North-South Conflict in Sudan: Current policy options for a potential 2011 scenario. Interview with Sara Pantuliano

Interview with Sara Pantuliano (ODI) 

Q: To what extent are the crises in Sudan a function of resource conflicts at the community level and to what extent are these influenced by the clash between traditional and modern property right regimes?

A: Resource conflicts are important in Sudan but they are not at the essence of the crisis; they are one of the many components of the multiple crises which affect Sudan, but not the central one. Resource conflicts are often manipulated politically by external actors who seek alliances with local militant groups to advance wider political aims. The various conflicts in Sudan are the outcome of a series of interconnected factors, which have historical roots, but are also rooted in a fundamental problem of governance that afflicts the country since before independence. These include historical grievances, local perceptions of race, identity and culture, ideological positions on the issue of religion and national identity, demands for fair sharing of power between different groups, inequitable distribution of economic resources and benefits, the absence of a democratic process and other governance issues, and yes, disputes over access to and control over natural resources (land, livestock, water and oil). Competition over resources of course has a role in the conflict but it is not the main factor. The way resources are used is a function of the governance problem. This includes the tensions between traditional and modern property regimes.

The Native Administration and local tribal chiefs, who were customarily entrusted with the management of rights to land ownership and use, especially in rural areas, have been losing the capacity to control land and natural resources alienation. Native Administrators are increasingly seen as elitist, undemocratic, highly politicized and gender-blind, and unable to genuinely represent communities and mediate disputes over land. In the south, war has greatly reduced the power and status of tribal chiefs, particularly as military tribunals have been operating in place of customary courts. Traditional structures have however not been replaced by functioning modern institutions. The country still lacks an overall framework to deal with land and natural resources issues both in the North and in the South. This framework includes a coherent policy on land and natural resources, adequate legislation, functioning institutions, law enforcement capacity and supporting services.

Q: What are the possible futures that South Sudan can expect (a) under a continuation of the current arrangements and (b) in the case of its secession, as an independent state? Would you like to share a brief and personal analysis of likely future scenarios in Sudan, and its impact on the Region?

A: Whatever the outcome of the referendum in Southern Sudan, we are definitely moving into a difficult phase; in fact we are already at a critical juncture. Communities on the ground are profoundly dissatisfied and local level tensions are pervasive. How to ensure that these tensions do not escalate into a much wider conflict that takes the two parties back to war is going to be critical for the future of Sudan. I don't think that the parties have deliberate plans to resume the war; this would not be in the interest of either of them. The problem is that there has been very little delivery to the communities and therefore tension has built up in many parts of the country. The possibility of local clashes escalating is very tangible. Regardless of the choice Southern Sudanese make next year, whether or not they opt for secession, it is going to be very difficult to maintain stability unless the key governance and development challenges are addressed both in the North and in the South. Whether the country remains united or separates, the tensions at the local level must be addressed in a meaningful way so as to allow the communities to have some confidence in a positive transition post 2011. This confidence is not there now.

As far as the likely impact of this situation on the broader region, of course it depends on the outcome of the referendum. A number of countries in the region would prefer to see Sudan remain united. Egypt, for instance, opposes the secession option so as not to deal with another counterbalance of power on the Nile Waters issue. Other countries such as Kenya and Uganda look more favorably to an independent Southern Sudan. I think that in the next year or two we will see increased political and diplomatic activity by neighboring countries to strengthen relations with the Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS), irrespective of the result of the referendum. Different neighboring countries are already holding a number of policy discussions with GOSS on the sharing of common resources such as Nile waters and other natural resources of common strategic interest. It is very critical that there is an acceptance by the neighboring countries of the process that Sudan is choosing for itself.

Q: To what extent is the international community complicit in the current problems of the Sudan? What role might it play? What are the factors currently militating against such a role?

A: The international community has played an important role in Sudan over the years, both positive and negative. There have been a multitude of different interests that have impacted negatively on the history of Sudan, both in the colonial period and more recently. International partners have though also engaged positively around the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which is an achievement not to be underestimated. The CPA saw the building of a more cohesive vision towards Sudan between different members of the international community, an effort to build a platform where international partners would speak with a more unified voice. This is what has been lacking in the last four or five years, and that's a function of the need for many countries to respond to their domestic constituencies. This has meant putting a strong emphasis on the Darfur crisis, and prioritizing the political engagement over that crisis over the rest of the country and the transition between North and South. Now we finally see a rebalancing of this attention towards Sudan again, not just towards domestic constituencies. In this regard the recent US policy is welcome, because it looks at Sudan as a whole, it moves beyond an almost obsessive focus on Darfur and it re-engages with broader political dynamics throughout the country. There is a hope that this can facilitate a more cohesive international re-engagement with Sudan as a country, and help build a more unified international vision that can accompany its difficult transition over the next couple of years and beyond.

Interview by Flaminia Vola. 

Sara Pantuliano is  Research Fellow and Programme Leader at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI).

Photo: Stein Ove Korneliussen A soldier from SPLA, Southern Sudan