In response to the secession of South Sudan, the northern country now known simply as Sudan has decided upon a draconian solution: it will deny citizenship to all in the North who are judged, on a purely ethnic basis, to be “southerners.” The National Islamic Front/National Congress Party (NIF/NCP) regime has not yet clarified the terms for alien residency, but they will be deeply discriminatory, as the regime’s behavior long has been. During the long civil war (1983-2005), more than 2 million people fled north, to what they had hoped would be safety and opportunity, and many remain—700,000 according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). A great many of these people—most of them, according to some estimates—were born in the North and have never lived in the South.
For the men who rule the capital of Khartoum, it does not matter that these people meet the traditional international criteria for citizenship (birth, long residence, property ownership, pension rights). The regime is determined to proceed with what will be nothing less than a comprehensive ethnic culling of the population in the North. And it will begin soon: April 8 has been set as the deadline for “southerners” to leave or establish residency under terms not yet specified. Many will simply be expelled, though many who wish to leave and escape growing persecution will have no means of transportation; indeed, the IOM has declared that such a massive deportation program is “impossible,” far beyond any available logistical capacity. Khartoum has exacerbated the problem by denying further barge traffic on the White Nile, as well as other means of transport. Moreover, the rainy season begins in just over a month in the South, which will make many roads impassible.
The international community should not be asking how to assist the Khartoum regime in this programmatic ethnic culling, but rather how to protect those who are subject to such a flagrant contravention of international norms and humanitarian law. Sarnata Reynolds of Refugees International put the matter in appropriate terms, calling Khartoum’s plan “intolerable”:
“First, the individuals targeted by this plan have a legitimate claim to Sudanese citizenship, since most have lived in Sudan their entire lives, and there is currently no way for them to apply for South Sudanese citizenship. Second, forcing men, women and children into deportation camps and shipping them off to a country that many have never seen would be a legal and moral disaster.”
Khartoum knows perfectly well, as does the international community, that forcing hundreds of thousands of “southerners” to move to the South will come as a number of other humanitarian crises are reaching a crescendo of destructive potential on both sides of the North-South border. This “repatriation” occurs amid an already massive displacement: some 110,000 Dinka Ngok remain displaced from the border region of Abyei. Tens of thousands have fled the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan (on the northern side of the border) to South Sudan’s Unity state; many additional tens of thousands have fled from Blue Nile to Upper Nile state; and many more tens of thousands have fled to Ethiopia. The UN estimates that it needs $145 million to respond to these population displacements alone, and this says nothing about the immense needs within Blue Nile and South Kordofan, where many hundreds of thousands of people have been internally displaced or are in desperate need. Meanwhile, Khartoum continues to deny all international humanitarian relief.
Those forced to return to the South are likely to have few of the resources necessary to resume agricultural livelihoods, and they will be arriving in a country that is already desperately struggling with food shortages. Valerie Amos, the UN’s chief humanitarian official, recently warned that “the situation in [South Sudan] as a whole is extremely precarious, and the risk of a dangerous decline is very real.” All this is compounded by military actions that largely destroyed the fall harvest of sorghum in both Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains. In the Nuba, late spring planting was also disrupted by indiscriminate aerial attacks on civilians and their agriculture, bombing that continues to the present.
Of course Khartoum knows a good deal about exacerbating humanitarian crises, as we saw during the terrible famine in Bahr el-Ghazal in 1998, during the humanitarian blockade of the Nuba in the 1990s, and during the civil war in the South, when Khartoum regularly denied virtually all access to Operation Lifeline Sudan, which served millions of people. In Darfur Khartoum has for eight years manipulated and denied humanitarian relief in immensely destructive fashion. It’s hardly surprising that, following the southern self-determination referendum in January 2011, Khartoum closed many border-crossing areas to the South, thus halting the movement of food and other items and contributing to severe food shortages.
The NIF/NCP’s indifference to human suffering and destruction, and willingness to manipulate humanitarian issues for military or diplomatic advantage, betrays its deep and abiding racism, reflected in the long and ugly history of regime-condoned slavery in Sudan. A 2003 study by the Rift Valley Institute identified, by name, more than 10,000 taken into slavery from Northern Bahr el-Ghazal and Warrap state. The total actually enslaved was undoubtedly much greater, and thousands of people from these regions remain enslaved in the North to this day.
The regime’s indifference also derives from a religious zealotry that those attempting to serve as negotiating intermediaries with the regime mostly fail to recognize, despite mounting evidence of intolerance. In Khartoum there has been a marked increase in threats and attacks against churches, priests, and Christians of all denominations. Those perceived as Christians (“southerners”) are often forcibly conscripted by press gangs working for renegade militias that operate, with Khartoum’s support, in South Sudan. It is not surprising that the NIF/NCP appears to be contemplating another name change, as reported by the resourceful Sudan Tribune: “Karam Allah Abbas, governor of Gadaref state and head of the National Congress Party in the eastern Sudan province, disclosed that there is a trend within the ruling party to change its name to Hizbollah (Party of God).”
Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir made clear that he would purge the North of non-Arab and non-Islamic elements during the southern self-determination referendum over a year ago.
“‘If south Sudan secedes,’ he told the Guardian, ‘we will change the constitution, and at that time there will be no time to speak of diversity of culture and ethnicity … sharia and Islam will be the main source for the constitution, Islam the official religion and Arabic the official language.’”
While the world sees these developments as threatening vast human catastrophe, Khartoum sees only diplomatic or military advantage—an opportunity to further weaken South Sudan, with an eye to military seizure of southern territory in the oil regions. Certainly the regime is well aware of—and in fact intends—the consequences of compelling hundreds of thousands of “southerners” to flee into an already tumultuous, unstable, and deeply threatening environment.
Perhaps this deliberate distress inflicted on South Sudan is meant to create diplomatic leverage in settling the dispute over oil revenues, where Khartoum’s negotiating brinksmanship has backfired and compelled the South to shut down all oil production. But exacerbating humanitarian crises is unlikely to change the views of the southern leadership. The more likely explanation is that this is all to make the South more vulnerable to military incursions of the sort we have seen this past week at Jau, and in relentless aerial bombardment of sovereign southern territory.
If conflict resumes in greater Sudan, it will be waged largely as a war of attrition in which humanitarian needs are simply used as another weapon—and great numbers of civilians will die. It will, in short, be like all wars waged by this regime. And it will be a war that legitimizes ethnic culling as a weapon of mass destruction.
[Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College, has published extensively on Sudan, nationally and internationally, for more than a decade. He is author of A Long Day's Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide.]