One Referendum, Two New Nations

A boy walks the streets of Khartoum. Image by Rebecca Hamilton. Sudan, 2010.

Across the globe, southern Sudanese are celebrating their imminent independence from the rule of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir and his predecessors in Khartoum. These northern rulers spent much of the past half-century engaged in a brutal effort to Arabize and Islamize the southern people. International attention is now focused on helping the chronically underdeveloped region of southern Sudan manage the transition to statehood. But what is missing from the conversation is recognition that the looming partition of Sudan creates not just one new nation, but two.

During the past month in southern Sudan it has been easy to get swept up in the rejoicing of a people who have finally realized their multigenerational struggle for freedom. In the jubilant words of a primary school teacher soon after he cast his vote, "This is our end-of-apartheid moment!"

But for me, the euphoria has been tempered by panicky calls and e-mail messages from friends and civil society leaders in the north, whose reactions to the imminent loss of the south form a complex web of emotions: Happiness for the southerners' emancipation; sadness for the loss of the north's connection to the rest of Africa; terror that the world will now "leave us to Bashir."

Bashir himself has done nothing to allay northern fears, telling the population that if the south secedes, there will be "no question of cultural or ethnic diversity. Shariah will be the only source of the Constitution, and Arabic the only official language."

Northerners are of course overwhelming Muslim. But they are also multiethnic and multilingual. Moreover, there is a big difference between the kind of Islam traditionally practiced in Sudan and the kind Bashir's ruling National Congress Party, or N.C.P., has thrust on the population since its 1989 military coup.

The southern case against the N.C.P.'s vision of Sudan is well understood. Less appreciated are the longstanding efforts of many northerners to also reject the imposition of this unitary Islamic-Arab identity on "our beautiful Sudan." For them, the south of the country has been a counterweight.

Many northern opposition leaders have in fact been over-reliant on southerners (and their Congressional supporters in the U.S.) to fight this identity issue for them. With the south now out of the equation, dissident northerners fear being left without allies at a critical moment in the battle to define their new country.

The N.C.P. is more vulnerable than it has been in years. The most telling whisper of the regime's fragility comes not from any report produced out of New York or Brussels, but from the tea stalls that line the streets of Khartoum.

Rising sugar prices mean that a sugar-laden glass of tea — the primary calorific intake for many impoverished Sudanese — has gone up by almost 50 percent in the past three months. New austerity measures have lifted government subsidies on bread and fuel, stretching meager household budgets to breaking point. When the opposition leader Hassan al-Turabi suggested that a popular uprising was on the cards last month, he hit a sore spot; the N.C.P. arrested him immediately.

On Jan. 30, al-Turabi's warning gained credibility when youth activists, organizing through Facebook, drew hundreds of protesters onto the streets of Khartoum. Beatings and tear gas from riot police dispersed the crowds, but sporadic protests have continued ever since. While the parallels should not be overstated, especially since opposition to the ruling regime is far from ubiquitous, N.C.P. leaders cannot discount the possibility that, like Tunisia and Egypt, the people's frustration with their leadership cannot be contained forever.

Until now, the extraordinary ability of Bashir to weather designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, comprehensive U.S. and E.U. sanctions, and finally an indictment by the International Criminal Court for atrocities in Sudan's western region of Darfur, has generated a mythology of invincibility around him.

But petro-dollars dispersed through a vast patronage network have been vital to enabling him maintain his grip on power. And the bulk of these oil revenues are about to head south. Bashir's senior adviser predicts the northern economy will take a hit of "not less than 30 percent." Absent the benefits they are accustomed to, the loyalty of Bashir's supporters will be tested.

To his great credit, Bashir has allowed the southern referendum to take place, despite knowing a free vote would see the south secede. And he has been promised much by the West for doing so. Those promises must be delivered if future promises are to have any credibility.

But Bashir's laudable position on the referendum does not wipe the slate clean, nor should it buy him a free pass on current or future human-rights abuses in the north.

While international attention has been consumed by the southern referendum, Khartoum has stepped up its military campaign in Darfur; at least 40,000 civilians have been displaced in the past month alone. And a handful of brave local journalists and Darfuri activists have just spent their 100th day of incommunicado detention in the custody of the N.C.P.'s ruthless internal security thugs.

Beyond Darfur, the popular consultations to address the administration of pro-southern populations falling just north of what will soon be an international border have not transpired. And desperately needed reforms of national-security laws and media censorship have been repeatedly promised and never delivered.

As Sudan splits, the temptation to deploy all donor and diplomatic energy toward ensuring the viability of the new southern nation is enormous. However, serious attention must also be given to those fighting for a prosperous and democratic new northern nation.

It is too early to tell what the outcomes of the spate of recent uprisings will be, but if Tahrir Square has shown us anything, it is that ignoring the legitimate grievances of any population is a high-risk strategy over the long-run.