The Forgotten Conflict in Southern Kordofan
August 10, 2011
Amid the euphoria that greeted the independence of the Republic of South Sudan on July 9, a new conflict has been unfolding, largely unnoticed, on the northern side of the new international border. The state of Southern Kordofan in Sudan erupted in violence at the beginning of June following a disputed outcome to gubernatorial elections. Attempts by the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) to disarm local affiliates of the Southern People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the rebel movement turned national army of the South, sparked clashes and quickly descended into targeted attacks against suspected Southern sympathizers. In subsequent weeks, at least 73,000 people have fled their homes in the wake of aerial bombardments by Northern aircraft. The state has undergone a de-facto partition between Sudanese and Southern-aligned forces. A leaked UN report has accused the SAF of carrying out “targeted killings and summary executions” and called for an independent investigation into alleged human rights abuses with a view to referring the perpetrators to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. The United States has condemned the fighting but appears reluctant to allow it to derail its efforts to normalize relations with the Sudanese government. These efforts are laudable but appear unlikely to succeed given the past record of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and its ongoing campaign of violence.
Southern Kordofan occupies an awkward position in the geopolitics of Sudan, with one foot in the North, one in the South, but strongly independent of either. Geographically, it is part of Sudan, but many of its people identify with the South. This is particularly so for the Nuba, a set of African ethnic groups long marginalized by the Arab government in Khartoum. During the second stage of the civil war, from 1983 to 2005, some of the worst fighting took place in their home region. Khartoum believed that Nuba communities harbored the SPLA and set up armed militia to attack their villages in the Nuba Mountains, prompting many of them to join the SPLA. This resulted in the launch of a jihad against the Nuba in 1991 (despite the fact that many Nuba are Muslim), leading to a campaign of ethnic cleansing that involved large-scale attacks on civilians and forced displacements. These techniques provided the blueprint for the brutal counterinsurgency campaign later carried out by the government in Darfur.
Resolving the status of the Nuba was one of the biggest headaches faced by the diplomats who helped negotiate the various protocols that formed the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) to end the civil war between the North and South. The Nuba regarded themselves as neither Southerners nor Northerners, but their calls for self-determination fell on deaf ears. While the CPA delivered to the South the promise of a referendum on full independence, the people of the newly constituted state of Southern Kordofan were offered a “popular consultation.” This ill-defined process merely gave them the chance to voice their opinions on the CPA arrangements with a view to negotiating better terms from Khartoum, short of independence. More than six years later, this limited process has yet to take place. As a result, there is huge resentment among the Nuba, many of whom feel orphaned in the North and believe they were sold out by their comrades-in-arms in the South.
Political tensions have dogged Southern Kordofan since 2005, partly due to the fragile security situation. Under the terms of the CPA, the rival SAF and SPLA military forces in the area were supposed to merge to form Joint Integrated Units (JIUs). In reality, this never happened, and a demobilization process stalled. By the time long-delayed elections for governor were finally held in May, the combination of a high-stakes political contest and a concentration of heavily armed forces had created a powder keg situation.
The Current Conflict
The announcement of the results of the state race for governor provided the spark that triggered the current conflict. Victory was claimed by the incumbent governor, Ahmed Haroun, who represents the ruling party in the North, the NCP, and is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Darfur. The outcome was cautiously endorsed by international monitors, including the U.S.-based Carter Center. However, the losing candidate, Abdel Aziz Al-Hilu of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), rejected the result, making credible accusations that the outcome was distorted by, among other things, a skewed census that inflated the number of people likely to vote for his opponents.
Emboldened by its election victory, the NCP in Southern Kordofan pressed its advantage. It brought forward a deadline for SPLA remnants of the JIUs to either disarm and integrate into the SAF or withdraw behind the Southern border; in other words, leave their own country.
Skirmishes broke out on June 5 between SPLA and SAF forces in the state capital, Kadugli. These quickly escalated into attacks on civilians. According to reports gathered by Human Rights Watch and the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), SAF soldiers and paramilitary forces carried out systematic attacks on suspected SPLM sympathizers. The Nuba were the main targets of the assault. Homes and churches were looted and destroyed, and hundreds fled the town or sought refuge at the UNMIS compound. A protective cordon set up to accommodate the influx was infiltrated by Khartoum-backed forces, some of them posing as aid workers, who removed people as UN peacekeepers looked on. The campaign in Kadugli was broadened to other Nuba strongholds in Southern Kordofan. Intense aerial bombing raids were carried out in the Nuba Mountains, and the region was shelled and heavily mined. Many thousands of people are believed to have fled their homes: estimates range between 73,000 and 150,000. UNMIS staff interviewed witnesses who said they had seen mass graves being filled near Kadugli. This allegation has been given added weight by satellite imagery collected and analyzed by a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization, the Satellite Sentinel Project.
Senior officials from the NCP and the SPLM-North signed a framework agreement to end the fighting at the end of June. The deal, negotiated by the African Union, paved the way for the phased disarmament of SPLA fighters or their reintegration into the SAF and affirmed the right of the SPLM-North to operate as a political party in Sudan. However, the deal was almost immediately undermined by Sudan’s president, Omar Al Bashir, who declared that the fighting would continue until the area was “purged” and Al-Hilu captured.
In the meantime, the military situation appears to have reached a stalemate. SPLA forces have repelled the initial northern offensive and have overrun most of the Nuba Mountains, with the exception of Kadugli and the town of Dalang. Northern forces continue to launch bombing raids and use heavy weapons to try to displace the rebels. Many of the civilians who were displaced by the fighting are without food or shelter. Getting information from the scene and assistance to those affected by the violence is difficult because the government has placed restrictions on the movements of journalists and aid workers.
The International Response
The timing of this crisis almost guaranteed that the international response would be insufficient and uncoordinated. Addressing Sudan’s multiple crises has often been an exercise in firefighting; this was particularly the case in June when attention was focused on ensuring that Southern independence went off without a hitch. Although UNMIS has a robust presence in Southern Kordofan, the government in Khartoum refused to extend its mandate beyond July 9, the date of Southern independence. This looming deadline undoubtedly caused attention to waver when tensions started to escalate in late May. When fighting broke out, the UN contingent on the ground was at best ineffective in protecting civilians, at worst negligent. There have even been allegations that some UN soldiers were complicit in assisting Khartoum-backed forces identify victims for attack. Since July 9, UN staff have been confined to their bases in preparation for their departure at the end of August.
The United States has expressed concern about the situation in Southern Kordofan and urged the government of Sudan to stop the violence. The special envoy to Sudan, Ambassador Princeton Lyman, has warned Khartoum that the process to normalize relations between the two countries will be halted unless the military campaign is ended in Southern Kordofan. So far, these words have failed to persuade the warring parties to lay down their weapons.
The conflict in Southern Kordofan lays bare the difficulties of dealing with a government whose political calculus does not extend beyond staying in power and that has no qualms about waging war against its own people. Having “lost” South Sudan to independence, the NCP is in no mood to listen to moderate voices and is keen to clamp down on any signs of insurrection within Sudan’s reduced boundaries. For the time being, hard-line military officials within the regime appear to be driving policy. Although the United States has tried to moderate Khartoum’s behavior with the offer of normalized relations (which would include removal of Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terrorism and the offer of assistance in debt relief negotiations), the reality is that Washington has little leverage over a government that ultimately relies on the support of hard-line domestic constituencies for its survival and distrusts the ability of the United States to deliver on its promises.
Some U.S.-based advocacy groups have used events in Southern Kordofan to push for the United States to further isolate Sudan by offering more open support to its neighbors, including the delivery of military equipment and air defense systems to South Sudan. In an open letter to President Barack Obama, an alliance of nongovernmental organizations went even further, calling for missile strikes against SAF forces. This is a bad idea at such a sensitive moment. Actions that further isolate Khartoum are liable to trigger an even more hostile response. It is also a misreading of the situation. Although the conflict in Southern Kordofan is closely linked to the South, the new reality since July 9 is that they are separated by an international border. Southern Kordofan has become an internal problem in the North, and any actions that could be interpreted as encouraging or enabling South Sudan to intervene in this conflict risk internationalizing, and hence escalating, the situation. They could also give Khartoum an excuse to accuse the South of meddling in its affairs and crack down on the northern sector of the SPLM, which since independence has been a separate entity from its parent organization in the South but which the NCP wishes to portray as the agent of a foreign state. What’s more, the last thing Sudan needs is an arms race, particularly when command-and-control structures are so weak in the SPLA. It must be remembered that an SPLA attack on Northern forces in the flashpoint region of Abyei in May sparked a major confrontation and the occupation of the area by the SAF. The SPLA is hardly a paragon of professionalism, and its human rights record is poor. The United States should be wary of entangling itself in defense agreements with an organization that is still in the early stages of transforming itself from a guerilla force into a professional army.
In the short term, the United States should focus its efforts on getting humanitarian access to the war-affected region. That means negotiating a working cease-fire on the ground rather than a meaningless agreement that Khartoum can renege upon without consequences. Independent human rights observers are urgently needed to investigate the very serious allegations that have surfaced of atrocities carried out against civilians in recent weeks. The United States must exert maximum pressure at the UN Security Council, in coordination with other influential powers such as China (which has important oil interests to protect in the region), to persuade Khartoum to agree to the presence of a UN mission in Southern Kordofan and neighboring Blue Nile state, which is also vulnerable to serious violence. The new mission must be prepared to use its mandate robustly to enforce a cease-fire and monitor human rights abuses. Meanwhile, the United Nations should conduct an inquiry into the conduct of its UNMIS forces during the violence in Kadugli.
In the medium term, the United States has to take stock of the shifting political dynamics in Sudan. The policy options are unpromising. Given that the NCP is likely to remain the most viable government in Khartoum, the United States must continue to try to engage with it, no matter how unpalatable the prospect. But there comes a point when Khartoum’s inexcusable behavior begins to make a mockery of this policy and the United States starts to look naïve. The signs from Southern Kordofan suggest we may be reaching this point sooner rather than later. The United States should therefore begin reaching out to the opposition parties in Sudan in a more systematic way. These efforts should begin with the SPLM-North, which has responded to the NCP’s repressive actions in Southern Kordofan with overt calls for regime overthrow in Khartoum and threats to expand the conflict into neighboring Blue Nile and link up with rebels in Darfur. These messages play into the hands of the NCP, providing the justification for aggressive countermeasures. The United States should use its influence to help the SPLM-North moderate its tone and assist its efforts to become a viable, progressive party that can help expand political choice in Sudan beyond its current set of limited options, rather than the political adjunct of a rebel force. Talk of an all-out struggle for regime change in Khartoum is likely to reduce the chances of political compromise, increase the likelihood that conflict will spread, and in a worst case scenario, lead Sudan down the path to disintegration, with knock-on risks to regional stability.
Richard Downie is fellow and deputy director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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