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Sudan: Conflict and Division

Sudan: Conflict and Division
by Rachel Blackford

The largest country in Africa has been beset with conflict for decades. Relations between the Muslim majority in the North and the predominantly Christian South have been tense since Sudan’s independence from Egypt and Britain in 1956. Since this date, two rounds of civil war between the North and the South have cost the lives of millions of people. The conflict in Darfur continues with accusations of ethnic cleansing, driving millions from their homes and costing more lives. However, following a peace agreement signed in 2005, this could all change. In January of this year, a referendum was held in the country over whether it should be split in two, to form a Muslim North and Christian South. All results currently available from the vote demonstrate a strong support for the dissolution of Sudan. It seems almost certain that in July, South Sudan will become the world’s newest independent state. However, what this means for the future of the country, and of others, is much less clear.

After Sudan gained independence, the first civil war began when southerners feared that independence would mean domination by the north of the country. This war lasted from 1955-1972, and was resolved through a peace agreement. However, in 1983 the civil war began again due to the President’s decision to violate the agreement’s grant of considerable autonomy to the south. Since 1983, a combination of civil war and famine has taken the lives of over a million people. In 1989, a military coup instilled President Omar al-Bashir into power, who formed alliances with Muslim groups and began institutionalising Sharia law in parts of the North, again further exacerbating tensions with the non-Muslim South. Omar al-Bashir faces several charges from the International Criminal Court due to the conflict in Darfur, where he is accused of sponsoring war crimes due to the alleged ethnic cleansing in the region. This conflict in Darfur has also strained relations and even led to war with neighbouring Chad, partly due to the destabilising effect of the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing into the adjacent region. The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, backed by the UN, is seen by many as the only solution to these problems.

However, it is questionable whether splitting the country in two is the only or even the best solution to the problems faced by Sudan. The nature of the conflict is predominantly cultural and religious, based on the mainly Christian South’s desire for autonomy rather than being ruled by the Muslim North. Inevitably though, some more material considerations do play a role, such as the desire for territory and also the North’s reluctance to grant the South too much autonomy due to the oil reserves in the south. Nevertheless, the highly cultural and religious nature of the conflict means that compromise is harder than in a more material conflict. This means that under one government, it would be hard to keep both sides content. However, this would not be necessarily impossible; in Northern Ireland a successful coalition government was created to enable power sharing between Protestants and Catholics and therefore establish peace in the region. Although the case of Sudan is clearly different, a power sharing agreement could be looked into and tested. The differences in language between the North and the South in Sudan could be a major barrier to such an agreement, and also the current President is very unlikely to accept such an arrangement. Also, the fact that Christians are a minority in Sudan, accounting for approximately 25% of the population, means that even in a government with shared power they could still feel oppressed. Therefore, a power sharing agreement would be extremely difficult to create and maintain, so splitting the country may in fact be the best option. However, it seems unlikely to solve all problems in the country.

Although dividing the country into two is therefore probably the best way to create and preserve peace between the North and the South, this does not solve the conflict in Darfur. The sources of division in this region between the government and rebel groups are not completely in line with the tensions between the North and the South. Therefore, when Sudan does split, there are many other complicating factors that will need to be addressed afterwards. The region of Darfur will be in Northern Sudan, but it is unclear at present how the government will try to resolve the problems there; at the moment, the President is allegedly sponsoring war crimes in the region. Therefore although splitting the country could be a great step towards peace between the North and the South, it will not have as direct a link to peace in Darfur, and this region could easily continue to be a problem.

The split of Sudan could also have implications on other countries, both in Africa and around the world. For example, Nigeria also has internal tensions concerning the divisions between Muslims and Christians in its population. In Nigeria, the proportions of each religion are more equal than in Sudan, and leaders may look to the option of splitting the country if tensions get worse and lead to a civil war. Outside of Africa, other countries such as Indonesia also face religious divisions, and internal divisions in Sri Lanka are also growing. Many scholars are predicting the rise of religion globally, partly due to modernisation leading people to seek security in religion, and also due to the internet and mass communication making new ideas more accessible to an increasing number of people. This means that in the future, religious tensions in many countries could increase and become problematic, perhaps even leading to civil wars as it did in Sudan. If the religious tensions do lead to a civil war, and the splitting of Sudan is seen as a successful solution to their problems, it is easy to see how other countries could follow. This is not to say that dividing Sudan will have an immediate domino effect around the world, but if it is successful it will give world leaders an extra option to consider when resolving conflicts, particularly cultural and religious conflict.

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