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.