Two days ago on Twitter there was a good deal of talk about this article from Kenya’s Daily Nation (via). The article quotes Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir saying, “Despite our commitment to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, we will not accept an alternative to unity.” In the charged environment surrounding the upcoming referendum on Southern Sudanese independence, those words fuel speculation that war between North and South is near. Al Jazeera reports that Bashir took a similar position at a speech on Saturday. But figuring out the ruling National Congress Party’s position on the referendum is more complicated than just parsing Bashir’s rhetoric. The statements coming from top officials are complex if not contradictory. Let’s look at two recent examples:
- Yesterday, Sudanese Foreign Minister Ali Karti said, “[If] a majority of southern Sudan wants to separate from the north then we won’t object.” Reading more extended remarks Karti made during this interview in September, it is clear that he promotes Sudanese unity and distrusts and even despises the SPLM leadership (the ruling party in the South). Like Bashir, Karti repeatedly says he wants the referendum vote to be “free and fair,” arguing that the majority of Southerners would vote for unity if given the chance. In his words, “There are huge differences between the Sudanese elite, the SPLM leaders, and the citizens. For this reason, we insist that the referendum should be free and fair, because we are convinced that the average Southerner is not against the North.” Karti’s position and Bashir’s are mostly compatible, then, but Bashir goes much further than Karti in openly saying that there is no “alternative to unity.” Arguably Karti’s language in September implied that sentiment, but his statement from yesterday seems to foreclose the possibility of the North invaliding a Southern vote for secession. Still, much hinges on the “if” in Karti’s quote above – if the North argues that a vote for secession does not represent the true will of the Southern Sudanese people, all bets are off.
- Tuesday, VOA published an interview with Professor Ibrahim Ghandour, the NCP’s Secretary for Political Affairs. Ghandour consciously echoed Bashir in calling for unity and in accusing the SPLM leadership of violating the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005 by campaigning for secession. However, Ghandour also said, “President al-Bashir, in his speech, said that, while we are working for unity, we will accept the outcome of a credible referendum. He also said that, when we signed the CPA, the CPA to us meant unity, but we also know that secession is also a choice. And, this has been said repeatedly by NCP leaders, including the president of NCP, the president of the country President al-Bashir himself.” That strikes me as a different emphasis than the one Bashir gave in his remarks – although given that Ghandour says this position comes from Bashir himself, perhaps media reports also play a major role in how readers like myself perceive the emphasis. In any event, Ghandour seems to be saying that the NCP would accept a secession vote, putting it even more resignedly than Karti did: not just “we won’t object” but “it might happen,” implying that the South will make the choice and the North will have to accept it.
Three different NCP elites, three different takes on the referendum, though with heavy overlap. Bashir is the president, of course, but it matters what his top people say too. Despite Bashir’s at times strident rhetoric, my overall impression is that NCP officials are leaving themselves tremendous wiggle room when talking about the referendum. They want to be able to dismiss the results, to accept the results, to urge unity, to discredit the SPLM leadership, or at the very least to keep everyone guessing about how aggressively they might respond if the referendum does not go their way. None of this analysis is meant to say that fears of war are unwarranted. I’m just saying that the NCP’s line has nuances, caveats, and inconsistencies.