding its organisation, the registration of eligible voters took place without major incident. By the 8th December, the final day of the registration period, over 3,700,000 southern Sudanese had registered to vote.
Plans for the referendum are progressing apace, and it is expected that voting will begin as planned on the 9th January. The ballot papers arrived in southern Sudan on 23rd December, and are currently being distributed to the designated referendum centres. These developments are extremely positive, as is the fact that both the registration and the appeals processes were conducted without notable violence. However, it is important to note that the legal challenges mounted to the registration process have not progressed, due to the fact that the courts remain out of session. It is presumed that this has come about as the result of a political decision not to risk any delay to the referendum.
Whilst the south of Sudan looks certain to vote overwhelmingly for secession, mixed messages have been coming from the Khartoum-based northern government of Omar Hassan al-Bashir. Over the course of December Bashir came under fire both from members of his political opposition and from external forces historically viewed as supportive of the Khartoum government. Politics in the north of Sudan is a turbulent business, and Bashir himself came to power following a coup d’état in 1985. Many observers of Sudan have suggested that Bashir’s control of the north is weakening, and he can ill afford to allow the south to secede. In mid-December this theory was strengthened when Sadiq al-Mahdi, the former Prime Minister and leader of the opposition Umma party in Khartoum, articulated a set of demands to which he insisted Bashir acquiesce. These demands included forging strong relations with an independent southern Sudan, drafting a new constitution and addressing the economic crisis stemming from Bashir’s indictment by the International Criminal Court for war crimes. Ominously, al-Mahdi declared that if Bashir refused to agree to this agenda he would be forced to consider joining “the stream of people who want to overthrow Bashir’s rule”.
In addition to domestic criticism of his governance, Omar al-Bashir also faced reduced support from his traditional allies abroad. The Editor-in-Chief of Egypt’s semi-official Al-Ahram newspaper stated that, “the government of Sudan bears alone the largest part of the tragedy lurking in Sudan now.” This potential challenge at home, and withdrawal of support abroad has placed great pressure upon Bashir, and he has reacted by making increasingly erratic statements.
On 19th December he announced that, in the event of southern secession, the north would adopt an Islamic constitution. He went on to declare that “at that time there will be no time to speak of diversity of culture and ethnicity”. Statements of this nature are deeply troubling for southerners and non-Muslims resident in the north. However, almost within the same breath he offered the south a deal whereby they would take all oil revenues in exchange for a vote for unity. These mixed messages have left many uncertain of the course that the north will take should the south vote for independence.
Whilst the aerial attacks that hit the south in November did not continue into December, there have been periodic skirmishes between the northern Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the southern Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). The most violent of these clashes took place in Unity State, where an SPLA convoy was ambushed, reportedly by SAF troops, and 12 SPLA soldiers were killed. All involvement in this event has been strongly denied by the north.
For the past two years the Christmas period has seen a spike in Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) activity, and this year was no exception. On 21st December the LRA attacked a village in Maridi County, Western Equatoria, killing two people, injuring four, and abducting around 50. There are fears that the LRA will take advantage of the instability following the referendum to step up their attacks.
In addition, southerners continued to return to the south from their homes in the north throughout December, although in far smaller numbers than had originally been feared. UN IRIN and OCHA reported that between October and December 2010, 92,000 people had crossed the border from the north into the south. Whilst few provisions have been made for the returnees, and there has been a reported increase in food prices, there have been few reports of widespread destabilisation.
The successful registration of voters and the delivery of the ballot papers have laid to rest many of the concerns surrounding the referendum, and a mood of cautious optimism prevails. However, Omar al-Bashir’s more incendiary statements must not be disregarded, and everything is subject to the outcome of January’s crucial vote.
Crossing the border into Lakes State
Much of the violence in the Greater Mundri region takes place across the Mvolo/Lakes State border. The nomadic pastoralists move south from Lakes State at the beginning of the dry season in search of fresh grazing for their cattle. This migration causes great damage to the crops of the settled agriculturalists who live in Mvolo County, and violence often occurs as a result.
NP has been working in Mvolo County since May, and has long been aware of the potential for violence between the communities. However, the lack of a full-time team based in Lakes State has hampered the team’s work. In order for unarmed civilian peacekeeping to be effective, both sides must trust the peacekeeping team. Without a presence in Lakes State, the team found that they were lacking the trust crucial to bring both sides together in dialogue.
In order to address this issue, members of NP’s Mundri team, accompanied by representatives from the Mundri Rehabilitation and Development Agency, visited Lakes State. The purpose of this visit was to begin to build relationships with the local government officials in Lakes State whose counties neighboured Mvolo, and to explore possibilities for further expansion into that area.
The team met with several representatives of both local and state government, and were greatly heartened by the warm reception that they received. In all meetings there was a great emphasis placed upon the need for cross-border dialogue to ensure lasting peace, and NP was asked several times to establish a presence in the area.
Lakes State is an area extremely vulnerable to conflict, and the team felt that by expanding into it they would not only reinforce the work already undertaken in Greater Mundri but would also be able to greatly improve the security conditions for civilians living in the state.
NP and child protection
Children are extremely vulnerable to violence, and often suffer its effects the most. They also require specialist protection if conflict does occur. In order to provide the children of southern Sudan with the level of protection and care that they require, NP’s Mundri team has undertaken extensive training in child protection. Two civilian peacekeepers, Joyce Ngoma and John Boul Yourama, attended a weeklong workshop hosted by UNICEF and Save the Children. This workshop equipped them with the skills necessary not only to implement child protection programmes, but to train others to do so too.
After successfully completing the training, Joyce and John Boul travelled to Yambio, the capital of Western Equatoria State where, along with a colleague from World Vision, they hosted a training session for others interested in acquiring child protection skills. The Yambio training session was extremely well attended, with over 30 participants. The rest of the Mundri team also attended this training session, and as a result NP now has nine fully trained child protection specialists to call upon in case of an emergency.
These skills are particularly important within the context of Western Equatoria State, where the LRA are extremely active. The LRA often abducts young children for use as child soldiers and porters. Many of these children eventually manage to escape from the LRA and return to their communities traumatised and in need of specialist support. Thanks to the training that the team has received, NP is now in a position to offer this support.