Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 October 2009
Issue No. 969
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Layers of suspicion

Far from resolving interminable tensions, the recent deal struck between the two main Sudanese political forces is unlikely to lead to long-term harmony, writes Asmaa El-Husseini

Making a deal can be a tricky business in Sudan. As often as not, one can antagonise one's allies without appeasing one's enemies. The recent deal between the National Congress Party (NCP) and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) is no exception.

The NCP and the SPLM, both partners in the current government, have been at odds regarding the upcoming referendum in southern Sudan. But they have just signed a deal that gives two-thirds of southerners the right to vote on unity or secession. The outcome of the referendum will be decided by simple majority, or 50 per cent of the votes plus one. Southerners who live in Khartoum or abroad will be allowed to vote.

The deal, signed by Vice-President Ali Othman Taha and Riak Mashar, deputy president in the southern government, is a major breakthrough. Earlier, the NCP wanted the outcome of the referendum to be decided by 75 per cent of the vote. The SPLM had insisted that southerners living outside the south could not vote.

The deal has ended the problem of a census. Instead of carrying out a new census, as the NCP had wanted, an alternative voter list will be approved.

The deal will not go into effect until it is approved by both the southern government and the Sudanese parliament. As only two thirds of southerners are allowed to take part in the poll, opposition to the deal is expected in the south. Critics call the deal an act of treason and a prelude to partition. Some say that the NCP is risking the unity of the country to stay in power. Others say that the SPLM is giving the NCP a free hand in the north in return for the secession of the south.

For the past few weeks, NCP leaders have been making hawkish remarks about the south. Now these remarks seem lacking in substance. The NCP has been distracting attention from the deal by posturing about the country's unity.

The SPLM may have won some concessions from the NCP, but its credibility has been shattered in the eyes of its allies in the northern opposition. The latter had come to Juba only recently to sign a declaration calling on the NCP to abolish restrictive laws. The SPLM, which arranged for the Juba meeting, now seems as if it is selling its allies down the river. All the SPLM wanted, its critics now say, is support from the northern opposition for its demand for a 50 per cent plus one vote. Once the northern opposition approved that demand, the SPLM had no interest in putting more pressure on the NCP.

The NCP needed the deal to alleviate some of the international and domestic pressure gathered against it. By signing this deal, the NCP hopes to change the way it is being perceived in the US. In particular, it wants to give the dovish members of the US administration -- people like Scott Gration, the US special envoy to Sudan, and John Kerry, the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- a chance to counter the hawkish views of Susan Rice, the US envoy to the UN. Rice and other hawkish members of the administration have been calling for further sanctions on Khartoum.

The NCP wants elections to go ahead as planned in April 2010. And the deal it has just concluded with the SPLM may just help it win these elections, for it can only be seen as a blow for the northern opposition.

The agreement between the SPLM and the NCP is a litmus test for the credibility of the SPLM with regards to the Juba declaration. Some still hope that the SPLM will keep cooperating with its partners in the Juba declaration until the freedom-restricting laws are removed. But the deal that the SPLM and the NCP have signed makes this possibility rather remote.

The northern opposition parties, which threw their weight in with the SPLM in the Juba conference, must be feeling betrayed. They had hoped for a successful boycott of the elections. They had hoped to force the NCP to meet their demands on restrictive laws and Darfur. Now their leverage on the NCP has been weakened.

Soon the northern opposition is likely to accuse the SPLM of repeating the error it made in Naivasha. The SPLM went to negotiate with the Sudanese government in Naivasha alone, although it had signed an agreement on collective action with other Sudanese parties in Asmara. The SPLM is still defending its actions in Naivasha by saying that the NCP wasn't willing to negotiate with other Sudanese parties. It is doubtful that this argument will work this time.

Sudan is going to have its referendum it seems. What it is not going to have is a sense of closure. The deal between the NCP and the SPLM is likely to cause more bitterness in the long run than relief.

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