Addressing a packed room in his signature cowboy hat, South Sudan President Salva Kiir made clear the South’s priorities in the remaining three and a half months before January’s referenda during a speech on Friday.
“The CPA remains a vital foundation of peace today and will remain so in months to come,” Kiir said, emphasizing the issues of oil-sharing, Abyei, and citizenship in his speech. While the South Sudanese were “moving heaven and earth” to have the two votes take place on time, Kiir noted that there was instead “foot dragging” from their northern partners.
The South Sudanese president also appealed to the Obama administration for sustained engagement in the lead-up to the two votes and beyond. Of the administration’s recent diplomatic surge to the South, the president said, “It could not be more necessary.”
More interestingly, Kiir’s address aimed to temper the expectations of the Obama administration on several points—in the process, revealing which outstanding items the southern government considers negotiable and non-negotiable in this eleventh hour.
Notably, the president asked for flexibility on the measure of the credibility of the two referenda, cautioning the international community from asking too much of the southern region and its government. It is “not realistic to demand perfection” of the votes in January, Kiir said, emphasizing the logistical limitations of the vast region. The president’s concerns stem from realities on the ground—technical preparations for the southern vote (held hostage by political deadlock for months) have barely begun, while the Abyei Referendum Commission has not even been formed.
President Kiir also spoke out against what he termed the international community’s expectation that the South “buy its freedom.” The expectation that the South Sudanese government should be accommodating and compromising in negotiations with the North “implies that the South has not already made significant compromises and sacrifices,” Kiir said—to considerable applause from the audience. In response to the idea that the South should give up its oil reserves to the North to become an independent state, Kiir asked, “Where is the justice in that situation?”
Both points reveal anxieties of the South Sudanese government and issues that the Obama administration should be considering. When speaking publicly about the South Sudan referendum, the U.S. administration has always called for a “credible” vote, but what defines credible, especially within the South Sudan context, has never been spelled out. Has the administration decided on the measure of election credibility, internally? Is it prepared to pass softer judgment on what will likely be imperfect votes? Even if the U.S. accommodates the South on this point, other international actors may not be so forgiving. The African Union—whose commission chairman Jean Ping has called southern independence and the potential dominoes effect it could create among other secessionist movements on the African continent a “catastrophic scenario”—is one actor that would be less inclined to recognize a dubious secession vote. Potential international division over what is a credible vote should be addressed now, through coordination among those actors whose recognition will be critical.
Kiir’s rhetoric on oil-sharing is a political message to his expectant South Sudanese constituency and a diplomatic response to the international community, whose narrative of the referendum has so far been premised on making secession palatable to Khartoum. In a speech on U.S. foreign policy earlier this month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, referring to the North:
“(…) [W]e’ve got to figure out some ways to make it worth their while to peacefully accept an independent South and for the South to recognize that unless they want more years of warfare and no chance to build their own new state, they’ve got to make some accommodations with the North as well.”
The South Sudanese government is understandably not happy with this approach, which, if taken to extremes, could devastate the South’s economy—an estimated 98 percent of the southern budget comes from oil revenues. In his speech, Kiir reminded the audience that completion of the post-referendum negotiations is not technically mandated by the CPA, and is not a condition of holding the referendum. In reality, an oil deal is a necessary political condition, one that will assure Khartoum of a flow of revenue should secession occur. International mediators would do well to press this reality onto the SPLM while remembering that these oil arrangements will have a significant impact on the sustainability of what may be Africa’s newest state.
Photo: South Sudan President Salva Kiir