Divided we stand; united we fall

It appears that the United Nations is blostering its base at Entebbe airport in Uganda, just in case all hell breaks loose after the Sudan referendum next year. I find myself wondering: are the UN aware of something that we aren’t, or is this a sign of them being uncharacteristically precogniscient?

I find myself waxing ambivalent about the referendum next year. Like so many things to do with Sudan, it is just so hard too predict.

When I visited Juba a few months ago, I saw an anticipation and expectation that was at once both startling and worrying. Here is a people, I thought, that desperately want to be free of Khartoum.

Yesterday, I asked Francis Nazario, the ambassador for the Government of South Sudan (GOSS) to the European Union, whether such sentiments were also reflected in the smaller villages across the south. He assured me that they were.

If anyone denies the south the chance to break free of the north, then the whole situation could really explode. I still believe that.

Abyei remains the place to watch because it looks exceedingly unlikely now that this small and somewhat inconsequential region (the oil there is not actually all that much, now that the Permanent Court of Arbitration has redrawn the borders) will hold the referendum at the same time. This might lead to the local citizens feeling resentful that they have not also been given the chance to vote.

But there is a very good reason to think that Sudan will not explode in the way that some very ill-informed commentators seem to be predicting (those that usually spend most of their time writing about Sudan from Washington or London).

Khartoum just lacks the capacity to launch an offensive in the same way that it did in the past.

The Lord’s Resistence Army, LRA, which Khartoum is strongly believed to have financed in order to fight their proxy war in the south, has now been pushed out of northern Uganda and southern Sudan.

The other tribes that once stirred up trouble in the south – such as the Bagara, which roam across large swathes of Darfur – are feeling a little bit resentful towards the north these days. They fought long and hard on behalf of Khartoum, believing that they would be well-rewarded. But, besides gaining some spoils from their pillaging, their lives have improved very little.

The Misseriya, which were allegedly used to fight for Khartoum in Abyei, feel the same way. If anything, the lives of this nomadic tribe have got worse, as the degrading quality of pastural land means they have to wander further and further to bring their cattle to graze.

In fact, the Misseriya are so fed up with Khartoum that they actually now pose a not inconsequential threat to the regime. This is perhaps, above all, the reason that Khartoum wants to cling on to Abyei, more so than the oil. The Misseriya are a northern people who have to take their cattle down to south Abyei to graze on the pastures there. If this route is not open to them, their very existence is threatened; and the last thing Khartoum needs now is to piss of the Misseriya, which are populous enough to cause some serious problems.

In short, Khartoum lacks the military clout that it did before. It seems to have been abandoned by its somewhat transient allies. Although government forces are still deployed around the country, the capacity to mobilise other ethnic groups has been significantly reduced.

This means that Khartoum is unlikely to want to cling on the south against the people’s wishes, which must surely be a good thing for peace next year.

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