As South Sudan’s secession becomes all but official, with preliminary results indicating a 99 percent vote in favor of separation, another critical component of Sudan’s peace process flew under the radar. In Blue Nile state, just north of the North-South border, three weeks of popular consultations just concluded. This could be a step toward stabilizing at least one of the three volatile areas along the border over which diplomats and analysts have long been concerned.
The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, or CPA, has special provisions for areas of the North that fought alongside the South in Sudan’s civil war: Abyei, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile. Much has been written about Abyei, far less about the other areas. The South Kordofan-Blue Nile protocol lays out how power and wealth will be shared between the two states and the national government. But unlike the South and Abyei, Blue Nile and South Kordofan do not have the option of separation. Instead there are the popular consultations, which are supposed to be an opportunity for the population of the two states to say whether they are satisfied with the arrangements in the peace agreement.
Blue Nile’s popular consultations took place from January 14 through February 2, in the form of more than 100 hearing centers across the state. Issues discussed included power and wealth sharing, land, discrimination, security, and development. Initial reports suggest that residents are dissatisfied with the level of development and provision of basic services in the state. The majority of participants “agree that [the peace accord] ended the war but has failed to satisfy their needs,” according to the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Sudan. Here’s an excerpt from UNMIS’ coverage:
“‘Since peace has come, we sleep well at night,’ Osman Ahmed said into a microphone at the front of the tent, where note takers and other staff were sitting. ‘But there has been no development … we need a hospital, doctors, electricity, water, schools.’”
If consultations show that the peace agreement does not meet the will of the people—as they are likely to do—the state will enter into talks with the Sudanese government in an attempt to address those grievances. Whether and how Khartoum responds to Blue Nile’s demands will be a significant indication of how the ruling regime intends to govern the North and its willingness to widen political space after secession. If popular consultations are seen as mere gestures of inclusiveness, with little return or accommodation from Khartoum, the exercise may lead to the opposite of its intended effect: instability in the two areas with consequences for North-South relations. USIP’s Jason Gluck writes:
“Bad faith or mismanagement of the consultation process carries the risk of renewed violence and instability. Worse still, a process that state leaders or groups perceive as illegitimate or unjust is likely to destabilize the entire border area of north and south Sudan, jeopardizing a peaceful southern secession and transition.”
South Kordofan could be especially volatile. There, the consultation process has not even begun, and depends upon delayed state elections scheduled for April 2011. In a new IKV Pax Christi report, Julie Flint details the feelings of anger, betrayal, and insecurity on the ground among South Kordofan’s Nuba population, who have seen few of their grievances with the North addressed and view a future under an unchecked northern government with fear. She writes, “Tensions are already rising sharply in the aftermath of the referendum (…).” In this heated environment and without “careful international monitoring” Flint argues, the popular consultation may ultimately “hold more risk than advantage.”
While one fire, the southern referendum, may have been out, many more will flare if the international community forgets that Sudan’s long history of war was made up of multiple and distinct conflicts. As an imminent southern secession leaves populations along the border increasingly anxious and unpredictable, particular international attention must be paid to those areas.