Austin Bay

Last August, the government of Southern Sudan (GOSS), the semi-autonomous government administering Southern Sudan, asked a South Sudanese lyricists to write a national anthem.

The anticipatory anthem was one of literally thousands of tit-for-tat political exchanges between the GOSS and Sudan's national government in Khartoum, as both governments maneuvered for advantage in the Jan. 9, 2011, referendum on southern independence.

Diplomats and international aid workers in the region report that southerners will overwhelmingly choose independence. If they do, sometime in 2011 the GOSS will become the newly independent state of Southern Sudan, complete with new national anthem.

Except the north's president, Omar al-Bashir, and his ruling National Congress Party insist on calling independence "southern secession." This is the same northern government that directs the war in Sudan's western Darfur region. This is the same Bashir indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes. Prosecutors also believe Bashir has embezzled billions of dollars in government oil revenues.

North-South political wrangling is one thing; combat between their forces another -- and on a few dangerous occasions fighting has occurred. The GOSS also claims the north has stirred tribal violence in the south in order to weaken it. This is why Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Southern Sudan's referendum "a ticking time bomb of enormous consequence."

Sudan, like many other African states wrapped in colonial-era borders, is a complicated time bomb.

The north is predominantly Muslim and Arab or Arabized. The south is predominantly Christian and animist, and black African. The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which ended two decades of civil war, stipulated that an independence referendum be held by 2011. The GOSS also retained its own security force, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). SPLA guerrillas became the conventional force of the semi-autonomous but effectively separate state. The north already had the national army.

The CPA also stipulated that the north and south accurately demarcate their border. However, a number of border issues remain unsettled. Northern and southern soldiers and several tribal militia forces have clashed along the murky frontier, despite the limited presence of a U.N. peacekeeping force deployed to monitor the CPA.

Another flammable mixes in this ethnic, religious, tribal and geographic cauldron: petroleum. Sudan's most productive oil fields lie in the south or in the border region.

Before the ink began to dry on the 2005 peace treaty, diplomats worried that oil would ignite the cauldron if ethnic and religious strife did not. Oil has been contentious. The GOSS relies on oil royalties for over 90 percent of its budget and argues the north cheated it of $300 million in 2009. Those fields are the source of Bashir's alleged stolen billions. The fields have also bought the northern government China's support in the United Nations.

In the last week, however, Bashir has visited the south and changed his tune. He told the GOSS that he preferred a unitary state but would support the south if it chose to secede. Bashir kept the term secession but conceded to the reality of separation. Bashir's numerous critics contend he is also capitulating to the economic reality of northern Sudan's own oil revenue dependency. A big north-south war would shut down oil production and likely damage the fields. Better to separate peacefully and pump than to wage a war guaranteeing poverty.

Will common economic interest (and perhaps Bashir's personal greed) secure peace between Sudan and Southern Sudan? At the moment, it is a fragile tie -- but one that recognizes economic interdependency despite political differences.

If this recognition of mutual payoff succeeds in avoiding renewed war, it would be a welcome example of political evolution in preference to another round of bloodletting.


Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
 
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