On Monday, headlines out of Sudan offered cause for celebration: North and South Sudan agreed on a law regarding the 2011 referendum on Southern Sudanese independence. Southern leaders backed the law and an SPLM spokesman said that “both sides are serious about this agreement.” The Financial Times wrote that this “latest deal is likely to defuse tensions, at least temporarily.”
Political progress on one front, however, coincided with a setback for national unity elsewhere. For the second time this month, security forces broke up a demonstration in Omdurman and arrested SPLM and opposition supporters.
Police used tear gas and water cannons outside opposition party offices in Khartoum’s twin city of Omdurman.
Spokesman for the opposition Ummah party Mohammed Zaki said senior party officials, including Mariam al-Mahdi, daughter of party leader Sadiq al-Mahdi, were among those detained.
All of the protestors who had been arrested were released from a police station by the evening, an AFP correspondent said.
There had been a heavy security presence in the capital as police closed off large parts of the city, including all roads leading up to the parliament building where the demonstration was planned.
Earlier, several protesters from the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) carrying their party flag were beaten by police as they tried to reach parliament, the correspondent said.
Some 21 opposition groups, including the SPLM and Ummah had called a rally to demand greater democracy, even after a deal was reached on Sunday between Sudan’s two main political parties on reforms.
Two protests does not make a pattern, but the same grievances motivated both demonstrations. If demands regarding electoral reforms are not met, more demonstrations could follow. The crackdowns are not pretty – Reuters writes that “riot police with batons and shields arrested up to 40 demonstrators minutes after they started a march” – and more incidents like this could meet with greater repression. Reports of protesters throwing stones make me wonder whether open confrontation between security forces and demonstrators lies ahead.
To conclude on another tragic note, Doctors Without Borders says violence in South Sudan hit an all-time high this year in the period since Sudanese leaders signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005. The increasingly deadly violence exacerbates North-South tensions and “could hamper preparations for national and presidential elections scheduled for April 2010.”
The referendum deal remains a good sign, but these other trends – contentious protests and mass violence in the South – continue to worry me.