Sudan’s Islamic Movement Heads to Its General Conference

This week, the Islamic Movement of Sudan will hold its General Conference, which takes place every four years. Various sub-national conferences have already occurred in preparation for the main event. The national conference may give some insight into the trajectory of the Movement, its relationship with the regime of President Omar al Bashir, and the hopes of various leaders to succeed Bashir, perhaps as soon as 2015.

Founded in 1945 (read a history of the Movement here, .pdf, start p. 95) as a Sudanese counterpart to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Movement has participated under several names in many of the critical moments of Sudanese politics, including the popular uprising of 1964 and the 1989 coup that brought the National Islamic Front (NIF) to power. In 1999, the Movement split amid rivalry between President Bashir and Dr. Hassan al Turabi, the longtime leader of the Movement. The greater part of the Movement remained with Bashir and his National Congress Party (NCP), while Turabi’s group renamed itself the Popular Congress Party. The (remaining) Movement has been called one of three main components within the Bashir regime, the other two being the military and the leadership of the NPC itself. Read more background on the Movement here.

The immediate background for this week’s meeting includes several points of tension:

  • memorandum, submitted by some Movement members to the regime, that called for various reforms, including a “veiled demand, namely the institution of the authority of the Islamic Movement proper over the ruling NCP.” Bashir appeared on television to reject the demands.
  • Internal divisions, possibly similar to those that drove a split in 1999. This article (Arabic) describes substantial opposition with the Movement to Bashir and the NCP.
  • An impending change of leadership for the Movement: “The IM’s secretary-general and Sudan’s first Vice-President Ali Osman Mohammed Taha will not be able to run as an incumbent because the current constitution does not allow more than two terms in the position. Taha was elected to the position during the last conference after facing strong competition with current presidential adviser Ghazi Salah Al-Din Al-Atabani. It is not clear whether Al-Atabani intends to run again but insiders say the man has recently stepped out of decision-making circles due to what they described as his unhappiness with the way the NCP has handled a number of sensitive issues lately.” More on the internal succession issue here (Arabic).
  • Jockeying for position as leaders ask who will eventually succeed Bashir. AFP writes, “Potential candidates to replace Bashir are jostling for influence within the Islamic Movement.”

Despite these tensions, some are expecting a relatively quiet conference:

While only about 12 percent of NCP members come from the Islamic Movement, most of the leadership belongs to the movement, said Amin Hassan Omer, from its ruling secretariat.

He predicted “nothing specific” about succession will emerge from the conference, and said does not see a real power struggle in the Movement.

Mahjoub Mohamed Salih, publisher of the independent Al-Ayaam newspaper, said the conference would highlight divisions between grassroots Islamists and NCP loyalists, though he does not see the movement fracturing.

We’ll find out later this week.

A Roundup on the Protests in Sudan

Since June 16, protests have shaken Khartoum and other areas in Sudan. The immediate trigger for the protests was the government’s announcement of new austerity measures. These measures aim to plug a budgetary deficit that largely stems from Sudan’s loss of South Sudan and its oil. As protests have continued, they have tapped into longer-term grievances against the regime of President Omar al Bashir and his National Congress Party (NCP). Bashir has been in power since 1989, most recently winning re-election in 2010. Some commentators and activists view the protests as the “beginning of the end” for Bashir; others have pointed out that earlier protest movements failed to take root, suggesting that this one, too, will falter. I am more in the latter camp for now, but the longer the protests continue the more of a danger they become to Bashir, who must now keep an eye not only on the streets but also on other factions of the Sudanese elite.

On Twitter, you can keep up to date on the protests by following the hashtag #SudanRevolts, as well as users Moez AliAmir Ahmad Nasr, James CopnallBec Hamilton, Martin Plaut, Alun McDonald, Mimz, Daniel Solomon, and many others.

Below is a roundup of sources relevant to the protests. Another recent roundup by the blog “Redefining the Narrative” is here, and All Africa is collecting articles on the protests here.

International reactions:

  • Human Rights Watch: “Sudan should end the crackdown on peaceful protesters, release people who have been detained, and allow journalists to report freely on the events.”
  • US State Department: “The United States condemns the numerous arrests and detentions that have been taking place over the past week in Sudan in response to peaceful demonstrations. There have been reports of protestors being beaten, imprisoned, and severely mistreated while in government custody. We call for the immediate release of those detained for peaceful protest.”
  • UK Foreign Office: “These demonstrations underline once again the importance of the Government of Sudan embarking on a process of reform that addresses the needs and aspirations of all Sudanese citizens within an open and democratic framework.”

Statements by Sudanese government officials:

  • Al Jazeera: “Bashir Says Sudan Protests Are No Arab Spring”
  • Reuters: “Sudan Says No Retreat on Cuts Despite Protests”

News articles:

  • Sudan Tribune: “Bashir Sacks Aides as Regional Governments Resign Except South Darfur”
  • Radio Dabanga: “Dormitories of Protesting Students Set Ablaze by Sudan Security Agents”
  • AFP: “Bloomberg Reporter Deported from Sudan”
  • Sudan Tribune: “Opposition Party Rejects Ban on Political Meetings”
  • CNN: “Police Crackdown on Growing Protests”

Commentary:

What is your view of the protests? Do you think Bashir will fall?

Glimpses of (North) Sudanese Politics in a Time of Conflict

As of yesterday, fighting had broken out again between Sudan and South Sudan, which have been at odds since (and before) the South became independent last July. As I wrote last week, there are factors at work in the conflict that could reduce the chances of escalation (such as international concern over the situation) as well as factors that could promote escalation. One such factor is the internal politics of each Sudan. This post focuses on the northern side of the border.

Powerful voices in Khartoum are taking a hard line on the conflict, while the increasingly precarious position of Southern Sudanese who reside in the north introduces yet another note of tension into North-South relations.

Strong rhetoric has come from President Omar al Bashir, who gave a major speech last week in which he threatened to teach South Sudan a “final lesson by force.” It has come from Vice President Ali Osman Taha, who now expresses pessimism about negotiations and “added that he doesn’t think peace will be achieved with Juba’s current leaders.” Heated language has come from Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP), whose spokesman Dr. Badr al Din Ahmad Ibrahim (Arabic) recently likened the government of South Sudan to the “Israel of Africa,” phrasing that suggests a good deal of enmity.

Several major northern parties, in what could be read either as a standard expression of patriotism or as something stronger, have congratulated the Sudan Armed Forces on the recovery of Heglig oil field, which Southern forces briefly controlled last week. Sadiq al Mahdi, leader of the Umma Party and former prime minister, framed the “liberation” of the Heglig oil field (Arabic) as a lesson in “accountability” for the South and as a wake-up call for the north.

A climate of tension between North and South is exacerbated by the problems of Southerners who reside in the north. On April 9, Southerners lost their legal right to reside in the north, producing sustained confusion about how they can resolve their legal status and touching off humanitarian issues among Southerners now working to return to the South. Meanwhile, yesterday’s burning of “a Catholic church frequented by Southern Sudanese” in Khartoum seemed to mark a new level of hostility toward Southern residents in the north (more on the burning, in Arabic, here). I do not want to overstate the importance of one incident, but I would think that news of the burning, following so quickly on the heels of the changes of April 9, is causing some anger in Juba.

None of this means that war is guaranteed or that de-escalation is impossible. But it will be worth keeping an eye on how the conflict affects, and plays out within, the internal political scenes of both North and South. As The Economist writes, “Sudanese brinkmanship knows few boundaries. This makes tank battles more likely but not inevitable.” Tough rhetoric and actions on both sides (this post focuses on the North, but certainly the South’s move into Heglig represents a new level of aggression on their part) feed into such brinkmanship.

Sudan and South Sudan Flirting with Full-Blown War

How do we characterize the situation in (north) Sudan and South Sudan now? Since before the July 2011 referendum that gave South Sudan independence, since before the April 2010 presidential elections that were part of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the north and the south, since perhaps the signing of the CPA itself, there have been fears that the two areas (now two nations) would return to war – would pick up the civil wars of 1955-1972 and 1983-2005 where they left off.

Are those fears now coming true? For several years, accusations have been flying that the government in Khartoum is arming and inciting rebellions in the South. For several months, conflict has raged along the new border, with the armies of Sudan and South Sudan increasingly coming into direct, armed confrontations with one another. For several weeks, South Sudanese forces have made incursions into Sudanese territory as part of a cycle of retaliatory violence propagated by both sides. And on Wednesday, President Omar al Bashir of Sudan seemed to declare war on the South – though the Southern government says the two countries are not at war. Some state of warfare clearly exists; the question is one of terminology, perhaps, but more importantly one of where all this is headed.

There are factors that mitigate against full-blown war. The escalation currently taking place is increasingly concerning to outsiders, and not just in East Africa. The United Nations Security Council is reportedly considering imposing sanctions on both parties. The UN has also denounced South Sudan’s occupation of the area around the Heglig oil field, inside Sudanese territory. The United States is keenly interested in preventing a return to full-blown war. And China, where Southern Sudanese President Salva Kiir is set to travel soon, also has an interest in seeing that the conflict does not escalate further. What results such concern will produce is not yet clear, though this morning saw the announcement that Southern forces will withdraw from Heglig. It should be noted, finally, that not all outside parties are necessarily emphasizing peace – the Ugandan government has proclaimed that it would support South Sudan if it comes to war. Such rhetoric could increase, not reduce, tensions.

There are other factors that might encourage escalation. One such factor is how the conflict plays out within the internal politics of each country. For example, an article from the Sudan Tribune reports on how the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) has “slammed two opposition parties for not condemning strongly enough the capture of Heglig by the South Sudanese army last week.” The governments in Khartoum and Juba both face serious internal problems, including rebellions, and it is possible that some hardliners, especially in Khartoum, see a political opportunity in the present conflict – namely, the chance to promote or enforce internal political cohesion in the name of national security and patriotism.

Yet escalating the conflict also carries major political risks for each side, especially given the economic difficulties both face, difficulties that stem partly from the conflict itself. A costly and protracted struggle could exacerbate internal dissent in both countries, in addition to consuming lives, time, and resources on the battlefield.

Sudan: Keep An Eye on South Kordofan

AFP:

Heavy shooting broke out on Monday in Kadugli, the capital of Sudan’s volatile oil-producing border state of South Kordofan, amid soaring tensions ahead of southern independence, witnesses and the UN said.

“The fighting appears to be between elements from the SAF and SPLA,” said Kouider Zerrouk, a spokesman for the United Nations mission in Sudan (UNMIS), referring to the respective armies of north and south Sudan.

He added that the fighting had stopped, but gave no information on casualties.

When South Sudan becomes formally independent on July 9, South Kordofan State will remain part of North Sudan. South Kordofan lies on the border between the two countries and is a zone of, as you can see, considerable tension: gubernatorial elections that ended there on May 4 resulted in a victory of the North’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP) over the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), which rules South Sudan but has a significant presence in parts of the North, including South Kordofan. The NCP victory in South Kordofan produced considerable bitterness among SPLM partisans, exacerbating NCP-SPLM tensions nationwide as well as within the state itself. The SAF and the SPLA (the army of the SPLM) are taking the political conflict to the battlefield once more.

The region of Abyei, control of which is formally disputed between the North and the South, has received tremendous attention in recent months. What happens in Abyei will help set the tone for relations between the North and the South after the latter gains independence. But South Kordofan is important too; even though its status is not disputed, its cultural and political identity is, and that dispute could lead to conflict just like the one in Abyei has to some extent already.

As I and others have said before, the secession of South Sudan will give birth to not just one new country, but two: North Sudan has been changed already by the process, and will continue to change post-separation. Old tensions have flared up in new ways, as the North – which is more internally diverse, ethnically, ideologically, and politically, than many people realize – confronts its problems once more, but this time in a political and geographical space that is being reconfigured before our eyes. The conflict in South Kordofan will not be the last of such struggles.

North Sudan: Southern Kordofan Elections Increase NCP-SPLM Enmity

From May 2-4, residents of Southern Kordofan State in North Sudan voted in an election for governor. The outcome – a triumph for the ruling party candidate, and outrage among the defeated candidate’s supporters – threatens to further strain relations between North and South Sudan, and also to increase political tensions in North Sudan itself.

The contest primarily involved two contenders. The first was Ahmed Haroun, a member of North Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP) who served as Minister of State for Humanitarian Affairs from 2006 to 2009. In 2007, the International Criminal Court (ICC) charged Haroun with committing war crimes in Darfur and issued a warrant for his arrest. Despite this, in 2009 Haroun was appointed governor of Southern Kordofan. The second contestant was Abdelaziz al-Hilu, the state’s deputy governor and a senior member of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the party that controls the soon-to-be-independent country of South Sudan.

Haroun won. Many news outlets are concentrating on his ICC indictment, but in my view the more relevant story for Sudan itself is how the outcome of the election will affect relations between the NCP and the SPLM. These two parties are not only set to govern neighboring countries, they are also competitors for the future of North Sudan. The bulk of the SPLM’s strength is found in South Sudan, but a significant component of the SPLM will remain in the North, where it hopes, as the “SPLM-N,” to speak for North Sudan’s marginalized groups. The SPLM-N saw the gubernatorial elections in Southern Kordofan as a major step toward reinforcing its strength in the North, and also toward establishing political pluralism there.

This helps explain why the SPLM-N has reacted with such anger to the National Electoral Commission’s announcement of Haroun’s victory:

“We will not accept these results because the vote was rigged,” said Yasir Arman, head of the SPLM in the north.

(Arman, it should be noted, was the SPLM’s presidential candidate in the elections of April 2010, prior to the referendum that gave South Sudan its independence. Arman is a Northerner.)

From the same article, we hear further analysis of the SPLM’s feelings:

The SPLM fought the north for two decades before a 2005 peace deal, which paved the way for independence for the largely Christian and animist South Sudan from the mainly Muslim, Arabic-speaking north.

But many residents of the Nuba Mountains region of South Kordofan also fought for the SPLM and it is feared they could take up arms once more.

“These people were fighting for 20 years and their aspirations are not fulfilled,” Hafiz Mohamed of the Justice Africa think-tank told the BBC’s Network Africa programme.

“The way things are going, it’s leading to a deadlock, which will end up with people carrying arms to release their frustration,” he said.

“If it starts, no-one can stop it – it will affect the south, it will affect the north. With the war in Darfur, we are heading for dangerous times.”

The BBC has more analysis of how the Southern Kordofan elections will feed North-South tensions here.

These tensions are already partly confirming fears expressed by the international community before, during, and after the elections. The Carter Center, the UN, and US Special Envoy to Sudan Princeton Lyman all urged the different factions in Southern Kordofan to refrain from violence, though some violence did occur. On May 10, the Sudan Troika (United States, United Kingdom, and Norway) issued a statement on Sudan’s crises that included remarks on Southern Kordofan:

We welcome the peaceful completion of polling for Southern Kordofan’s elections, but are concerned about rising tensions in the state due to a delay in the announcement of preliminary results. We call on local and national leaders to take immediate steps to improve the security situation and exercise control over all armed security elements. We also call on the parties to work together to maintain calm as the preliminary results are announced and to refrain from prematurely declaring electoral victories. The parties should work together to resolve any election disputes peacefully through the courts. In order to maintain stability and promote long-term cooperation, they should build an inclusive government no matter the outcome. It is critical that the elections pave the way for the start of Southern Kordofan’s popular consultations, which remain an important outstanding element of the CPA.

Journalist Alan Boswell, writing before the elections, noted both international concern and the simultaneous presence of international “fatigue” after “intervening in Sudan’s myriad crises.” This fatigue has meant that Southern Kordofan’s problems have largely been overshadowed by other concerns relating to Sudan, such as Washington’s focus “on normalizing battered relations with Sudan’s northern regime and bolstering the nascent government in the south.” If matters heat up in Southern Kordofan, and if NCP-SPLM relations deteriorate more broadly, we will see how the international community reacts, both to events in Sudan and to its own fatigue.

Sudan: Keep an Eye on Abyei

Because reports are raising fears of imminent violence:

Satellite images indicate a major deployment of military hardware by the [North] Sudanese army, including helicopter gunships and tanks, near the flashpoint Abyei border region, a monitoring group said on Thursday.

The Satellite Sentinel Project said that, according to the newly acquired images, the introduction of two attack helicopters and at least nine battle tanks within the range of Abyei constituted a major escalation in the military capacity of the northern army (SAF) in the disputed area.

Last month, at least 70 people were killed in Abyei and two villages razed in two days of clashes between fighters from the Misseriya tribe, which supports the Khartoum government, and the Ngok Dinka people, who back the south.

The rhetoric from the North is worrying too:

A senior figure in North Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP) has asserted that his party will not offer any compromise over the issue of Abyei whether to the U.S government or South Sudan with which it contests the oil-producing region.

Speaking at a rally inaugurating the NCP’s election campaign in the country’s flashpoint state of south Kordofan on Monday, NCP’s deputy chairman Nafie Ali Nafie said that Abyei would not “be paid as a price to satisfy America or [south Sudan's ruling] SPLM.”

Reuters has more.

Sudan: The SPLM in the North

_MG_4451 | Kurmuk BlueNile Sudan

Blue Nile State, North Sudan

This week I’m in Washington, DC. Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend a presentation at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars entitled “The Future of Northern Sudan: An SPLM-North Sudan View” (event notice here; video to appear soon). The event drew at least eighty attendees, by my estimate, testifying to the strong interest Washington has in the future of Sudan. Here’s my takeaway:

In July, South Sudan will become an independent country. The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), long the dominant voice of Southern Sudanese, will rule the new nation. But the SPLM has a significant presence in North Sudan, and this wing – let’s call them the SPLM-N for now – will have to negotiate their identity in the new North even as the new South decides its own identity.

The event at the Wilson Center featured Yasir Arman, a Northerner who was the SPLM’s candidate in the April 2010 presidential election, and Malik Agar Eyre, current governor of Blue Nile State, which remains part of the North. The two politicians represented an openly partisan standpoint, and denounced many of the policies of North Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP). So their viewpoint was not objective, but it offered important insights into the challenges facing North Sudan.

As Alan Goulty, the event’s moderator and the UK’s former ambassador to Sudan, reminded the audience, with the conclusion of the January referendum “we are looking at two new states.” The South will remake itself, but so will the North: the NCP’s vision of an Arab Islamic state is already competing with the SPLM-N’s aspirations for an ethnically diverse and politically and religiously plural nation. Arman and Agar repeatedly stressed the argument that the balance between Khartoum and the regions must change, with states and regions gaining a greater say in North Sudan’s affairs. South Sudanese secession will help resolve some of Sudan’s political tensions, Arman said, but some underlying issues remain: populations in south Darfur and in states like Blue Nile and South Kordofan comprise “the new South of the North,” and if Khartoum does not listen to their desires, there will be conflict.

The SPLM-N has serious political ambitions in North Sudan: they have begun a process of “delinking” themselves from the SPLM in the South (though a common political and intellectual vision endures), and they hope to position their party as the major opposition to the NCP. The SPLM-N wants what what Arman calls “real democratization,” including constitutional reform and free and fair elections.

Arman and Agar both urged the US and the Obama administration to pressure the NCP to undertake democratic reforms. Arman said that Washington has privileged stability in Sudan over democracy, but contended that neither element can exist without the other: Washington’s willingness to normalize relations with Khartoum, he added, should hinge on Khartoum’s efforts to democratize, to reform the North’s constitution, to establish lasting peace with the South, and to resolve the conflict in Darfur without violence.

The event, both because of its content and because of the fact that it took place, demonstrates the SPLM-N’s intention to remain politically relevant in North Sudan. The SPLM-N is looking to Washington to support this effort. Whether the Obama administration listens to these desires or not, the event highlighted the complexity of politics in North Sudan: efforts to deepen the Arab and Islamic character of the state in Khartoum may proceed, but they will not proceed uncontested. Challenges for North Sudan are, as Agar noted, just around the corner: an upcoming gubernatorial contest in South Kordofan State will test the strength of the SPLM-N and shed some light on the future of political pluralism in the new North Sudan.

Southern Sudan Referendum Roundup

Today marks the first day of voting in a referendum on Southern Sudanese secession. The referendum is a key provision of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended decades of civil war between North and South Sudan. The result, especially if it is the expected one of a vote for secession, will have political ramifications that extend well beyond Sudan. These ramifications include potentially giving hope to secessionist movements elsewhere, and also remaking the political landscape of East Africa. Meanwhile, the Abyei border region (whose own January 9th referendum on which country to join has been postponed) remains a locus of tension. I’ve highlighted some key stories on these topics below:

Overviews of the Referendum: Reuters writes on the scene in North and South Sudan. The BBC describes “huge crowds” in South Sudan. Their correspondent “says he has not met a single person who says they will vote in favour of continued unity with the north.” VOA interviews E.J. Hoogendorn of the International Crisis Group, who notes the challenges that lie ahead. Al Jazeera reports on the turnout in the South and the North and also writes about international observers’ efforts. CNN also has a long and informative piece. Finally, Kenya’s Daily Nation assesses “What a Break Up Would Mean to the Sudanese and Africa.”

South Sudanese Diaspora: VOA cites a “large refugee turnout” in Ethiopia. Reuters gives accounts of Sudanese refugees voting in Ethiopia, Egypt, Kenya, and Uganda.

Abyei: Bloomberg reports on recent violence in Abyei:

Violence erupted on Jan. 7 and yesterday north of Abyei town, speaker Charles Abyei and the chief administrator of the area, Deng Arop Kuol, said in phone interviews yesterday from the region. All those killed were from the Ngok Dinka tribe, who regard themselves as southerners, they said.

The attackers were from the Misseriya tribe, which is backed by President Umar al-Bashir’s government, and men wearing plain clothes and Sudanese army uniforms, they said. They said they didn’t know if any Misseriya were killed.

AFP highlights the reaction of a Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (the SPLM, the ruling party in the South) spokesman:

A senior southern leader in Sudan on Sunday urged Khartoum to honour agreements on Abyei, after renewed fighting in the flashpoint oil district on the eve of an independence referendum for the south.

Deng Alor, a senior leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, reported clashes in Abyei, confirming reports that calm had returned to the district on Sunday after fighting the day before in which several people had been killed and wounded.

“If the National Congress (Party of the north) want peace, cooperation and benefits with the south, the way is to cooperate with the SPLM, and to accept the implementation of the agreement on Abyei,” Deng Alor said.

He added that militias organised by the NCP had carried out attacks in Abyei and in Bentiu, another key oil-producing district on the border.

Opinion/Blogs: President Barack Obama writes in the New York Times, “If the south chooses independence, the international community, including the United States, will have an interest in ensuring that the two nations that emerge succeed as stable and economically viable neighbors, because their fortunes are linked.” Dipnote (U.S. State Department blog) has a joint statement from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Støre, and United Kingdom Foreign Secretary William Hague. And Magdi Mofadal, a Sudanese (I think) diplomat writes, “Contrary to what these observers think, and in spite of the high stakes involved, a peaceful referendum in Sudan is on the way as happened in the general elections of April, 2010.”

Ranjit Bhaskar blogs from Juba for Al Jazeera.

At Foreign Policy, Robert Klitgaard says, “Southern Sudan faces enormous challenges, but the leaders I met were frank about the difficulties and creative about the keys to success. If they keep the heat on, they can do their people proud and make the first few years of the newest and perhaps most problematic country in the world a model for others to follow.” But Rob Crilly writes, grimly, that “without support, cash and expertise the South is a failed state in waiting.”

Finally, Max Fisher at The Atlantic has a great roundup of his own.

What are you reading/seeing?

Sudan Referenda: Delay in Abyei, Fears of North-South War [UPDATED]

Yesterday at a press conference US Special Envoy to Sudan Scott Gration “said that the United States believed Sudan was on course for a Jan. 9 referendum on independence for the South but that a simultaneous vote on the future of Abyei, which both North and South claim, was no longer possible.” The situation in Abyei and the National Congress Party (NCP)”s continued talk of invalidating the referendum on Southern secession have observers worried that North and South Sudan will return to civil war.

Regarding the delay in Abyei, Josh Rogin spells out the potential consequences:

The revised goal [for holding Abyei's referendum later] appears to be somewhat less ambitious, but no less critical: if the outstanding issues in dispute in Abyei are unresolved before the South votes on Jan. 9 — and if the expected outcome of secession hold — both sides could claim ownership of the province and violence could erupt.

[...]

A senior U.S. official, speaking on background, said that the Abyei situation was extremely tense and represented the greatest risk of violence in the near term. If Abyei breaks out in violence, it could threaten the overall Southern Sudan referendum, the official said.

“In terms of violence that would upset the (Jan. 9) referendum, Abyei could be a flashpoint that would be disturbing enough that there would be cause for a delay,” the officials said. “It’s important that the (Sudanese) presidency come out with some roadmap, some solution, that the people in that area know what their future is going to be.”

Rogin adds that US officials see a real possibility that the main referendum will face its own delay, and fear “that even a short delay in the overall referendum could cause huge problems in Sudan.” A major legal challenge to the referendum has appeared, prompting “Southern leaders [to say] the case had been stage-managed by the north’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP) to sabotage the vote…The [ruling party in the South, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement or SPLM] has refused any delay, fearing it would spark violence among expectant southerners which they would be unable to control.” The delay in Abyei thus intersects with larger fears that technical and legal challenges surrounding the South’s referendum will cause chaos and violence.

Added to these problems is the NCP’s rhetoric on the referendum, which ranges from ambivalent to hostile. President Bashir’s latest comments on the referendum left open the possibility of its invalidation:

Mr. Bashir noted that the CPA requires all sides to make make unity an attractive option for voters.

“In Sudan, we are still awaiting the unity of our country in accordance with the stipulations of Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which calls for the two partners of the agreement to work together to make the unity option attractive,” said Bashir. “We are committed to accept the results – whether unity or secession – as long as the referendum is conducted in a free, fair and transparent manner.”

These remarks take on added resonance coming only a few days after a stronger statement by another senior NCP official:

A prominent member of Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP) said the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) violated the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) by “openly” declaring support for secession by south Sudan ahead of next month’s referendum.

Rabie Abdelati Obeid told VOA the violation could lead to a total cancelation of the CPA, which ended over two decades of civil war between the north and the south.

“There is a clear item and a clear provision in the CPA saying that both (the) SPLM and the NCP should work together to achieve unity. And, by violating this clause in the CPA, I think that the SPLM has canceled the CPA and are working against the CPA,” said Obeid.

“I don’t think the NCP now will respect these practices and these announcements (supporting secession) by SPLM. And, this will lead ultimately to undermining even (the) peace and even the result of the referendum, as now the CPA will have no effect on the political situation in our country.”

Obeid was referring to this incident.

Hints from the NCP that it might invalidate the referendum, combined with the other issues mentioned above, raise the level of uncertainty in Sudanese politics even higher. With the South’s referendum only twenty-six days away, and so many issues unresolved, the possibility of disaster (specifically, violence leading to renewed civil war) seems very real.

More from the State Department here.

UPDATE:

AP reports on bombings near the North-South border. Northern and Southern authorities are arguing over what happened, who the bombs were targeting, and whose territory the bombs actually landed in, but in any case this is another sign of tension.