With the overwhelming vote in favor of separation, a new nation will be born on Saturday, July 9: the Republic of South Sudan.

July 1, 2011

In the past year and a half, Sudan has successfully passed two milestones established by its Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA): national elections in April 2010 and a referendum this past January on independence for the country’s south. With the overwhelming vote in favor of separation, a new nation will be born on Saturday, July 9: the Republic of South Sudan.

Many analysts feared that either the elections or the referendum would trigger violence on a scale that derails the peaceful resolution of the north-south conflict laid out in the historic 2005 accord. That neither occasion erupted in violence marked historic progress for the Sudanese.

But the recent, deadly attacks in two of the ethnically mixed regions along the tense north-south border are testing the durability of the Sudanese peace process, delaying resolution of tricky separation disputes and, in the view of some observers, creating a risk of a widening conflict.

What the violence has not done, however, is put off the south’s determination to launch its independence on July 9. “The southerners are dead set on, ‘We are going to get there,’” said Jon Temin, the director of the Sudan program at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).

Indeed, at a June 14 speech at USIP in Washington, South Sudan’s vice president, Riek Machar Teny reiterated a pledge not to go to war with the north, saying, “We are committed to a peaceful resolution of differences between the sister states of North and South.”

Nonetheless, attacks in the border region of Abyei and the border state of South Kordofan by Sudanese government security forces against southerners have set the stage for a period of high tensions between Khartoum, the capital of present-day Sudan, and Juba, the capital of the south. “These developments have demolished the near-term hope for a peaceful relationship between good neighbors,” said Linda Bishai, a USIP senior program officer with extensive experience in Sudan. “The violence in South Kordofan and Abyei has just stacked the deck in favor of continued hostilities, tension and lack of trust between the parties.”

The Abyei violence prompted the United Nations Security Council on June 27 to authorize the deployment of 4,200 Ethiopian peacekeepers to the disputed region, whose political future is supposed to be determined, under the CPA, by a local referendum. The Security Council action followed a deal on demilitarizing Abyei between Khartoum and Juba. Yet Abyei remains a central flashpoint between the two sides—and significant unfinished business in the overall separation process.

Abyei is the scene of complicated ethnic politics. It is home to the Ngok Dinka tribe, generally Christian and allied with the ethnically African south. But Misseriya nomads of Arab descent and from the north also inhabit the area for part of each year, and they have patrons in Khartoum. In May, military from the north pushed out some 100,000 southerners from the area, prompting charges that the north was conducting “ethnic cleansing” in advance of July 9.

Similarly, in South Kordofan, which will remain part of the north after July 9, government forces have launched fierce attacks on southern soldiers and the area’s Nuba African ethnic group, including aerial bombardments. Tens of thousands of people have been driven from the area amid reports of targeted killings against the Nuba. The Nuba mountain region was embroiled in the mass violence of Sudan’s four-decade-long civil war, in which more than two million people were killed.

On June 28, negotiators representing the north and southern-allied fighters known as the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM)-Northern Sector signed a framework agreement for South Kordofan and another northern state, Blue Nile. It calls for peaceful disarmament of the southern-allied forces, cooperative political arrangements and humanitarian access. The agreement did not immediately halt hostilities but said that the two sides should work toward a ceasefire.

Earlier that week, President Barack Obama had condemned the recent violence, focusing on the Sudanese Armed Forces. Without ceasefires in place and political negotiations in South Kordofan as well as Abyei, President Obama warned, “the roadmap for better relations with the government of Sudan cannot be carried forward, which will only deepen Sudan’s isolation from the international community.”

The violence has not significantly affected USIP’s ongoing activities in Sudan, according to Temin. The Institute is focused on assisting South Sudanese officials prepare for the responsibilities of developing a new state, even as it supports peacebuilding efforts in the north.

USIP has been a key supporter of the peace process—and has been active in Sudan for two decades.

In the run-up to the country’s national elections and later its referendum, USIP conducted workshops with Sudanese civil society representatives—and a few security officials—to understand and head-off signs of political violence. Said Temin, “We think our workshops contributed to the prevention of violence.”

USIP’s Electoral Violence Prevention (EVP) workshops—ten in all—ran from January 2009 to February 2010. Carrying that model forward, two Referendum Violence Prevention (RVP) workshops were conducted in October and November of last year in Juba and another southern town, Rumbek. With their USIP training, the EVP participants went on to run another 20 workshops of their own. Both sets of workshops were funded by the State Department-based office of the U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan.

The ten EVP sessions were conducted around Sudan, drawing political figures, tribal and religious leaders, non-governmental activists, students, teachers and journalists in each locale. “It took off like wildfire,” said Bishai, who led the training effort in Sudan. In the conflict-torn western region of Darfur, rebel leaders sat next to officials from the ruling National Congress Party who are involved in security matters. In Khartoum, a dramatist was moved by the USIP effort to convert some of its instruction into a Sudanese play, which was performed in the courtyard of a local college. A broad theme of the workshops, said Bishai, was that “elections are another way of non-violent conflict resolution. They offer ways to resolve your problems without guns.”

More broadly, the sessions emphasized that a trip to the ballot box is only the beginning of the responsibilities of good citizenship. “We discussed how to mediate and not to fight with families and schools…the nuts and bolts of being a peacebuilder,” Bishai said.

The USIP workshops revealed that police-community tensions remain a major potential trigger for violence. With State Department funding, the Institute recently launched a series of up to eight training sessions aimed at improving ties between police and local communities in the south, where efforts to fashion a national police force are proceeding urgently with the approach of independence.

With north-south disputes entering an especially dangerous phase—not to mention growing internal tensions in the south over political power and representation—the Institute’s Sudan specialists believe that the violence-prevention skills promoted in the workshops will remain relevant for the many challenges facing both the south and the north.

“Now comes the test of whether the government in South Sudan can really stand alone,” said Temin. “The test in the north is whether there is interest in having a real dialogue about governance and identity that can break the cycle of violence.”

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