Analysis: Sudan's Bashir faces tough balancing act

Reuters News
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Posted: Jul 02, 2011 1:39 PM
Analysis: Sudan's Bashir faces tough balancing act

By Alex Dziadosz

KHARTOUM (Reuters) - As southern Sudanese count down the minutes to independence on July 9, northerners are anxiously contemplating a future with less oil, roaring inflation and emboldened rebellions.

The challenges presented by the break-up of Africa's largest country mean President Omar Hassan al-Bashir will need to strike a delicate balance as he tries to hold together what is left of the nation he has ruled for more than two decades.

If he gets it wrong, he needs only look to his North African neighbors to see what could happen next. Popular protests have already pushed out long-ruling strongmen in Egypt and Tunisia and a civil war threatens another in Libya.

In Khartoum's dust-swept souks, shoppers and vendors comment on the split with a blend of sadness, resignation and anxiety.

"The southern independence is a big, very big mistake by our government. It is wrong," Mohamed, a newspaper vendor, said. "Our economy will suffer because we depend on oil. Prices rise every day and inflation will gain more."

Southerners voted to split off from the north in a January plebiscite, the culmination of a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of civil war in which about 2 million people died. But Sudan's conflicts go beyond just north and south.

Ethnic groups complaining of marginalization have taken up arms in the western Darfur region and in areas of the east. Many fighters in the Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile border states, which will remain in the north, also fought against Khartoum.

The diverse rebel movements share a common complaint -- a deep-seated resentment of what they see as a near complete domination of Sudan's power and wealth in hands of a small northern elite.

Analysts say those movements may step up their campaigns after the south secedes, seeing a chance to press for concessions from a vulnerable Khartoum.

"The dynamics that underpin other grievances in Sudan -- whether in the east, west, far north or the borderlands of Kordofan, White Nile and Blue Nile -- do not vanish with the south's secession," said Aly Verjee, a researcher at the Rift Valley Institute think tank.

LESS OIL, MORE INFLATION

Analysts say the north's ruling National Congress Party (NCP) has typically dealt with insurgencies with a mix of heavy-handed security crackdowns and attempts to split the rebels by offering deals to some of their leaders.

Those tactics may be harder to maintain as diminishing oil revenues drain the north's coffers.

"You can't just go on paying the salaries of the security and the army and forget about the public servants," said Fouad Hikmat of the International Crisis Group.

That could mean Bashir, a military officer who came to power in a bloodless 1989 coup, may have to seek political solutions more actively.

"In one year's time, if the NCP does not change, does not adapt a new approach that is more about inclusion than security control, then Sudan will be facing very serious problems," Hikmat added.

But opening up the political system could expose Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity, to challenges from hardliners in his own party who oppose all concessions to Sudan's peripheral states -- seeing them as a catalyst for more secessionist demands.

Unencumbered by the south, where the population follows mostly Christian and traditional beliefs, some NCP members might renew their focus on the Islamist ideals that inspired them when they first came to power.

The south's ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) will continue to run an opposition party in the north, but its influence will be diminished.

SPRINGTIME IN KHARTOUM?

Sudan has the same ingredients that ignited protests in other Arab countries -- particularly complaints of political repression and rising food prices, analysts say.

But it remains unclear whether Sudan, beleaguered by decades of war, will have the energy for an uprising, especially after the unrest took bloody turns in Libya, Yemen and Syria.

"I don't know if these movements and discontent will translate into a popular revolution on the North African model but it is always worth remembering that popular protests have brought down Sudanese governments before," said Roger Middleton, a researcher at the Chatham House think tank.

Popular protests helped oust two of Sudan's rulers after independence, and the memory of these movements is still alive.

So far some small protests, many led by students, have broken out, but have been quickly dispersed by security forces with batons and tear gas.

Much of what happens to the north may depend on what emerges in a final deal on sharing out oil revenues, which has yet to be decided with the south a week away from independence.

Any settlement is likely to see the north get less than the 50 percent of revenues from southern oil it currently receives under the 2005 peace deal.

To make up for it, analysts say north Sudan could turn increasingly to gold mining, agriculture and other industries or open up to more foreign investment from willing countries.

Bashir's recent visits to Iran and China could be a prelude to this, as the leader seeks to woo foreign leaders who could help prop up a beleaguered economy.

(Additional reporting by Ulf Laessing and Khaled Abdelaziz; Editing by Andrew Heavens)