Since South Sudan separated in 2011, it has disappeared from the war narrative of Sudan’s rulers in much the same way that its refugees in Khartoum have been replaced by others. Meanwhile, an internal political crisis is looming in Sudan of which the September Riots of 2013 were indicative. Our guest author shares her impressions from Khartoum – Part I / II.
The recent power struggle-turned-conflict in the world’s newest nation of South Sudan has attracted huge attention from governments, academics and humanitarian organisations the world-over. Concerned and invested neighbours such as Uganda pay extra attention and even financial contributions towards their long term regional ally the SPLM/A, currently the ruling regime in South Sudan. Somewhat ironically, when looking on South Sudan from the confines of (North) Sudan’s capital Khartoum, it easily seems a world apart. In (North) Sudan the discourse of war that informs security policy has shifted away from the South to today’s domestic insurgents from the various conflicts zones in border regions – of which there are many.
Within Khartoum erstwhile Southern-Sudanese dominated areas have changed unrecognisably. The former inhabitants of these areas have mostly left and their businesses and unskilled labour been all but been replaced by new internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Chad and other crisis-stricken countries. Domestic workers in Khartoum households, formerly both male and female South Sudanese, have been replaced almost entirely by Ethiopian or Eritrean women and girls – themselves fleeing worsening economic and security climates at home. To be sure there is more information coming out from the South Sudan region now than when it was part of the greater Sudan. International media attention has increased and more media sources and (newly) information flows have had the chance to flourish under a government happy not to be viewed as an active aggressor in this current spate of south-south violence. But physical distance as well as the wounds of separation still felt in ‘the North’ has enabled an emotional distance exacerbated by acute difficulties in the Second Republic.
I have been in and out of Khartoum many times over the past five years and still attribute a substantial part of my identity to this country – that said this does not make my opinion on current events any more relevant than others’. Many of the opinions that I have heard or solicited from Khartoumites whilst being here in the midst of current events on both sides of the conflict-prone border are much informed, I think, by how Sudanese today feel about the ‘South’. Specifically, how the separation in 2011 may have threatened their sense of nationalism (politically-conjured or otherwise) or how hard-done-by they feel towards Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) architects and signatories of robbing ‘the North’ of a voice in the Referendum on Secession prior to the birth of South Sudan in 2011.
Despite the close connection between the two states and aside from the existence of any latent hostility or resentment between the two nations, there is another more immediate cause to the overarching laissez-faire attitude that I have come across. Sudan – as a sum of its parts and as a whole – is currently undergoing its own silent but highly discernible crisis, one that is not oft mentioned and has certainly not attracted the same level of attention as the crisis in South Sudan. I speak not only of on-going publicised conflicts in the peace-dividend forsaken periphery but rather of a socio-economic crisis characterised most markedly by the devaluation of currency, rapid inflation and the gradual but palpable erosion of a ‘middle class’.
Through the devaluation of currency and education and increased elite bargaining (of a certain political flavour) an even wider gap between rich and poor and even between rich and rich has been created. With the increase in cost of living (especially in relation to salaries) most recently exacerbated by the IMF-backed cessation of oil subsidies that fuelled civil unrest last September, Sudanese – rich and poor – are consumed by the immediate daily concerns afore them. The post-partum economic depression, which has dealt a near fatal blow to Sudan’s oil production capacity, has also decreased the already pitifully low proportion of government spending in key sectors, among them education and health – which together shockingly receive only about 3% of government spending. The same of course will be true of South Sudan if it too, as reports suggest, will shut down oil production again or a gradually worsening security environment will make it nigh impossible to continue producing at a profitable rate.
While some will point to an apparent rise in the standard of living – more people own cars, often several; more households than ever have access to the latest technology, even more surprising given the sanctions; almost everyone in the major cities uses WhatsApp – this by no means benefits a majority and is marked only by individualistic, material gain. Outside Khartoum’s borders, little has changed in the living standards of many, even a few hours drive out of Khartoum running water and electricity is a rarity. Worryingly the provision of rights has been less forthcoming than escalating consumerism. In some cases, rights have actually gradually withered, particularly the rights of minorities and women under the law, causing wave after wave of political unrest in the peripheries but also in the centre.
Unrest has by no means turned government attention towards internal housekeeping; instead, with characteristic myopia, the government has continued supporting and engaging in conflicts it cannot afford. Political short-sightedness is exacerbated by the government’s main concern and bargaining chip: oil. For Khartoum, with an economy so reliant on oil for economic and political breathing space, what little responsibility it holds to its own people will willingly be jettisoned in favour of keeping investors at bay. China and other major oil investors show increasing concern for Sudan’s future oil-related policy. In addition the perpetual dark clouds of Sudan’s IMF-sponsored loans, combined with its crippling interest – reaching 83% of its GDP of $55.1 billion in 2011 – provide little respite, even if oil proceeds were to go to social programs. The international community, both unwilling and unrelenting in its role in Sudan, has finally begun to act on this matter. The EU leads the way, demanding government adherence to human rights instruments in exchange for the cancellation of foreign debt. It remains to be seen whether Western grandstanding will translate to significant progress this time.
‘What, drawn and talk of peace?’
This is certainly not to say that I have not heard or witnessed any sympathetic remarks or that the Sudanese care little for their southern neighbour. In direct contradiction of western-held perceptions of intra-Sudanese relations, there is often little animosity between northerners and southerners, witnessed even in times of war. Despite religious and sometimes cultural differences, most were ready and willing to subscribe to a plural national citizenship and identity. At a state-level and cognisant of the need of their inter-cooperation, Khartoum and Juba know that they must find a long-lasting solution for both their sakes. Even in the face of any animosity, the intensity of the fighting and the long-reaching vestiges of colonial influence reminiscent of the Rwandan genocide will not solicit compassion from only the worst of enemies – it is worth noting though that the international community has been careful not to use such terminology. During the worst of the fighting in the past few months, one could hear murmurs of worry in Khartoum streets, the delicate dynamics of the conflict deconstructed in cafes and tea houses and even the Sudanese government up in arms and comically deciding to send an ICC-indicted president to be the peace-broker of a conflict he helped fuel for decades.
These approaches though yield very little, if by yield we mean ending loss of life. Ironically the biggest success so far may have been the involvement of President Omar Al-Bashir in the cease-fire talks – possibly as it inadvertently shamed president Salva Kiir and his former vice president-turned-rebel Reik Machar into talks. Ironically Al-Bashir’s brand of peace-brokering may have been surprisingly effective especially given the thawing of relations between Khartoum and Juba towards the end of 2013. With the violent response that Al-Bashir’s government dealt out to protestors last September still a vivid memory in the minds of many at home and abroad, the president of Sudan no doubt conscious of his international – and to some extent – national reputation ahead of next year’s scheduled elections probably couldn’t resist the opportunity to play the hawk in dove’s clothing. – Part II will be posted on March 14.
The author is known to and trusted by the editors and wishes to remain anonymous.