When South Sudan seceded from Sudan in July 2011, Sudan’s government set a nine-month deadline for Southerners who reside in the north – a population estimated at half a million people – to either leave or “regularize” their status. That deadline, long feared and awaited by nervous Southerners, expired yesterday, in an atmosphere of confusion. Broader negotiations between the Sudans – especially over oil revenue sharing and border demarcation – are stalled, and the two countries were not able to sort out the residency issues for Southerners in the north before the expiration of the deadline. A tentative agreement would give “nationals of each country…freedom of residence, movement and economic activity in the other state,” but top officials have not yet signed the deal.
Since late 2010, when events began moving rapidly toward independence for the South, the response of many Southerners has been to leave the north:
More than 370,000 southerners, who are mostly Christians or animists, have gone home since October 2010. Tens of thousands
more are now packing up, feeling they no longer have a future in the mainly Muslim north.
But some Southerners want to stay in the north. Many cannot get the documents they need from either side, as one anecdote in the report above details. AFP elaborates on these administrative problems and the confusion and suffering they have caused:
Confusion remains especially among the many Southerners who have not been able to obtain South Sudanese passports, said reverend Iskander Ali, an ethnic Southerner who preaches at All Saints Episcopal Cathedral in Khartoum.
Those seeking to apply for northern residence need documents from South Sudan but many cannot afford a trip South to get their papers.
A few Southerners waited outside the South’s diplomatic mission in Khartoum but a security officer said registration there had not begun.
More than 11,000 Southerners have been living for months in makeshift shelters at the Kosti way-station south of Khartoum, waiting for transport home. Others have been waiting in the capital itself.
Oxfam has more.
Why is the government of Sudan taking such a hard line on this issue? Two potential reasons come to mind.
One is that “getting tough” on Southern residents fits with a larger effort on the government’s part to deploy and solidify the idea of an Arab Muslim identity for the north. Even before Southern independence, Sudanese President Omar al Bashir was promising to strengthen the role of shari’a law and Arabic in the new north. The regime’s solution to the loss of the South – a loss that is arguably emotional and psychological as well as physical, political, and economic – has been to emphasize cohesion in the north. This strategy resonates with certain constituencies and rejects other visions for the post-secession north, including the idea of northern pluralism. Excluding (and, in a real sense, punishing) Southerners perhaps represents a tactic for the northern regime to promote its vision of a unified north.
The second potential reason is that excluding Southerners is yet another attempt to show toughness in negotiations with the South. Sending hundreds of thousands of people home, and placing thousands more into legal purgatory, creates massive logistical problems for the government in the South and also poses a serious political problem. Southerners resident in the north have relatives and friends in the South who may feel anger not just at how Khartoum is handling the situation, but also at how Juba is. Additionally, Khartoum may feel that backing down on the deadline for Southerners would be a sign of weakness, one that would affect the negotiations as a whole.
Throwing the situation of Southerners in the north into chaos, though, seems unlikely to really benefit Khartoum, which now faces some very ugly choices and outcomes regarding people who simply cannot or will not go “home.” This situation is already creating confusion, tragedy, and anger on both sides of the world’s newest border.