Despite an historic peace agreement between northern and southern Sudan five years ago, the threat of renewed civil war looms closer by the day. Any resumption of hostilities would be disastrous for a country that has suffered from years of bloodshed and unfathomable destruction. But the United States and the rest of the international community are failing to take vital steps to avert a new war, and time is running out.
More than 2 million people died, and 5 million were driven from their homes, in a north-south war that dragged on from 1983 to 2003. The linchpin of the peace agreement is a referendum, scheduled for this coming January, in which the people of southern Sudan will have the option of secession. But the brutal regime that prolonged that war with the south — the same regime that has waged a genocidal campaign against the people of Darfur —remains in power in the capital, Khartoum. This regime appears increasingly determined to abrogate the peace deal.
Dismayingly, the thugs in Khartoum, led by President Omar al-Bashir, secured a veneer of legitimacy by winning easily in April elections widely viewed as a travesty. International observers — including ones from the United States—were well aware of the extent of fraud and manipulation, but could bring themselves to say only that the elections “did not meet international standards.” US special envoy Scott Gration disingenuously declared that the elections would be “as free and fair as possible.”
These tepid judgments from the international community signal to Khartoum that it will not be held accountable under the terms of the 2005 agreement, which demanded credible national elections. Such accommodation complicates rather than facilitates efforts by the US and its partners to ensure the integrity of the southern referendum. And that referendum is the only thing that can forestall renewed war.
The regime in Khartoum is calculating — right now — the costs of delaying, aborting, or militarily preempting the referendum it agreed to in 2005. The motive is clear: Sudan exports approximately 500,000 barrels of crude oil per day, but the vast majority of oil reserves lie in the south. Important infrastructure — including the origin of a key oil pipeline that runs 900 miles northeast to Port Sudan — lies along the disputed border between the north and south. Under the peace deal, the south gets half the revenue from oil extracted in the south; Khartoum gets the remainder, plus all of the oil revenues from what it declares to be the north. Khartoum may lose this favorable arrangement if the south votes for secession — which it overwhelmingly will. Unless oil wealth-sharing and boundary determinations are fairly negotiated before the voting, war is likely.
If it resumes, southern civilians will be caught in the middle. But war will not be confined to the south: Many areas in the north will join the fighting. Darfur, already witnessing a sharp increase in violence, is particularly likely to explode. In turn, Khartoum will likely expel all humanitarian organizations, cutting the lifeline for some 4.7 million needy Darfuris. The UN/African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur will also likely be expelled, leaving 2.7 million internally displaced persons defenseless.
What can prevent a resumption of war? How can the international community change Khartoum’s calculations? How can the referendum be supported?
The US and its allies must signal to the regime that if the referendum is compromised and war results, there will be unsustainable consequences for the regime and its cronies — economic, financial, diplomatic, and military. Smart, targeted sanctions must threaten real pain. After seeking whatever multilateral support is available, the United States must be prepared to threaten a naval blockade of Port Sudan, using non-lethal force to prevent the departure of oil export tankers.
The great risk of such a blockade — which should come into force only if Khartoum restarts the war in the south — is a naval encounter with a Chinese-flagged tanker. Broad and urgent diplomatic engagement with Beijing is required. But whereas China has blocked international action on Darfur to maintain access to oil controlled by Khartoum, Chinese interests and those of Western nations for once coincide: A civil war would end oil production, jeopardizing both Beijing’s $20 billion investment in Sudan’s oil development and access to a key source of offshore oil.
Now is the time to change Khartoum’s calculations about the costs of aborting the self-determination referendum. If the United States and its allies fail, they will quickly find that the broader costs of renewed war in Sudan far exceed present expenditures on aid and development.
[Eric Reeves is a professor at Smith College]